US troops will help evacuate some embassy staff in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) – Just weeks before the United States ends its war in Afghanistan, the Biden administration is sending 3,000 fresh troops to Kabul airport to help with a partial evacuation of the American embassy. The move highlights the astonishing speed of a Taliban takeover of much of the country, including their capture of Kandahar, the second largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

The State Department said the embassy will continue to operate, but Thursday’s dramatic decision to bring in thousands more US troops is a sign of the loss of confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to contain the Taliban push. . The announcement came just hours after the Taliban captured the western town of Herat as well as Ghazni, a strategic provincial capital south of Kabul. The advance and partial evacuation of the United States Embassy increasingly isolates the nation’s capital, home to millions of Afghans.

“It’s not an abandonment. It is not an evacuation. This is not a massive withdrawal, ”State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “This is a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint. “

Price rejected the idea that Thursday’s measures send encouraging signals to already emboldened Taliban, or demoralizing signals to frightened Afghan civilians. “The message we send to the Afghan people is that of a lasting partnership,” insisted Price.

President Joe Biden, who remained adamant about ending the 19-year US mission in Afghanistan at the end of this month despite the Taliban sweep, spoke to senior national security officials overnight, then gave the order for additional temporary troops on Thursday morning.

Murals can be seen along the walls of the United States Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday. The United States has also directly warned Taliban officials that the United States will respond if the Taliban attack the Americans during temporary US military deployments.

Britain’s Defense Ministry on Thursday said it would send around 600 troops to Afghanistan on short notice to help British nationals leave the country. And Canadian special forces will deploy to Afghanistan to help Canadian personnel leave Kabul, a source familiar with the plan told The Associated Press. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say how many special forces would be sent.

Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said in addition to sending three infantry battalions – two from the Marine Corps and one from the Army – to the airport, the Pentagon will send 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers from a combat brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. in Kuwait to serve as a reserve force. He said they would be on hold “in case we need more” than the 3,000 going to Kabul.

In addition, around 1,000 Army and Air Force soldiers, including military police and medical personnel, will be dispatched to Qatar in the coming days to support the State Department’s efforts to speed up the treatment of cases. Special immigrant visa applications from Afghans who have previously worked for the US government and feel threatened by the Taliban, Kirby said.

The 3,000 troops who are due to arrive at Kabul airport in a day or two, Kirby said, are to help with airport security and help deal with the departure of embassy staff – not to get involved. in the Afghan government’s war with the Taliban. Biden decided in April to end U.S. military involvement in the war, and the pullout is expected to be completed by Aug.31.

The United States had already withdrawn most of its troops, but had kept around 650 troops in Afghanistan to support US diplomatic security, including at the airport.

Kirby said the influx of new troops does not mean the United States is resuming the fight against the Taliban.

“This is a temporary mission with a narrow focus,” he told Pentagon reporters.

The viability of the US-trained Afghan army, however, appears increasingly weak. A new military assessment indicates that Kabul could come under pressure from the Taliban as early as September and, if current trends continue, the country could fall into Taliban hands within months.

Price, the State Department spokesman, said diplomatic work would continue at the Kabul embassy.

“Our first responsibility has always been to protect the safety and security of our citizens serving in Afghanistan and around the world,” Price said at a briefing, describing the speed of the Taliban’s advance and the instability that ensued. results from “serious concern”.

Shortly before Price’s announcement, the embassy in Kabul urged U.S. citizens to leave immediately – reiterating a warning it first issued on Saturday.

The latest withdrawal will further limit the embassy’s ability to conduct business, although Price maintained it would still be able to function. Non-essential people had already been removed from the embassy in April after the announcement of Biden’s withdrawal and it was not immediately clear how many staff would remain in the heavily fortified compound. As of Thursday, there were about 4,200 staff at the embassy, ​​but most are Afghan nationals, according to the State Department.

Besides a full evacuation and the closure of the embassy, ​​Price said other contingency plans were under consideration, including possibly relocating its operations to the airport.

As the downsizing takes place over the next few weeks, Price said the United States, led by Afghanistan Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, will continue to push for a Taliban peace deal. and the Afghan government in the current talks. held in Doha, Qatar.

The Taliban, who ruled the country from 1996 until the invasion of US forces after the 9/11 attacks, captured 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a week-long sweep that took them gave effective control of about two-thirds of the country.

Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.