KABUL — The top American military commander in Afghanistan expressed deep concern Tuesday that the country could slide into a chaotic civil war and face "very hard times" unless its fractious civilian leadership united and the haphazard array of armed groups joining the anti-Taliban fight were controlled and made "accountable" for their actions in battle.
The bleak assessment by Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who met with journalists, came as Taliban forces continued their rapid advance across northern Afghan provinces and expanded into other rural regions. The insurgents also began drawing closer in a circle around the capital city.
In the past several days, officials and Afghan media reported, Taliban fighters have overrun parts of three provinces, all just short drives from Kabul on highways running north and south. They also attacked security posts in a third area that hugs the city’s western border.
Miller, who has led the U.S. military mission here since 2018, is overseeing the final drawdown of U.S. forces that once numbered more than 100,000 during the almost 20-year conflict with Taliban extremists. He described the drawdown as going well “from a military standpoint” and said he expected it to end on schedule. President Biden ordered that all U.S. forces leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
But the general, whose mission was focused on training, motivating and improving the performance of Afghan security forces, noted that the looming U.S. departure had damaged their morale, which he said already had been flagging after months of heavy fighting.
"The security situation is not good," Miller said. He cited the widening loss of territory and rising government troop casualties amid a "countrywide offensive" by the Taliban that has been running at the same time that peace talks are supposed to be taking place. "There are a lot of questions about why and how this is happening."
By some experts’ estimates, Taliban forces control as many as 140 of the country’s 370 districts and are active or influential in 170 others. U.S. and Afghan military officials alike have given much lower estimates, but more districts continue to fall to the Taliban almost daily, either in violent clashes or by peaceful surrenders, according to local officials and Afghan media reports.
In one set of attacks, the Taliban recently seized two districts in Kapisa and Parwan provinces, both on the highway between Kabul and the north, local officials said. In Wardak province, fighters took over a town that straddles the highway leading south to Kandahar city. The Taliban released video footage on social media showing its fighters, wearing black turbans, strolling in the town and raising celebratory shouts.
“Their strategy is to surround the city as well as the provincial capitals, pushing closer and closer from all sides until they can stop, just short of entering Kabul, and say they are now ready to talk about peace,” Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence director, said in an interview this week. He also said the group is targeting other strategic spots, including some on the porous border with Pakistan, some containing mineral mines or dams, and others on rural link roads.
Last week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with President Biden in Washington amid the mounting Taliban violence and ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal. Biden told Ghani that the United States would continue providing financial aid to the government and support to the armed forces but that Afghans would have to “decide their own future.”
Biden gave no indication that the withdrawal period would be extended, despite appeals from some members of Congress and estimates in U.S. intelligence reports that the Ghani government could fall within six to 12 months of a completed U.S. troop withdrawal.
Ghani barely won reelection in 2019, and his popularity has fallen steadily as the peace talks he championed have virtually collapsed.
Miller said Tuesday that while he expected the pullout to be completed on schedule, he would be replaced before then. He stressed that for now he has “full authority” under a U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed last year to provide armed support to Afghan ground forces, including U.S. airstrikes. Afghan military commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. air support is crucial to reversing recent gains by the Taliban.
He declined to say how many American troops would remain in the country after the withdrawal, but said the number would be sufficient to provide security for U.S. diplomats and other officials. The number is expected to be between 600 and 650.
But Miller’s assessment of the overall existing conditions and future scenarios for Afghanistan was bluntly pessimistic. He said he was especially concerned that the country could spiral into a state of violence, leading to a multifactional civil war, and that without proper controls, local militia groups now rearming and joining the anti-Taliban effort could revert to old ethnic vendettas and abusive battlefield behavior.
“A civil war path is visualizable,” the general said, warning that if violence escalates and atrocities occur, the country could “devolve” into a chaotic state, similar to what Afghans endured in the 1990s after Soviet forces left. He also partly blamed the Taliban, saying the group had “failed to reduce violence” under its agreement with the United States.
Another obstacle to peace, he said, is the persistent discord and factionalism among Afghan government officials and members of the country’s political elite, which leads to constant changes in policy and senior appointments, and weakens confidence among civilians and the country’s security forces.
Miller did not comment directly on the likelihood that the Ghani government could collapse as soon as six months after the U.S. troop withdrawal, but he said it was crucial for government officials and rival politicians to “unify” as the war intensifies and hopes for peace grow dim. Otherwise, he said, “I see very tough times ahead.”