U.S. successfully tests hypersonic booster motor in Utah

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon successfully tested a booster rocket motor on Thursday designed to power a launch vehicle carrying a hypersonic weapon aloft, the Navy said.

The United States and its global rivals have intensified their drive to build hypersonic weapons – the next generation of arms that rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms. Defense contractors hope to capitalize as they make the weapons and develop new detection and defeat mechanisms.

This week, the top U.S. military officer confirmed a Chinese hypersonic weapons test that military experts say appears to show Beijing’s pursuit of an Earth-orbiting system designed to evade American missile defenses.

“We are on schedule for the upcoming flight test of the full common hypersonic missile,” said Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe Jr, Director, Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs, lead designer on the program. That flight test, of the combined boost rocket and hypersonic weapon, is slated to happen before Autumn 2022.

Last week in Kodiak, Alaska, the U.S. failed a hypersonic weapon test when the booster failed.

U.S. military services will use the common hypersonic missile as a base to develop individual weapon systems and launchers tailored for launch from sea or land.

The common hypersonic missile will consist of the first stage solid rocket motor as part of a new missile booster combined with the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB).

This static fire test marked the first time the first stage solid rocket motor included a thrust vector control system, the Navy said. Thrust vector control systems allow the rocket motors to be maneuverable in flight.

The U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs conducted two prior tests of the solid rocket motor used in the development of the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) offensive hypersonic strike capability and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW).

Arms makers Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp and Raytheon Technologies Corp all touted their hypersonic weapons programs at the top of their quarterly earnings calls this week as world focus shifted to the new arms race for an emerging class of weapon.

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio and Marguerita Choy)

Top U.S. general confirms ‘very concerning’ Chinese hypersonic weapons test

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. military officer, General Mark Milley, has provided the first official U.S. confirmation of a Chinese hypersonic weapons test that military experts say appears to show Beijing’s pursuit of an Earth-orbiting system designed to evade American missile defenses.

The Pentagon has been at pains to avoid direct confirmation of the Chinese test this summer, first reported by the Financial Times, even as President Joe Biden and other officials have expressed general concerns about Chinese hypersonic weapons development.

But Milley explicitly confirmed a test and said that it was “very close” to a Sputnik moment — referring Russia’s 1957 launch of the first man-made satellite, which put Moscow ahead in the Cold War-era space race.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg television, in an interview aired on Wednesday.

Nuclear arms experts say China’s weapons test appeared to be designed to evade U.S. defenses in two ways. First, hypersonics move at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kph (3,853 mph), making them harder to detect and intercept.

Second, sources tell Reuters that the United States believes China’s test involved a weapon that first orbited the Earth. That’s something military experts say is a Cold War concept known as “fractional orbital bombardment.”

Last month, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall alluded to his concerns about such a system, telling reporters about a weapon that would go into an orbit and then descend on a target.

“If you use that kind of an approach, you don’t have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory — which is directly from the point of launch to the point of impact,” he said.

“It’s a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems.”

Fractional Orbital Bombardment would also be a way for China to avoid U.S. missile defenses in Alaska, which are designed to combat a limited number of weapons from a country like North Korea.

Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies summed up fractional orbital bombardment this way: “The simplest way to think about China’s orbital bombardment system is to imagine a space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon into the cargo bay, and forget about the landing gear.”

Lewis said the difference is that the Chinese re-entry system is a glider.

China’s foreign ministry denied a weapons test. It said it had carried out a routine test in July, but added: “It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle.”

U.S. defenses are not capable of combating a large-scale attack from China or Russia, which could overwhelm the system. But the open U.S. pursuit of more and more advanced missile defenses has led Moscow and Beijing to examine ways to defeat them, experts say, including hypersonics and, apparently, fractional orbital bombardment.

The United States and Russia have both tested hypersonic weapons.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. needs more mines to boost rare earths supply chain, Pentagon says

By Ernest Scheyder

(Reuters) – The United States and ally nations should mine and process more rare earths to ensure adequate global supply of the strategic minerals for military and commercial uses, a U.S. Department of Defense official said on Tuesday.

The remarks underscore the Pentagon’s rising interest in public-private mining partnerships to counter China’s status as the top global producer of rare earths, the 17 minerals used to make specialized magnets for weaponry and electric vehicles (EVs).

“We know we cannot resolve our shared exposure to supply chain risk without a close partnership with industry,” Danielle Miller of the Pentagon’s Office of Industrial Policy told the Adamas Intelligence North American Critical Minerals Days conference.

“New primary production of strategic and critical minerals – in a word, mining – is a necessity to increase resilience in global supply chains.”

Miller cited recent investments in U.S. rare earth projects under development by MP Materials Corp, Urban Mining Co, and a joint venture of Australia’s Lynas Rare Earths Ltd and Blue Line Corp as evidence of the Pentagon’s desire to be a “patient, strategic investor” in private industry.

“Domestic production of strategic and critical materials is the ultimate hedge against the risk of deliberate non-market interference in extended overseas supply chains,” Miller said, a likely reference to China’s hints it could curtail rare earth exports to the United States.

“We are under no illusions about the competing pressures facing” the U.S. mining industry.

Miller also said the Pentagon wants to help mining companies in ally nations “create a common understanding of sustainability.” U.S. environmental standards for mining are among the tightest in the world.

“We want to work with (miners) to accelerate the transition from the lowest cost, technically acceptable sourcing, to one that reflects our values,” Miller said.

(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Richard Chang)

Afghan army collapse ‘took us all by surprise,’ U.S. defense secretary

By Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Tuesday that the Afghan army’s sudden collapse caught the Pentagon off-guard as he acknowledged miscalculations in America’s longest war including corruption and damaged morale in Afghan ranks.

“The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”

Austin was speaking at the start of two days of what are expected to be some of the most contentious hearings in memory over the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, which cost the lives of U.S. troops and civilians and left the Taliban back in power.

The Senate and House committees overseeing the U.S. military are holding hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, where Republicans are hoping to zero in on what they see as mistakes that President Joe Biden’s administration made toward the end of the two-decade-old war.

It follows similar questioning two weeks ago that saw U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken staunchly defending the administration, even as he faced calls for his resignation.

Austin praised American personnel who helped airlift 124,000 Afghans out of the country, an operation that also cost the lives of 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghans in a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport.

“Was it perfect? Of course not,” Austin said, noting the desperate Afghans who killed trying to climb the side of a U.S. military aircraft or the civilians killed in the last U.S. drone strike of the war.

Senator James Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, squarely blamed the Biden administration for what critics say was a shameful end to a 20-year endeavor. Inhofe said Biden ignored the recommendations of his military leaders and left many Americans behind after the U.S. withdrawal.

“We all witnessed the horror of the president’s own making,” Inhofe said of Afghanistan.

Many of the hardest questions may fall to the two senior U.S. military commanders testifying: Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. successfully flight tests Raytheon hypersonic weapon – Pentagon

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon capable of speeds faster than five times the speed of sound, marking the first successful test of the class of weapon since 2013, the Pentagon said on Monday.

The test took place as the United States and its global rivals quicken their pace to build hypersonic weapons – the next generation of arms that rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms.

In July, Russia said it had successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, a weapon President Vladimir Putin has touted as part of a new generation of missile systems without equal in the world.

The free flight test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) occurred last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, said in a statement.

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kilometers (3,853 miles) per hour.

“The missile, built by Raytheon Technologies, was released from an aircraft seconds before its Northrop Grumman scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engine kicked on,” DARPA said.

“The DoD (Department of Defense) has identified hypersonic weapons and counter-hypersonic capabilities as the highest technical priorities for our nation’s security,” said Wes Kremer, president of Raytheon’s Missiles & Defense business unit.

“The United States, and our allies, must have the ability to deter the use of these weapons and the capabilities to defeat them,” he said.

In 2019, Raytheon teamed up with Northrop Grumman to develop and produce engines for hypersonic weapons. Northrop’s scramjet engine technology uses the vehicle’s high speed to forcibly compress incoming air before combustion to enable sustained flight at hypersonic speeds.

“The HAWC vehicle operates best in oxygen-rich atmosphere, where speed and maneuverability make it difficult to detect in a timely way. It could strike targets much more quickly than subsonic missiles and has significant kinetic energy even without high explosives,” DARPA said in the release.

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler and Mark Potter)

Pentagon says Kabul attack carried out by one suicide bomber

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A deadly attack in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on Thursday was carried out by a single suicide bomber at a gate to the airport and there was no second explosion at a nearby hotel, the Pentagon said on Friday.

The Kabul airport attack, which killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 79 Afghans, was claimed by Islamic State militants. The Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, ISIS-Khorosan, has emerged as an enemy of both the West and of the Taliban.

The attack marked the first U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan since February 2020 and represented the deadliest incident for American troops there in a decade.

U.S. General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, had said on Thursday that initial information was that two suicide bombers had attacked the airport gate and the nearby Baron hotel.

“I can confirm for you that we do not believe that there was a second explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, that it was one suicide bomber,” Army Major General William Taylor told reporters on Friday. He said U.S. troops wounded in the attack were now being treated in Germany.

Taylor said about 300 U.S. citizens had been evacuated in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of Americans evacuated to about 5,100.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the reporters during the same briefing that the United States believed there are still “specific, credible” threats against the airport.

“We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts,” Kirby said, adding: “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”

U.S. officials have said the biggest threat facing the airport are potential rocket attacks or car bombs.

Thursday’s attack occurred during a U.S.-led evacuation of tens of thousands of people. The Taliban came to power nearly two weeks ago as foreign forces began withdrawing, ending a 20-year war.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Dozens of civilians, 12 U.S. troops killed in bloodbath at Kabul airport

(Reuters) -Islamic State struck the crowded gates of Kabul airport in a suicide bomb attack on Thursday, killing scores of civilians and 12 U.S. troops, and throwing into mayhem the airlift of tens of thousands of afghans desperate to flee.

The U.S. death toll, announced General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, made it the deadliest single incident for American forces in Afghanistan in a decade and one of the deadliest of the entire 20-year war.

Afghan health officials were quoted as saying 60 civilians died, but it was not clear whether that was a complete count. Video uploaded by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies and wounded victims strewn around a canal on the edge of the airport. At least two blasts rocked the area, witnesses said.

Islamic State, which has emerged in Afghanistan as enemies both of the West and the Taliban, claimed responsibility in a statement in which it said one of its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”. U.S. officials also blamed the group.

The U.S. deaths were the first in action in Afghanistan in 18 months, a fact likely to be cited by critics who accuse President Joe Biden of recklessly abandoning a stable and hard-won status quo by ordering an abrupt pullout.

A ditch by the airport fence was filled with blood soaked corpses, some being fished out and laid in heaps on the canal side while wailing civilians searched for loved ones.

“For a moment I thought my eardrums were blasted and I lost my sense of hearing. I saw bodies and body parts flying in the air like a tornado blowing plastic bags. I saw bodies, body parts elders and injured men, women and children scattered in the blast site,” said one Afghan who had been trying to reach the airport

“Bodies and injured were lying on the road and the sewage canal. That little water flowing in the sewage canal had turned into blood.”

McKenzie said the United States would press on with evacuations, noting that there were still around 1,000 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan. But several Western countries said the mass airlift of Afghan civilians was coming to an end, likely to leave no way out for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the West through two decades of war.

Violence by Islamic State is a challenge for the Taliban, who have promised Afghans they will bring peace to the country they swiftly conquered. A Taliban spokesman described the attack as the work of “evil circles” who would be suppressed once the foreign troops leave.

Western countries fear that the Taliban, who once sheltered Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, will allow Afghanistan to turn again into a haven for militants. The Taliban say they will not let the country be used by terrorists.

SCREAMING

Zubair, a 24 year-old civil engineer, who had been trying for a nearly week to get inside the airport with a cousin who had papers authorizing him to travel to the United States, said he was 50 meters from the first of two suicide bombers who detonated explosives at the gate.

“Men, women and children were screaming. I saw many injured people – men, women and children – being loaded into private vehicles and taken toward the hospitals,” he said. After the explosions there was gunfire.

Washington and its allies had been urging civilians to stay away from the airport on Thursday, citing the threat of an Islamic State suicide attack.

In the past 12 days, Western countries have evacuated nearly 100,000 people, mostly Afghans who helped them. But they acknowledge that many thousands will be left behind following Biden’s order to pull out all troops by Aug 31.

The last few days of the airlift will mostly be used to withdraw the remaining troops. Canada and some European countries have already announced the end of their airlifts, while publicly lamenting Biden’s abrupt pullout.

AIRPORT DOORS ‘CLOSED’

“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone,” the acting chief of Canada’s defense staff, General Wayne Eyre, told reporters.

Biden ordered all troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the month to comply with a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban negotiated by his predecessor Donald Trump. He spurned calls this week from European allies for more time.

The abrupt collapse of the Western-backed government in Afghanistan caught U.S. officials by surprise and risks reversing gains, especially in the rights of women and girls, millions of whom have been going to school and work, once forbidden under the Taliban.

Biden has defended the decision to leave, saying U.S. forces could not stay indefinitely. But his critics say the U.S. force, which once numbered more than 100,000, had been reduced in recent years to just a few thousand troops, no longer involved in fighting on the ground and mainly confined to an air base. It was a fraction of the size of U.S. military contingents that have stayed in places such as Korea for decades.

Fighters claiming allegiance to Islamic State began appearing in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and have established a reputation for extreme brutality. They have claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on civilians, government targets and ethnic and sectarian minorities.

Since the day before the Taliban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations in history, bringing out about 95,700 people, including 13,400 on Wednesday, the White House said on Thursday.

The Taliban have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once foreign troops leave and commercial flights resume.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions and the curtailment of basic freedoms. The group was overthrown two decades ago by U.S.-led forces for hosting the al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban have said they will respect human rights in line with Islamic law and will not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie, Peter Graff; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore, Frances Kerry, Edmund Blair and Daniel Wallis)

Kabul evacuations stall amid airport chaos, criticism of U.S. pullout

KABUL (Reuters) -Thousands of civilians desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul airport on Monday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the U.S. military to suspend evacuations as the United States came under mounting criticism at home over its pullout.

Crowds converged on the airport seeking to escape, including some clinging to a U.S. military transport plane as it taxied on the runway, according to footage posted by a media company.

U.S. troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating U.S diplomats and embassy staff, a U.S. official said.

Five people were reported killed in chaos at the airport on Monday. A witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A U.S. official told Reuters two gunmen had been killed by U.S. forces there over the past 24 hours.

A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one U.S. soldier was wounded.

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Kabul follows U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces after 20 years of war that cost billions of dollars.

The speed at which Afghan cities fell in just days and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and women’s rights have sparked criticism.

Biden, who said Afghan forces had to fight back against the Islamist Taliban, was due to speak on Afghanistan at 1945 GMT.

He is facing a barrage of criticism from opponents and allies, including Democratic lawmakers, former government officials and even his own diplomats over his handling of the U.S. exit.

“If President Biden truly has no regrets about his decision to withdraw, then he is disconnected from reality when it comes to Afghanistan,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter.

Republican Representative Jim Banks, a member of the House armed services committee, told Fox News: “We have never seen an American leader abdicate his responsibilities and leadership like Joe Biden has. He’s in hiding. The lights are on at the White House, but nobody’s home. Where is Joe Biden?”

Jim Messina, a White House deputy chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, defended Biden’s decision, saying there had been a bipartisan consensus that it was time to leave.

“We’ve been there 20 years. It’s America’s longest-running war, it is time to get out,” he said on Fox. “Why should American troops be fighting a civil war that Afghan troops this week refused to fight for themselves, it was time to get out.”

Ben Wallace, the defense secretary of usually staunch U.S. ally Britain, said the 2020 Doha withdrawal accord struck with the Taliban by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, was a “rotten deal.” Wallace said Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan had enabled the Taliban to return to power.

‘NO ONE SHALL BE HARMED’

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled on Sunday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

The United States and other foreign powers have rushed to fly out diplomatic and other staff, but the United States temporarily halted all evacuation flights to clear people from the airfield, a U.S. defense official told Reuters.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. forces were working with Turkish and other international troops to clear Kabul airport to allow international evacuation flights to resume. He said several hundred people had been flown out so far.

Kirby, speaking at a news briefing in Washington, said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had authorized the deployment of another battalion to Kabul that would bring the number of troops guarding the evacuation to about 6,000.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Taliban, said in a message on Twitter that its fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.

“Life, property and honor of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.

It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others at a cost of billions of dollars, melted away.

U.S. officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied frontline soldiers.

Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV the form of Afghanistan’s new government would be made clear soon. He said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and called for peaceful international relations.

The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.

But many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

“Everyone is worried,” a former government employee now in hiding in Kabul said. “They’re not targeting people yet but they will, that’s the reality. Maybe in two or three weeks, that’s why people are fighting to get out now.”

(Reporting by Kabul and Washington bureaus; Writing by Jane Wardell, Robert Birsel and Jane Merriman; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

Pentagon to seek approval to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Pentagon on Monday said that it will seek U.S. President Joe Biden’s approval by the middle of September to require military members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

After setting COVID-19 rules for federal workers, Biden last month directed the Pentagon to look into “how and when” it will require members of the military to take the vaccine.

The Defense Department is targeting mid-September for a vaccination deadline based on expectations for the Food and Drug Administration to give full approval to the Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE vaccine. Currently it falls under an emergency use authorization.

“I strongly support Secretary (Lloyd) Austin’s message to the (military) today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September,” Biden said in a statement.

The deadline could be moved up if the FDA approves the vaccine earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo. Austin said that he could act even sooner or recommend a different course if the situation worsened.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the vaccine could have been immediately mandated but that more than a month had been given with the hope of full FDA approval, which might reduce fears about the safety of the shot.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that he hopes regulators could start granting full approval for the vaccines as soon as this month.

The U.S. military says around half the U.S. armed forces are already fully vaccinated, a number that climbs significantly when counting only active duty troops and excluding National Guard and reserve members.

Vaccination rates are highest in the Navy, which suffered from a high-profile outbreak last year aboard an aircraft carrier. About 73% of sailors are fully vaccinated.

That compares with the U.S. national average of about 60% of adults ages 18 and over who have been fully vaccinated.

Because U.S. troops are generally younger and fitter, relatively few U.S. servicemembers have died as a result of COVID-19 – just 28 in total, according to Pentagon data.

Many congressional Republicans have refused to say publicly whether they have been vaccinated, and some have attacked the shots as unnecessary or dangerous.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Susan Heavey and Cynthia Osterman)

Pentagon chief says removal of all contractors from Afghanistan under way

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday the process of removing all contractors from Afghanistan working with the United States was under way as part of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of forces from the country.

The remarks are the clearest indication yet that Biden’s April order to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 extended to U.S.-funded contractors.

Asked whether the Pentagon had issued orders to withdraw not just American troops but also contractors, Austin said: “We’re going to responsibly retrograde all of our capabilities that we are responsible for and the contractors fall in that realm as well.”

Speaking with reporters, Austin said the contractors could, however, renegotiate their contracts in the future.

As of April, there were nearly 17,000 Pentagon contractors, including about 6,150 Americans, 4,300 Afghans and 6,400 from other countries.

The departure of thousands of contractors, especially those serving the Afghan security forces, has raised concerns among some U.S. officials about the ability of the Afghan government and military to sustain critical functions.

‘NOT A FOREGONE CONCLUSION’

Austin said the drawdown was going according to plan so far.

But Afghan security forces are locked in daily combat with the Taliban, which has waged war to overthrow the foreign-backed government since it was ousted from power in Kabul in 2001.

In just two days, the Taliban captured a second district in the northern province of Baghlan on Thursday.

The Afghan government says the Taliban have killed and wounded more than 50 troops in attacks in at least 26 provinces during the last 24 hours, while its forces killed dozens of Taliban over the same period.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, said there had been sustained levels of violent attacks against Afghan security forces but none against U.S. and coalition forces since May 1.

Milley, in the same news conference, said it was too early to speculate on how Afghanistan would turn out after the withdrawal of U.S. forces given that Afghanistan had a significantly sized military and police force and the Afghan government was still cohesive.

“It is not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those dire predictions,” Milley said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in WashingtonEditing by Marguerita Choy and Matthew Lewis)