“We were working with the Taliban on a very narrow set of issues, and that was just that — to get as many people out as we possibly could,” Austin said. “And so 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,” Austin added.
Milley, speaking after Austin, described the Taliban as “a ruthless group” and said, “Whether or not they change remains to be seen.”
As for the Pentagon’s organization with the Taliban in recent weeks at the international airport in Kabul — where the U.S. military conducted its evacuation mission — Milley explained: “In war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk.”
But pressed again on the U.S. perhaps working with the Taliban to combat ISIS-K, Milley paused before responding, “It’s possible.”
Austin then interjected in an apparent effort to soften Milley’s statement.
“Going forward … again, I would not want to make any predictions,” Austin said. “I would tell you that we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K, understand that network, and at the time of our choosing in the future, hold them accountable for what they’ve done.”
ISIS-K, a regional enemy of the Taliban, was responsible for setting off two bombs outside the Kabul airport last Thursday, killing 13 U.S. troops and wounding 18 more. The attack, which was the deadliest U.S. casualty event in Afghanistan since 2011, also killed at least 169 Afghans.
The U.S. retaliated with a drone strike on Saturday that killed two ISIS-K members in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.
Another U.S. drone strike on Sunday destroyed a vehicle near the Kabul airport believed to be stocked with ISIS-K explosives, but the drone also reportedly killed 10 Afghan civilians. Later Sunday, the Pentagon thwarted an attack from five rockets fired toward the airport.
Top administration officials have repeatedly stressed throughout the withdrawal that although the U.S. military would no longer have a physical presence in Afghanistan, the Pentagon would aggressively pursue “over-the-horizon” capabilities to root out regional terror threats.
“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries,” President Joe Biden said in a White House address on Tuesday. “We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”