KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's interior minister said Saturday that Afghan security forces can hold their ground even if U.S. troops withdraw, challenging a warning from the United States predicting a withdrawal would yield quick territorial gains to the Taliban.
Masoud Andarabi's comments in an interview Saturday with The Associated Press were the first government reaction to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's warning issued in a sharply worded letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani last weekend.
In the letter pressing Ghani to step up efforts to make peace with the Taliban, Blinken said, "I am concerned the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains" after the American military withdraws.
Andarabi said Afghanistan's National Security Forces could hold territory, but would likely endure heavy losses trying to hold remote checkpoints without U.S. air support.
"The Afghan security forces are fully capable of defending the capital and the cities and the territories that we are present in right now," he said. "We think that the Afghan security forces this year have proven to the Taliban that they will not be able to gain territory."
While the Taliban have not attacked U.S. or NATO forces as a condition of the agreement, the Afghan National Security forces have faced some blistering assaults.
Interviewed at the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, Andarabi also repeated his government's warning against a hasty U.S. retreat from the war-ravaged country, saying that the Taliban's ties to al-Qaida remain intact and that a swift pullout would worsen global counterterrorism efforts.
He said that Afghan National Security Forces backed by U.S. assistance have so far put a squeeze on terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including the local Islamic State affiliate.
A hasty "uncalculated withdrawal could certainly give an opportunity for those terrorists ... to threaten the world," he said from inside the compound, protected by concrete blast walls, barbed wire and a phalanx of security guards.
The warning comes as Washington is reviewing a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban over a year ago that calls for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by May 1.
That deal also calls for the Taliban to break ties with terrorist groups, like al-Qaida. U.S. officials have previously said some progress has been seen but more was needed, without elaborating.
No decisions have been made on the review but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is trying to jumpstart a stalled peace process between the government and Taliban armed opposition, has warned Afghanistan's president that all options are still on the table, and that he should step up peacemaking efforts.
Since the U.S. signed the deal with the Taliban violence has spiked, with poverty and high unemployment boosting crime. Despite billions of dollars in international aid to Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, 72% of Afghanistan's 37 million people live below the poverty line, surviving on $1.90 or less per day. Unemployment hovers at around 30 percent.
Residents of the Afghan capital of Kabul are terrorized by runaway crime, bombings and assassinations, and complain bitterly of security failures.
Andarabi sympathized with citizens' complaints, but he said nearly 70 percent of Afghanistan's police force is battling the Taliban, eroding efforts to maintain law and order. Every day the police confront over 100 Taliban attacks throughout the country, he added.
Even the United Nations Security Council has expressed concern at the targeted killings, aimed at civil society activists, journalists, lawyers and judges. The Islamic State has taken responsibility for many but the Taliban and the government blame each other for the spike in attacks.
At a press briefing on Friday, the U.N. Security Council "called for an immediate end to these targeted attacks and stressed the urgent and imperative need to bring the perpetrators to justice."
Andarabi said some progress had been made to stem the violence in the past month, with over 400 arrests.
But he underlined that Afghanistan still very much needs continued support from the international community, including the United States and NATO, in both war and peacetime.
It will take for example great effort to reintegrate into a peacetime society the tens of thousands of armed men roving the country — regardless of from which faction they hail, he said. Police face a daunting anti-narcotics battle in a country that produces more than 4,000 tons of opium __ the raw material used to make heroin __ more than every other opium producing country combined. Peace, said Andarabi, would free the police to fight the drug war that is also fueling Afghanistan's soaring crime rate.