Amid the US troop exit which is set to be 'complete' by August 31, based on Biden's previously expressed timetable for withdrawal, Afghanistan's presidential palace is already coming under rocket fire in what could be the early beginnings of a near-future Kabul offensive.
"At least three rockets hit near the presidential palace on Tuesday shortly before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was to give an address to mark the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha," The Associated Press reports. Later the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through one of its regional propaganda channels.
A vehicle near the scene was completely destroyed, and despite there being no reported injuries, Afghan police are alarmed at how deeply inside a secured part of the city the attackers reached. "The palace is in the middle of a so-called Green Zone that is fortified with giant cement blast walls and barbed wire, and streets near the palace have long been closed off," AP notes.
There's long been concern that the Taliban could soon be close enough to Kabul to initiate an offensive on the capital. US intelligence previously predicted that the national government could collapse, with Kabul potentially overrun within six months of the US forces withdrawal.
Earlier this month President Biden declared with US troop exit more than 95% complete, but at the same time the Taliban has gobbled up territory at lighting pace. Referencing the ongoing onslaught in various parts of the country, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said during a speech marking a major Muslim holiday: "The Taliban have no intention and willingness for peace." He said further, "We have proven that we have the intention, the willingness and have sacrificed for peace."
On Wednesday Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held out hope that Afghan forces will eventually push back the Taliban. Speaking at a Pentagon press briefing, he said, "I don’t think the end game is yet written," and specified that "A negative outcome, a Taliban automatic takeover, is not a foregone conclusion."
Video by national TV shows the moment rockets landed near the Presidential Palace during Eid prayers this morning. pic.twitter.com/WmEniyfLfM— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) July 20, 2021
He suggested that large gains in terms of physical territory taken does not equate to holding high population areas. His remarks struck a rare tone of optimist, as Politico relates of his words:
Milley defended the strategy of the Afghan national security forces, who he said are consolidating to protect the major population centers, where most Afghan civilians are located.
He contested the narrative that "the Taliban is winning," saying the group is "propagating an inevitable victory" and "dominating the airwaves."
While "strategic momentum appears to be with the Taliban" right now, a lot could happen over the rest of the summer", Milley said.
"We're going to find out, the levels of violence, does it go up, does it stay the same, there's the possibility of negotiated outcome still out there, there's the possibility of a Taliban takeover [and] any other number of scenarios," Milley said.
But the fact that insurgents are landing missiles in or near the high-secure Afghan presidential complex in Kabul doesn't bode well for the near future.
The US is keeping some 650 security personnel in Kabul to protect the sprawling US embassy, but the question of air support to Afghan national forces who come under Taliban attack still remains an unsettled question.