The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff on Wednesday said it was ‘possible’ that the Pentagon would work with the Taliban to hunt down and destroy the ISIS-K terrorist group.
The Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack last week that killed 13 U.S. service members.
Since then the U.S. has launched two drone strikes against its members.
But with U.S. troops having left Afghanistan on Monday night, and Afghan allies now at the mercy of the Taliban, the administration lacks eyes and ears on the ground to gather intelligence about ISIS-K.
During a Department of Defense briefing, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was asked whether that meant officials would coordinate with their mutual enemy, the Taliban.
‘It’s possible,’ he said, explaining that in war you ‘do what is necessary.’
Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin jumped in quickly to add: ‘I would not want to make any predictions.
‘I would tell you that we’re gonna do everything that we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K, understand that network and, at the time of our choosing in the future, hold them accountable for what they’ve done.’
The briefing came amid a fresh reminder of the new reality in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters paraded their military hardware – some funded by U.S. taxpayers and meant for either American or Afghan government forces – during a victory parade in Kandahar.
Gen. Mark Milley (left) said it was ‘possible’ the U.S. could coordinate with the Taliban on hunting down ISIS-K during a Pentagon briefing. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said: ‘We’re gonna do everything that we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K’
Taliban forces held a victory parade in Kandahar, displaying their military hardware – some of it left behind by Afghan government forces or the U.S. – on Wednesday
The Taliban are expected to announce their government this week, a little over two weeks since sweeping through the country and seizing the capital Kabul
A-29 attack planes which appear largely intact are seen alongside a huge amount of western body armour and tactical helmets left behind by retreating troops
Milley has been under intense pressure for his handling of the withdrawal. This week dozens of retired generals and admirals said he and Austin should resign for having failed to push back against such a difficult and dangerous evacuation plan.
Meanwhile, Washington has promised to maintain an ‘over the horizon’ capability to strike against terrorist targets in Afghanistan as part of President Biden’s promise not to let the country be used to plot attacks on the U.S.
Until recently, officials were focused on Al Qaeda, whose leader is believed to be in Afghan territory.
The attack last week, however, has brought renewed focus to ISIS-K, which is though to number a few hundred fighters.
It grew rapidly from its inception around 2015 as the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria meant commanders in Afghanistan could enjoy prestige and funding from Middle Eastern benefactors.
A Taliban fighter investigates a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on Monday. ISIS-K fighters were believed to be behind the attack on the airport
A girl stands next to a damaged car after multiple rockets were fired in Kabul on Monday
But the Taliban hit back, clearing many of its strongholds last year.
That shared enmity could offer Pentagon strategists or the CIA a foothold in Afghanistan with which to hunt down the people behind the suicide attack on Kabul airport.
Milley said no one should get a false impression of the Taliban just because the U.S. military had liaised with them in the last 10 days of the evacuation.
‘We don’t know what the future of the Taliban is,’ he said.
‘But I can tell you from personal experience this is a ruthless group from the past, and whether or not they change remains to be seen.
‘And as far as our dealings with them at that airfield, or in the past year or so, in war you do what you must – in order to reduce risk to mission and force – not what you necessarily want to do.’
He also said the evacuation of American citizens would continue, but that it was now a diplomatic rather than a military mission.
‘We will continue to evacuate American citizens, under the leadership of the Department of State,’ he added.
Austin said cooperation with the Taliban had only covered a narrow range of issues.
‘And it was just that, to get as many people out as we possibly could,’ he said.
‘And so I would not … make any leaps of logic to, you know, a broader broader issues.’
The Pentagon said a ‘facilitator’ and a ‘planner’ were killed in a drone strike on Friday.
‘This strike was not the last,’ Biden said in a statement. ‘We will continue to hunt ‘down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.’
A strike on Sunday targeted a vehicle the Pentagon said was carrying suicide bombers preparing for an attack.
It all leaves administration officials with a dilemma about how to treat the Taliban, as Afghanistan’s new rulers seek international legitimacy.
MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace asked Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday to clarify: ‘What is the Taliban? Are they now our frenemy, are they our adversary, are they our enemy? Are they our – what are they?’
‘Well, it’s hard to put a label on it,’ he replied.
He added: ‘In part because we have yet to see what they are going to be now that they’re in control – physical control of Afghanistan.’