Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disputed reports that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would result in the rapid collapse of that country’s military.
“The intelligence clearly indicated multiple scenarios,” Milley told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon. “One was an outright Taliban takeover following the rapid collapse of Afghan security forces and the government.”
But Milley insisted that even “the time frame of a rapid collapse” offered by intelligence agencies “ranged from weeks to months, and even years, following our departure.”
“There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,” he added.
On July 8, President Biden assured the country that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would not be “inevitable” after the U.S. pullout of troops.
“The Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped — as well-equipped as any army in the world — and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban,” Biden told reporters.
But over the weekend, Taliban forces swept over the country with startling speed, as Afghan troops offered little to no resistance.
“There will be plenty of postmortems on this topic, but right now is not that time,” Milley said Wednesday. “Right now, there are troops at risk.”
Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin provided reporters with an update on the effort to evacuate American citizens and vulnerable Afghans who suddenly found themselves in a country under Taliban control, including those who provided support to the U.S.-led military coalition, which first invaded the country in 2001. They said 5,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan so far, a number they hope to increase significantly in the days ahead.
That number is only a fraction of the people seeking to flee after the Taliban’s takeover, including as many as 15,000 American citizens and more than 20,000 Afghan interpreters, as well as drivers and other U.S. allies who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas. An untold number of Afghan journalists, nonprofit workers and others are also now at increased risk from the Taliban due to their U.S. affiliations.
“It’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through,” Austin acknowledged.
Asked whether he regretted not beginning the evacuation processes sooner, Austin defended the military’s timeline.
“I think we have been pretty prudent in terms of thinking ahead and planning for contingencies, and we’re executing one of those plans right now,” he said.
Although Milley and Austin repeatedly stated that they are working with the State Department to evacuate as many American citizens and vulnerable Afghans as possible before the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. troops to leave the country, neither would say definitively if there is a plan to extend that deadline if necessary, to ensure no one is left behind.
“We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us, and I feel the urgency deeply,” Austin said. “We’re going to evacuate as many people as physically possible.”
Both men indicated that the U.S. evacuation efforts are reliant on cooperation from the Taliban, who, they said, are facilitating safe passage to the airport for American citizens.
“The Taliban are in and around Kabul, but not interfering with our operations,” said Milley.
At a separate briefing Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman offered a slightly different assessment on preventing Afghan citizens from leaving the country.
“We have seen reports that the Taliban, contrary to their public statements and their commitments to our government, are blocking Afghans who wish to leave the country from reaching the airport,” Sherman said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert Wednesday to people in the Afghan capital, saying it “cannot ensure safe passage” to the airport.
Asked whether U.S. troops could facilitate evacuations for Americans and others who are unable to reach the airport in Kabul, Austin said, “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.”
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