US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday (local time) that it's "possible" the United States will seek to coordinate with the Taliban on counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan against Islamic State militants or others.
Milley did not elaborate, and his comment did not appear to suggest immediate plans to work with the Taliban.
US military commanders coordinated daily with Taliban commanders outside the Kabul airport over the past three weeks to facilitate the evacuation of more than 124,000 people. But that was a matter of convenience for both parties and not necessarily a sign that they will pursue, or even want, a regular relationship in the future.
The US military ousted the Taliban from power in the fall of 2001 and fought against them for the 19 years that followed.
The extent and nature of a US-Taliban relationship, now that the war is over, is one of the key issues to be worked out. The US diplomatic presence in Kabul has been moved to Doha, Qatar. President Joe Biden has noted several times recently that the Taliban are avowed enemies of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, suggesting a shared interest with the United States.
At a Pentagon news conference with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Milley called the Taliban "ruthless" adding, "whether or not they change remains to be seen". He suggested that the recent cooperative arrangement with the Taliban at Kabul airport was not necessarily a model for the future.
"In war you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do," Milley said.
Biden has promised further targeting of the IS group in Afghanistan in response to the IS suicide bombing last week at a Kabul airport gate that killed scores of Afghans and 13 American service members. On Saturday the US military carried out a drone strike in Afghanistan that it said killed two IS planners. On Tuesday, Biden said, "To ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet."
Targeting Islamic State militants or other extremist groups, such as al-Qaida, will be more difficult with no US military forces on the ground and no friendly government forces with which to share intelligence on extremist networks. But the Biden administration asserts that it can contain these groups by monitoring and potentially striking with assets based elsewhere in the region.
Although the Taliban oppose IS, it's far from clear that they will be inclined to work with the US military or the CIA now that they have regained power in Kabul. Milley has recent experience with Taliban leaders; twice last year, most recently in December, he met face-to-face with them in an attempt to slow their attacks on the US-backed Afghan government, which collapsed in mid-August, triggering the frantic US-led evacuation.
Austin sounded at least as sceptical as Milley regarding the possibility that the coordination in recent days at the Kabul airport suggests a future relationship with the Taliban.
"I would not make any leaps of logic to broader issues," said Austin.
Both Austin and Milley commanded troops in Afghanistan during the 20-year war and their comments at Wednesday's news conference largely focused on tributes to those who served in Afghanistan, including those who died or were wounded. They also thanked all who contributed to the final airlift, which Austin called the largest evacuation of civilians in American history.
Milley and Austin urged war veterans to view their service as worthwhile and appreciated by the American public, while acknowledging that the memories can be painful.
"War is hard. It's vicious. It's brutal. It's unforgiving," Milley said. "Yes, we all have pain and anger. When we see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger."
With the US involvement in the war over and all American military out of the country, Biden is grappling with the prospects of a new relationship with the Taliban. He has tasked Secretary of State Antony Blinken with coordinating with international partners to hold the Taliban to their promise of safe passage for Americans and others who want to leave in the days ahead.
Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, has described the US relationship with the Taliban during the evacuation as "very pragmatic and very businesslike," saying they helped secure the airport. But other reports from people in Afghanistan described shootings, violence and Taliban moves to block desperate Afghans from getting through the gates.
Biden in an address to the nation Tuesday defended his decision to end America's longest war and withdraw all US troops by an August 31 deadline.
"I was not going to extend this forever war," Biden declared from the White House. "And I was not going to extend a forever exit."
Biden is coming under heavy criticism, particularly from Republicans, for his handling of the evacuation. But he said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war, first negotiated with the Taliban for May 1 by former President Donald Trump, would have been difficult, with likely violence, no matter when it was planned and conducted.
"To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask, 'What is the vital national interest?'" Biden said. He added, "I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan."