Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley attend a news conference at the Pentagon on July 21, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

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WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday it was not yet clear what kind of relationship the Pentagon would have with the Taliban in Afghanistan after Western forces fought the militant Islamist group for 20 years.

“It’s hard to predict where this will go in the future with regard to the Taliban,” Austin told reporters at the Pentagon when asked about the next steps following the full withdrawal of the US military from the country on Monday.

“We don’t know what the future of the Taliban looks like,” said General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Army General Staff.

“I can tell you from personal experience that this is a ruthless group from the past and whether it changes or not,” Milley said, adding that he and Austin both fought the group during their military careers.

Taliban troops patrol near the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport one day after the withdrawal of US troops in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 31, 2021.

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“And as for our dealings with them at this airfield or for the last year or so in the war, do what you have to do to reduce the risk to the Mission and the armed forces, not what you absolutely want to do,” said Milley on the question of the coordination between the US and the Taliban in the last few days of a huge humanitarian evacuation mission.

The US coordinated with the Taliban during the final days of the war to ensure safe passage for US citizens and Afghan nationals to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul for evacuation. However, there were reports that, contrary to their public statements, the Islamist militants prevented some Afghans from reaching the airport.

When asked at the State Department whether the US would recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government, State Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said it was premature to say so.

“Our relationship with the Taliban is guided by what they do, not what they say,” Nuland began. “But there are some pressing questions, like the humanitarian situation of the people in Afghanistan. So let’s look at things like that, ”she added.

“But we haven’t made any decisions about the rest and we certainly won’t unless we see the expected behaviors,” said Nuland.

Taliban fighters patrolled the streets of Kabul in a vehicle on August 23, 2021, while the Taliban imposed a sense of calm in the capital in a city marked by violent crime by patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints.

Deputy Kohsar | AFP | Getty Images

Statements from the highest levels of Defense and State Department come a day after President Joe Biden defiantly defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.

“When I ran for president, I made a commitment to end this war, and today I kept that commitment. It was time to be honest with the American people; we no longer had a clear goal in an indefinite mission. “In Afghanistan,” said Biden from the White House on Tuesday.

“This decision on Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan, it is about ending an era of major military operations to transform other countries,” added the president.

With its troops gone, the US must rely on diplomatic engagement with the Taliban to ensure that the remaining Americans and Afghans working for the US can safely leave Afghanistan

Biden said in his address on Tuesday that “90% of Americans in Afghanistan who wanted to leave could leave.” According to the State Department, fewer than 200 Americans remain in the country.

The president said the US would hold the Taliban responsible for guaranteeing safe passage to anyone who still wants to get out of Afghanistan.

The US and NATO launched their military campaign in Afghanistan in October 2001, weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Taliban then offered refuge to al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that planned and carried out the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Around 2,500 US soldiers were killed in the conflict, which also killed more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers, police officers and civilians. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have cost US taxpayers more than $ 1.57 trillion since September 11, 2001, according to a Department of Defense report.