As the U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan gathers steam, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley expressed cautious optimism Thursday about the Afghan government's ability to stand firm against the Taliban.
This month, the U.S. military officially began pulling its last few thousand troops out of Afghanistan, to meet President Joe Biden's Sept. 11 deadline for bringing the two decade-old war to a close.
Some critics, including prominent Republican lawmakers, have objected, saying a full withdrawal risks allowing the Taliban to overrun the Afghan government and seize control of the country.
But at a press conference at the Pentagon, Austin and Milley played down those concerns.
"It's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls, or any of those kind of dire predictions," Milley said. "There's a significant military capability in the Afghan government, and we have to see how this plays out."
The U.S. will keep supporting the Afghans in a variety of ways, he said, such as through financial aid, an "over-the-horizon" capability to provide counterterrorism response, possible maintenance support, and additional training opportunities after the withdrawal is done.
The military hasn't figured out exactly how that training effort would work, Milley said, but it could take place at locations outside Afghanistan.
Austin added that the U.S. also hopes to set up "over-the-horizon" logistical capabilities to support the Afghans. However, he declined to comment on how the U.S. might respond or provide air support if the Taliban advances on major Afghan cities.
When asked about the fate of Afghan interpreters whose lives may now be at risk, Milley said it is "a moral imperative that we take care of those that have worked closely with us if their lives are in danger."
But he cautioned against speculating that these interpreters' fates are fixed.
"There are some obviously bad outcomes that have been discussed," Milley said. "But none of that is preordained. This is a significant size military and police force. The government, under President Ghani, is still a cohesive organization. There are a lot of factors at play here. But I think it's a bit early to really sound the alarm on getting everybody out just yet."
Austin said the U.S. is hopeful the Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, will take the lead in stopping the Taliban. Some Afghan forces have performed "fairly well" when conducting a counterattack against the Taliban, Austin said.
"[The ANSF] have a pretty significant capability, but we expect that this will be a challenge for them," he added.
Losing American airstrike capability won't greatly affect the Afghans, Milley said. The Afghan air force is now conducting 80% to 90% of all airstrikes to support Afghan ground forces, he explained.
The Afghan air force, however, is still dependent on contract maintainers to keep its planes in the air. Milley said the details on how continued maintenance support for the Afghans might work -- whether "over the horizon," or if security conditions are safe enough on the ground, in-country with contractors -- are also not yet settled.
"The intent is to keep the Afghan air force in the air, and to provide them with continued maintenance support," he said.
Milley said the Pentagon won't publicly spell out specific milestones the military hopes to hit during the withdrawal process, because of the variables involved. But he said he's confident the military will be able to hit Biden's Sept. 11 deadline.
The Taliban is still conducting attacks -- about 220 a day -- against Afghan forces, Milley said, and the violence has continued since the withdrawal began May 1.
But the Taliban has not attacked U.S. or coalition forces, he added.
Milley said the ANSF and the government of Afghanistan "at this time, remain cohesive," and the U.S. intends to keep supporting them.
So far, the U.S. has closed one base, Contingency Location New Antonik in Helmand Province. It also has flown out the equivalent of 60 C-17 Globemasters full of equipment, and disposed of more than 1,300 pieces of equipment, either by turning them over to the Defense Logistics Agency to be destroyed or giving them to Afghan forces to use.
The military has sent six B-52H Stratofortress bombers and 12 F/A-18 Hornet fighters to the region to bolster the coalition's firepower as forces withdraw, Milley said. Austin has also extended the Eisenhower carrier strike group's stay in the region.
"We came in with our allies, and we will depart with our allies, shoulder to shoulder," Milley said. "And together, we are all going to execute a fully coordinated, synchronized retrograde in good order."