The commander of U.S. special operations forces says he fears the current government in Afghanistan could fall and that its security forces will be overrun by the Taliban should the United States decide to pull all of its troops from the country. U.S. Special Operations Command’s Gen. Richard Clarke told U.S. lawmakers Thursday that while the Afghan military has worked to improve its capabilities, it cannot sustain itself without the current level of American support. “While progress has been made … the capabilities that the U.S. provides for the Afghans to be able to combat the Taliban and other threats that reside in Afghanistan are critical to their success,” Clarke told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Special Operations Command Gen. Richard Clarke speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill, March 25, 2021.The warning from Clarke, who said he traveled to Afghanistan recently to meet with the head of the Afghan military’s new joint special operations command, comes as the U.S. and NATO allies face a May 1 deadline to pull all troops out of the country – part of a deal last year between the Taliban and the administration of then-U.S. President Donald Trump. Current U.S. President Joe Biden and other top security and defense officials have been reviewing the deal but say no decision has been made on whether to comply and withdraw some 2,500 U.S. forces. He told reporters Thursday at his first press conference that it’s unlikely the U.S. will be out by the deadline. U.S. troop withdrawal Should the U.S. decide to pull out, some 7,000 NATO forces would also leave. Some leading U.S. lawmakers, though, have said they believe the Biden administration will try to find a way to at least extend the deadline for the troop withdrawal.  “There’s a general feeling that May 1 is too soon,” House Armed Service Committee Chair Adam Smith told a Foreign Policy virtual discussion Wednesday. FILE – A U.S. soldier keeps watch at an Afghan National Army base in Logar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 5, 2018.Smith said he was basing his comments on discussions in recent weeks with top Biden administration officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “You cannot pull out 10,000-plus troops in any sort of reasonable way in six weeks,” he said, calling it a matter of logistics.   “Running for the exits pell-mell by May 1 is dangerous,” he said. “I don’t want to leave a bunch of high-grade military equipment behind for whoever grabs either.” Increased violence Aside from logistics, U.S. and NATO officials have raised concerns about what they say is the Taliban’s failure to live up to the deal. They argue the Taliban have shown no indication they are cutting ties with terror groups like al-Qaida. And while Taliban forces have refrained from launching attacks on U.S. troops, the level of violence in Afghanistan has spiked. “It’s clear that the Taliban have not upheld what they said they would do and reduce the violence,” Clarke told U.S. lawmakers, saying he has seen them do the opposite. FILE – Members of the Taliban delegation arrive for an Afghan peace conference in Moscow, Russia, March 18, 2021.”It is clear they took a deliberate approach and increased their violence since the peace accords were signed,” the U.S. commander said. Despite growing misgivings from U.S. officials about the approaching deadline for withdrawal, Taliban officials are insisting Washington honor the deal as is. “It is clearly stated in the agreement that America will withdraw all its troops (from Afghanistan) by May 1, and we again ask them to strictly adhere to the mutually agreed deadline,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA earlier this week. “In case Americans do not meet their obligations and abandon the agreement, the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) will be forced to defend their nation and consider all other options to force foreign troops out of the country,” Mujahid said, without elaborating. US to Consult with NATO Allies on Afghanistan Pullout PlansTaliban want Washington to stick to May 1 deadline to remove troops as outlined in 2020 US-Taliban agreementFears about the fate of Afghanistan should U.S. forces leave are not new. Earlier this month, a U.S. government watchdog warned that U.S. and international efforts to build a strong and stable Afghanistan “may turn out to be a bridge too far.” “It may not be an overstatement that if foreign assistance is withdrawn and peace negotiations fail, Taliban forces could be at the gates of Kabul in short order,” said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).    Fixing Afghanistan Might Be ‘a Bridge Too Far,’ US Watchdog WarnsUnabating violence and the Afghan government’s inability to sustain itself and its security forces could doom peaceful conclusion to decades of war, US inspector general for Afghan reconstruction saysSopko also cautioned that it is not just the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces that could cripple the Afghan government. He said the departure of approximately 18,000 contractors and trainers, also required under the U.S.-Taliban deal, would be even more devastating. “The Afghan government relies heavily on these foreign contractors and trainers to function,” Sopko said. “No Afghan air frame can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months in the absence of contractor support.” VOA’s Ayaz Gul in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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