The United States will continue to support Afghan forces fighting the Taliban with air strikes, a top U.S. general has said, as the insurgents make rapid battlefield gains ahead of the U.S. military's exit from the country.
The Taliban has pressed an offensive across Afghanistan in recent weeks, capturing swaths of territory, seizing border crossings and surrounding urban areas amid questions over the morale and capability of the Afghan National Army.
"The United States has increased air strikes in the support of Afghan forces over the last several days, and we are prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks," General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Kabul on July 25.
McKenzie said the U.S. military would continue to provide logistical support to the Afghan Air Force after August 31, when all U.S. forces are expected to withdraw.
However, he refrained from clearly stating whether the United States would conduct direct air strikes on the Taliban after the U.S. exit.
"We will continue to support the Afghan forces even after that August 31 date, it will generally be from over the horizon," McKenzie said, meaning from U.S. bases or assets outside of Afghanistan.
He added that the U.S. military will be able to strike against elements of two other extremist groups in the country, the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda.
With the Taliban now in control of half of Afghanistan's roughly 400 districts, McKenzie recognized the government in Kabul may struggle.
"The government of Afghanistan faces a stern test in the days ahead," the general said.
But he noted that a Taliban victory was not inevitable and a political solution remained a possibility.
Intra-Afghan talks that began in September have made little progress, hampered by soaring Taliban violence, deep mistrust, and a huge gulf between the Taliban and Afghan representatives on key issues. Still, both sides continue peace talks.
Under pressure from Taliban advances, Afghan forces have recently consolidated around the key population centers and vital infrastructure, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
In recent days, Afghan forces and Taliban militants have been engaged in fierce clashes around Kandahar, the country's second-largest city.
The militants have captured several districts surrounding the city and fighting has been reported on the outskirts.
McKenzie said the Taliban could focus on populated urban centers but it wouldn't be easy.
"They are going to have to deal with the cities if they want to try and claw their way back into power," he said. "I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that they are going to be able to capture these urban areas."