PENTAGON - The fate of the international effort to train Afghan national security forces has become increasingly unclear as Pentagon officials point to other priorities with only about three months left until U.S. and NATO forces complete their troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.
The Resolute Support training, advising and assisting mission, which began in January 2015, has for years aided Afghan forces in honing skills ranging from budgeting, transparency and accountability to force generation, force sustainment, intelligence and strategic communications, according to U.S. Central Command.
"Recently we have been involved in all of that training, alongside our partners," a defense official told VOA.
Some leaders have pushed the expectation that this training would continue outside the country following the pullout. As recently as Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that the alliance was "looking at how we can provide military education and training outside Afghanistan, focused on Special Operations Forces."
Pentagon officials, however, said their priorities were elsewhere.
"Right now, the focus of the post-withdrawal support to the Afghan National Security, National Defense and National Security Forces is going to be largely through financial means, with some over-the-horizon logistical support — for example, aircraft maintenance," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
"Beyond that, I don't have any policy decisions to speak to," Kirby added when pressed again on the training issue.
Not 100% sure
Last month, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, similarly told reporters that the military's intent was to keep the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan open and "to keep supporting the Afghan government, the Afghan security forces, with financial aid and money."
"We'll also continue to take a look at training them in perhaps other locations — but, no, we haven't figured that out 100% yet," he added.
With just months or possibly weeks to go before the withdrawal is complete, the Pentagon is running out of time to put a training-and-assisting plan in place before the exit.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that American troops would leave Afghanistan by September 11, after nearly 20 years of military involvement in the country.
U.S. Central Command said Tuesday that its troop withdrawal was between 30% and 44% complete.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) event, stressed that steps must be taken to prevent the U.S. from having to go to war again in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq in the 2010s. He said one of those steps must be offering training to the Afghan forces.
"Make it happen that we're providing military assistance, and continue to provide training to the Afghan forces. Make it happen that we're trying to develop a strategy that protects the major population areas of the cities in Afghanistan," Panetta said.
"This isn't just, 'We're taking off and to hell with it.' We're going to have to have some involvement there, if for nothing else but to make sure that the men and women in uniform that gave their lives there did not die in vain," he said.
Panetta pointed to recent Taliban gains as evidence Taliban fighters "are going to move a lot faster in taking that country back than what we suspected, and that's going to create a real dilemma for the United States."
His words contrasted starkly with those of Milley, who told reporters last month that "it's not a foregone conclusion" that the Taliban win and Kabul falls.
Afghan security forces have been battling for years against the Taliban and some of the roughly 20 terrorist organizations that operate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
The Taliban have made territorial gains across the country, including in Baghlan province in the north, Helmand province in the south, Farah province in the west and Laghman in the east.
Experts remain mixed on the effectiveness of training Afghan forces in another country after U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
Jason Dempsey of the Center for a New American Security told VOA: "Taking small parts of them out and training them overseas and then putting them back in — if they don't know who they're fighting for, which faction, which warlord is it who takes control of the government, then we're offering them a little support, but I'm not sure this will be effective."
Bradley Bowman, an Afghan war veteran and defense expert with FDD, disagreed, telling VOA that financial and logistical support for the Afghan government and security forces was "important" but likely "insufficient to prevent a disaster in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces."
"The United States and our allies should provide continued training to Afghan forces from outside of Afghanistan, at a minimum," he said.
The Pentagon has requested $3.3 billion in military aid for Afghanistan, $300 million more than the U.S. gave Afghanistan this past fiscal year. If approved by Congress, that sum would include money for training requirements.
National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin and VOA's Afghan Service contributed to this report.