US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said it was “possible” the United States will seek to coordinate with the Taliban on counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan against Islamic State militants or others.
The extent and nature of a US-Taliban relationship, now that the war is over, is one of the key issues to be worked out. US military commanders have coordinated daily with Taliban commanders outside Kabul’s international airport over the past three weeks to facilitate the evacuation of more than 124,000 people, but that was a matter of convenience for both parties.
He said of the recent cooperative arrangement with the Taliban at Kabul airport: “In war you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do.”
Milley’s comments were made on Wednesday at a Pentagon news conference with defence secretary Lloyd Austin. Milley called the Taliban “ruthless” adding, “Whether or not they change remains to be seen.”
Austin sounded at least as sceptical as Milley regarding the possibility that the coordination in recent days at the Kabul airport suggests a future relationship with the Taliban. “I would not make any leaps of logic to broader issues,” said Austin.
The US military ousted the Taliban from power in the fall of 2001 and fought against them for the 19 years that followed.
The US diplomatic presence in Kabul has been moved to Doha, Qatar. President Joe Biden has noted several times recently that the Taliban are avowed enemies of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), suggesting a shared interest with the United States.
Biden has promised further targeting of the ISKP in response to the suicide bombing last week at a Kabul airport gate that killed more than 150 Afghans and 13 American service members. On Saturday the US military carried out a drone strike that it said killed two ISKP planners. It also killed women and children. On Tuesday, Biden said, “To ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet,” referring to the ISKP.
Targeting Islamic State militants or other extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, will be more difficult with no US military forces on the ground and no friendly government forces with which to share intelligence. But the Biden administration asserts that it can contain these groups by monitoring and potentially striking with assets based elsewhere in the region.
Milley has recent experience with Taliban leaders: twice last year, most recently in December, he met face-to-face with them in an attempt to slow their attacks on the US-backed Afghan government.
Both Austin and Milley commanded troops in Afghanistan during the 20-year war and their comments at Wednesday’s news conference largely focused on tributes to those who served in Afghanistan, including those who died or were wounded. They also thanked all who contributed to the final airlift, which Austin called the largest evacuation of civilians in American history.
Milley and Austin urged war veterans to view their service as worthwhile and appreciated by the American public, while acknowledging that the memories can be painful.
“War is hard. It’s vicious. It’s brutal. It’s unforgiving,” Milley said. “Yes, we all have pain and anger. When we see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger.”
Biden is grappling with the prospects of a new relationship with the Taliban. He has tasked secretary of state Antony Blinken with coordinating with international partners to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, has described the U.S. relationship with the Taliban during the evacuation as “very pragmatic and very businesslike”, saying they helped secure the airport.
Source: The Guardian