Top U.S. defense and military officials are holding out hope the Afghan government will be able to withstand the latest Taliban military offensive, launched days ago as U.S. and coalition troops began leaving the country.
Provincial officials from across Afghanistan have warned of mounting losses in a series of attacks, some with heavy casualties, since the United States officially began its withdrawal on May 1. But the Pentagon insisted Thursday that the withdrawal was "going according to plan," with no surprises.
"It's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls," General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.
"I'm a personal witness … that the Afghan security forces can fight," Milley, who had previously served in Afghanistan, added. "We've been supporting them, for sure, but they've been leading the fight."
Speaking alongside Milley, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also voiced some confidence in the ability of the Afghan military.
"We've seen an instance of that, in Lashkar Gah [in Helmand province], the Afghan security forces conducting a counterattack and performing fairly well," Austin told reporters. "We're hopeful that the Afghan security forces will play the major role in stopping the Taliban."
According to local Afghan officials and some aid workers on the ground, however, the Taliban offensive has been relentless.
Provincial officials in the country's southern Kandahar province reported Thursday that Taliban fighters had captured the strategic Dahla Dam following fierce fighting that forced hundreds of families to flee the area.
On social media, meanwhile, Taliban accounts celebrated the capture of a key district in Baghlan province, in the country's north.
And some of the heaviest fighting has taken place in Helmand province where, despite launching a successful counterattack, Afghan forces needed U.S. airstrikes Wednesday to keep advancing Taliban fighters at bay.
"What we're seeing unfold is what we expected to unfold," Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. "Our focus is on making sure that we can retrograde our resources, our troops, our allies in a safe and orderly and responsible fashion."
U.S. military officials also argued that contrary to some claims, the pace and intensity of Taliban attacks against Afghan security forces — on average 80 to 120 attacks per day — is no different from what it has been for most of the past year.
Afghan defense officials have, likewise, taken to social media to tout their successes, often posting grainy video of airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force targeting Taliban positions.
"Currently, ANSDF [Afghan National Security and Defense Forces] 100% independently plan, command and control, and conduct the military operations," Ministry of Defense deputy spokesman Fawad Aman told VOA's Afghan Service on Wednesday.
"There is no support and physical presence of foreign troops in the battlefields," he added.
Still, some U.S. officials and outside experts warn that the withdrawal of 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. forces and almost 7,000 coalition troops, along with tens of thousands of contractors, will put the capabilities of the Afghan security forces to the test.
"The level of violence may be increasing, but that's a call to the Afghan national security forces that they must take the place of the coalition forces and the NATO forces," retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told VOA's Afghan Service.
"We will continue to train them. We will continue to equip them," Kimmitt said. "However, it is unlikely that unless there is a significant change in the levels of violence that the Americans will turn around their withdrawal."
'Key test' awaits
Yet just how the U.S. will help the Afghan military, and the Afghan Air Force, remains unclear.
"Maintaining logistic support to the Afghan Air Force is a key test that we have to sort out," Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told reporters Thursday, suggesting some contractors could return to Afghanistan after the withdrawal is complete.
"A lot of that's going to be dependent on the conditions of the security conditions on the ground," he said. "The intent is to keep the Afghan Air Force in the air and to provide them with continued maintenance support."
A key U.S. government watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said in a report last week that the Afghan Air Force could be grounded within months without the current level of contractor support.
VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this report.