The top U.S. diplomat in Kabul says the United States will continue to provide “robust and serious” assistance to Afghanistan after U.S. troops depart the war-torn country by September 11.
Ross Wilson, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, told RFE/RL on June 14 that "the thrust of U.S. policy in Afghanistan" is to do all the United States can do "to improve the odds" for the internationally backed Afghan government.
Wilson said that means "the security assistance that is going to continue in a robust and serious way," as well as "economic and humanitarian assistance."
Since a final withdrawal of international military forces from Afghanistan began on May 1, the Taliban has seized strategic districts near Kabul.
The militant group also has overrun military sites of Afghan government security forces, and it has besieged towns and cities across the country.
Those military gains by the Taliban have fueled concerns that it could topple the Western-backed Afghan government and the battered Afghan security forces once the last foreign troops leave.
But the United States has pledged to continue funding the 273,000-strong Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
Washington has also said Afghan forces will receive military backing from U.S. bases and ships located hundreds of miles away -- a pledge referred to as "over-the-horizon” military support.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on June 10 that the United States has already started “over-the-horizon” operations in Afghanistan, although he did not reveal details.
It remains unclear whether U.S. drones and warplanes will be used to help Afghan forces engage in combat against the Taliban or focus on counterterrorism missions against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) extremists in Afghanistan.
Wilson said "the predominate share" of U.S. "over-the-horizon" activities will be "related to oversight or visibility of the situation on the ground" and the ability "to monitor terrorist threats or concerns to the United States" -- meaning, "specifically, Al-Qaeda" and IS extremists.
“As for under what scenarios we would deal with them, or would there be different groups that we might aim to target, that is a hypothetical," Wilson told RFE/RL.
U.S. media reports indicate Washington is considering the possible use of air strikes to support Afghan government forces if Kabul or other major cities are at risk of falling to the Taliban.
“We oppose a forceful takeover of this country,” Wilson said. “We believe that it is a step backward for Afghanistan. We have made the point to the Talibs that we don’t believe it’s in their interests to attempt the forceful takeover of this country.”
Intra-Afghan peace talks that began in Doha last September have made little progress so far. They've been hampered by deep mistrust, militant violence, and a huge gulf on key issues between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives.
In April, the Taliban backed out of a high-level international peace conference on Afghanistan that was hosted by Turkey.
Washington had hoped to use the event, scheduled from April 24 to May 4, to hammer out the framework of a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The Taliban has not ruled out participating in a future summit in Turkey.
“Negotiations continue in Doha,” Wilson said. “They remain sluggish and disappointing, but they continue. And that remains, I think, an important accomplishment. There are some vigorous efforts underway to try and advance the negotiations.”
Wilson said the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace deal has been “the Taliban’s reluctance to put on the table terms under which they can envision a political settlement and end this country’s conflict.”
“We want, hope, and expect that the Taliban will do that in the near future,” he said.
Besides the Taliban’s desire to establish what it calls a “truly Islamic” system in Afghanistan, the militant group remains vague on many issues -- including women’s rights, freedom of expression, and the country’s future political structure.
The group’s former regime was a theocracy with power centralized in the hands of a so-called "Commander of the Faithful."
That supreme leader -- the late Mullah Mohammad Omar -- had been the head of the state declared by the Taliban and had ultimate authority.
The regime’s governance had been based upon what the Taliban claimed was a strict interpretation of Islamic law.