The combination of U.S. over-the-horizon military capabilities and Afghan security forces appear to be no match for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, who continue to beat back better-equipped and more numerous government troops in a bid to exert control over the war-torn country.
U.S. officials Monday called the situation on the ground in Afghanistan “deeply concerning,” pointing to the Taliban takeover of five provincial capitals in a 72-hour-period, something that has not gone unnoticed at the highest echelons of the Pentagon.
Afghanistan “is clearly not going in the right direction,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby admitted to reporters, saying U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “shares the concern of the international community.”
“The secretary continues to believe that the Afghan forces have the capability, they have the capacity to make a big difference on the battlefield,” Kirby added.
But that belief has so far failed to stem a Taliban offensive that has seen its fighters roll back Afghan security forces, growing stronger along the way.
“The gains they’ve made have allowed them to capture equipment and free prisoners, which is having an effect on expanding their military power,” a U.S. official told VOA on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the information.
The U.S. has repeatedly tried to bolster the Afghan security, initially by using airstrikes to target stolen equipment and vehicles, and increasingly to push back Taliban fighters themselves.
Over the past week, according to U.S. officials, airstrikes have concentrated on hitting Taliban forces advancing on key cities like Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah, where they have engaged Afghan special forces in fierce fighting.
Most of the U.S. firepower has been supplied by AC-130 gunships and MQ-9 Reaper drones, with additional strikes being carried out by B-52 bombers and F-18 Hornets, though officials declined to say how many strikes have been carried out.
Coordination also has been tricky, with all of the airframes having to fly in from hours away, whether from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar or from the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group, currently positioned in the Persian Gulf.
The Taliban are finding other ways to blunt the impact of U.S. airpower, as well, convincing some Afghan forces to flee quickly or to not fight at all.
Asked by VOA what the U.S. could do in such situations, Kirby said, bluntly, “Not much.”
International counterterrorism officials and even some U.S. officials who have been watching developments in Afghanistan warn that a collapse of Afghan forces following the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. combat troops should come as no surprise.
The Afghan security forces may have about 300,000 troops, an air force and U.S. weaponry, but in the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal, none of that was used, they say, to adequately counter Taliban preparations.
“The Taliban were allowed to preposition their forces,” an international official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told VOA, noting the freedom of movement the Taliban enjoyed following the signing of the Doha Agreement with Washington last year.
John Sopko, U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, was even more critical.
Top-ranking U.S. military leaders "knew how bad the Afghan military was," Sopko said in response to a question from VOA during a virtual talk to the Defense Writers Group late last month.
But on Monday, the Pentagon defended its efforts and put much of the responsibility for the Taliban’s success on the Afghan government and military commanders.
“We will certainly support from the air when and where feasible, but that's no substitute for leadership on the ground. That's no substitute for leadership in Kabul," Kirby said.
"This is their country. These are their military forces. These are their provincial capitals, their people to defend," he added. "And it's really going to come down to the leadership that they're willing exude here at this particular moment."
There is also no guarantee that Afghan officials would be able to count on U.S. airstrikes for help for much longer, with the authorization for strikes in support of Afghan security forces set to expire when the U.S. drawdown is done at the end of the month.