Estimates showing the Taliban rapidly taking control of territory across Afghanistan are not an illusion, according to the United States' top-ranking military official, who admits the coming months will be a "test of will and leadership" for the Afghan government.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday about 212 of Afghanistan's district centers — about half — are currently in Taliban hands, and that Taliban forces are advancing on the outskirts of 17 of the country's 34 provincial capitals.
"Strategic momentum sort of appears to be sort of with the Taliban," Milley told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.
"What they're trying to do is isolate the major population centers," he added. "They're trying to do the same thing to Kabul, and roughly speaking … a significant amount of territory has been seized."
The admission comes two and a half months after the U.S. and its allies began pulling their last remaining combat forces from Afghanistan, and despite assurances from top U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, that a Taliban takeover is "highly unlikely."
But independent trackers, such as one compiled by the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal, have raised concerns, noting that the Taliban have nearly tripled the number of districts under their control since the withdrawal officially began on May 1.
A number of intelligence agencies have likewise sounded alarms, warning in a United Nations report last month that the Taliban were preparing to take by force what they could not get through negotiations. The report further warned that top Taliban deputies continue to "favor a military solution."
Even by the Pentagon's own math, the numbers appear to tell a stark story.
Milley testified to U.S. lawmakers in June that at the time, the Taliban held just 81 district centers, meaning they have more than doubled their control in the past month.
Milley, however, warned Wednesday that it would be a mistake to buy into the Taliban narrative of Afghan security forces melting away in the face of conflict.
"Part of this is their (the Afghan security forces') giving up district centers in order to consolidate their forces because they're taking the approach to protect the population, and most of the population lives in the provincial capitals," he said. "I don't think the endgame is yet written."
U.S. defense officials also note that Washington has spent nearly 20 years and close to $90 billion to train and equip the more than 300,000 members of Afghanistan's security forces, which outnumber the Taliban by about 3 to 1.
They argue that while almost all U.S. combat forces have left the country, Washington is continuing to bolster the Afghan military with money and equipment.
"They'll continue to see a steady drumbeat of support," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Wednesday. "We remain committed to helping the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government going forward."
Yet even within the U.S. government, concerns about the ability of the Afghan security forces to withstand an attempted Taliban takeover persist.
A report issued last week by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog, warned that by the Pentagon's own metrics for assessing how the Afghan military would fare without a U.S. military presence, the prognosis was inconclusive.
"The question of how to accurately project how the ANDSF (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) would perform against an adversary in the absence of direct U.S. combat enabler support remains difficult to answer," the report said.
U.S. military planners have said that as of last week, 95% of the U.S. military withdrawal had been completed, and that the U.S. remains on pace to finish by the end of August.
Also Wednesday, the Pentagon said it expects the first group of Afghan interpreters — and others whose lives may be in danger for having aided Washington's efforts — to arrive in the U.S. shortly.
"These are friends of the United States who have done exemplary and courageous work, and we take our obligations to them and to their families very seriously," Austin said.
Speaking separately Wednesday, U.S. Afghanistan Task Force Director Tracey Jacobson said the first Afghan special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants could land in the U.S. as early as next week.
Earlier this week, officials announced that 2,500 interpreters and their families will be brought to Fort Lee in Virginia, about 216 kilometers south of Washington, D.C., before being resettled elsewhere in the U.S.
A second group of 4,000 Afghans and as many as another 15,000 or so family members will likely be relocated to a site outside the U.S. while their applications are being processed, officials said.