WASHINGTON — Just over a day after the last American service member left Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s top two leaders expressed wariness on Wednesday about continuing to cooperate with Taliban leaders who helped provide safe passage to more than 124,000 people evacuated out of the country.
“We were working with the Taliban on a very narrow set of issues,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters. “I would not make any leaps of logic to broader issues. It’s hard to predict where this will go in the future with respect to the Taliban.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was more blunt in his assessment of the Taliban, which took control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, two weeks ago after rapidly advancing across the country. American commanders have praised Taliban leaders for their cooperation during the evacuation of Americans and their Afghan allies during the war.
“This is a ruthless group,” said General Milley, who commanded troops in Afghanistan. “Whether or not they change remains to be seen. In war, you do what you must.”
Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the group that claimed responsibility for last week’s attack that killed 13 American troops and more than 170 Afghans, General Milley said, “It’s possible.”
General Milley also defended an Air Force drone strike on Sunday that the military says destroyed a car filled with explosives that posed an “imminent” threat to the evacuation operation. Afghans on the ground say it killed at least 10 people, including seven children.
Pentagon officials say they are investigating the reports of civilians deaths, but General Milley said the military had “very good intelligence” that ISIS-K was preparing a specific vehicle at a specific location to be used to attack the airport.
He said secondary explosions after the drone strike supported the military’s conclusion that the car contained explosives, adding that military planners took the proper precautions before the strike to limit risks to civilians nearby.
“At this point, we think the procedures were correctly followed, and this was a righteous strike,” General Milley said.