US troops arrive in Kabul to evacuate embassy staff as Taliban take over towns

U.S. Marines have started arriving in Kabul to help secure the evacuation of embassy staff as the Taliban offensive sweeps into Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Friday.

During the last day, militants captured two of the country’s largest cities, and they appear to be trying to isolate Kabul before launching an offensive there, Defense Ministry spokesman John Kirby said. .

In response to the worsening security situation, two battalions of Marines and one battalion of Army soldiers began arriving in the capital on Friday to assist the State Department, Kirby told reporters at a briefing. press release from the Pentagon in Washington.

The battalions are expected to be in place by the end of the weekend, and will be able to evacuate several thousand people a day, both US citizens and Afghan nationals.

Meanwhile, the The State Department asked employees in Kabul to begin destroying “sensitive material,” including items with embassy logos or the American flag.

A State Department spokesperson told CNN that providing staff with trash cans for cremation of documents was “standard operating procedure” for a “removal.”

Taliban militants captured Kandahar, the second most populous city in the country, as well as the third largest city in Herat, NBC News reported on Friday, citing a spokesperson for the Taliban and local Afghan officials.

Insurgents have now taken at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, taking control of about two-thirds of the country and encircling Kabul, where the US embassy is preparing to evacuate all but its core diplomatic staff.

Kirby insisted that the US military had not been taken by surprise by the speed of the Taliban’s progress, but remained “concerned” about the pace of military gains.

He noted that the Afghan National Army fighting Taliban forces on the front lines is better trained and better equipped than the Taliban, thanks to decades of American training and billions of dollars in American weapons.

President Joe Biden, who announced in April that all U.S. forces in the region would be withdrawn by September 11, ordered on Thursday that 3,000 troops be temporarily deployed to the capital to help evacuate embassy staff . The troops are expected to arrive within 24 to 48 hours.

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Afghan government security forces collapsed and many civilians fled their homes amid the surprisingly rapid advance of the Taliban towards the nation’s center of power.

But the White House said Friday morning that Biden was upholding his decision to end the US presence in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The president is firmly focused on how we can continue to effect an orderly withdrawal and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

“You heard it earlier this week: he doesn’t regret his decision,” Psaki said.

In addition to the deployment of three Marine and Army infantry battalions in Kabul, a US infantry brigade will be positioned on standby in Kuwait. Another 1,000-member unit comprising Army and Air Force personnel will be deployed to Qatar to help process special immigrant visas for Afghan nationals who have assisted U.S. troops and the United States. NATO during the war.

The American national flag is reflected on the windows of the American Embassy building in Kabul on July 30, 2021.

Sajjad Hussein | AFP | Getty Images

Nonetheless, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday that the United States still expected to completely withdraw all of its troops by the end of August.

Britain announced Thursday that it will send around 600 troops to help its citizens leave Afghanistan, where around 4,000 British nationals are said to be stationed. Canada is also deploying special forces to the country to evacuate personnel from the Canadian Embassy in Kabul.

CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report.