Approximately 3,000 combat troops will deploy to the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, to facilitate the withdrawal of additional civilian staff from the U.S. embassy and accelerate the departure of Afghans who have aided the U.S. government in the war effort, the Defense and State Departments said.
The orders to return American forces to Afghanistan comes just weeks before the military is scheduled to conclude its withdrawal under a timeline established by President Joe Biden, and coincides with Taliban's seizure of Ghazni, the fifth provincial capital to fall to militant forces in less than a week.
On Thursday, Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan's second- and third-largest cities, were on the verge of falling to Taliban troops.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to call the deployment a combat mission, but said infantry soldiers and Marines will deploy with machine guns, mortars and other heavy weapons, and authorization to defend themselves if attacked.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said "core" diplomatic staff would continue their diplomatic and consular work at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Kabul , but declined to say how many U.S. government personnel are among the roughly 4,000 embassy staff there.
"The embassy remains open," Price said. "This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not a wholesale withdrawal."
But the decision marks a tacit admission that the United States is uncertain how long it can ensure the safety of its staff in a country where conditions are changing on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.
The 3,000 troops being dispatched to Kabul will include two infantry battalions from the Marine Corps and one from the Army, all already deployed in the region, Kirby said. In the next week, an additional 3,500 U.S. soldiers will be sent to Kuwait and put on standby in case even more combat troops are needed in Kabul, and about a thousand other personnel will deploy to Qatar to assist Afghan allies evacuated from their home country with American help.
The additional muscle will augment a force of approximately 650 American troops who have been in Kabul since the U.S. military all but completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan last month. Those forces have been split between the airport and the U.S. embassy to provide defense against rocket attacks.
In April, Biden announced that he would fully withdraw military forces in keeping with a February 2020 deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban. News of the American departure after two decades appeared to have energized the Taliban and undermined the confidence of Afghan forces as they face their adversary without air and logistical support from foreign troops.
The government of President Ashraf Ghani now controls less than a third of the country.
The fall of Ghazni, 80 miles southwest of the Afghan capital, added fuel to Afghans' concerns about surrender deals between the Taliban and local leaders that have appeared to have contributed to the group's dramatic battlefield sweep. In many instances, the militant fights have commandeered areas without a major fight.
On Wednesday, hundreds of Afghans forces surrendered as part of a deal near the northern city of Kunduz. On Thursday, Ghazni's governor was arrested after fleeing the provincial capital as it fell.
A senior Interior Ministry official said the Taliban runs a recruitment team that reaches out to Afghan officials, pushing them to join the militants.
"One of the main reasons we lost so much ground is the cooperation of officials with the Taliban," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose such information to the news media.
"We suspect a long list of governors who might have Taliban ties."
Analysts said the Biden administration's decision to reduce its embassy presence occurs amid an understanding of the impact a full-scale embassy withdrawal would have on the ground in Afghanistan.
"Without a diplomatic footprint, the Afghan government would suffer a major psychological blow, narratives of U.S. abandonment would strengthen, and the Taliban would score yet another victory," said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Wilson Center.
"The international community should absolutely prioritize the security of its diplomats," he said. "But let's be clear: Its departure from Afghanistan would send a sobering signal that the world is resigned to leaving Afghans to their fate."
Although Price suggested that at least some of the departing diplomats would leave on commercial flights, saying that the Kabul airport remained open, the embassy has advised nonofficial U.S. citizens in Afghanistan to leave "immediately" and noted that flights are limited.
Kirby described the newly deployed troops' mission as "narrowly focused," and said it was far better to be prudent and deploy the troops now than to "wait until it's too late."
"We believe that this is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it," Kirby said.
In a possible sign of the sensitivities involved, however, Kirby declined to call the new mission a noncombatant evacuation operation, a term the military generally uses to describe the departure of civilians and nonessential military personnel from a dangerous situation. The term "NEO" is politically charged, and the Biden administration has sought to avoid using it, two U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"The purpose here is to help with the reduction of civilian personnel out of the embassy," Kirby said. "That is not the same as a noncombatant evacuation operation, where you're moving a massive amount of people who aren't necessarily U.S. government employees. It's a different operation altogether, and we're just not there."
Others scoffed at that notion.
"This is, in no uncertain terms, a NEO, which is an operation designed to evacuate U.S. civilian personnel whose lives are threatened by war, civil unrest or natural disaster," said Mark Jacobson, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration. "There's no cut-out for embassy personnel unless you are trying to make a political point which was, simply, not to use the word, 'evacuation.' "
A Defense Department publication for evacuation operations states that "diplomatic or other considerations may make the use of the term NEO inadvisable and require the use of other terms for the operation instead."
For the past several months, the Defense Department has been negotiating with Turkey over its offer to provide security for the airport after the U.S. withdrawal. Those negotiations are not yet completed, Kirby said this week, although he expressed certainty that they would be successful.
Turkey has repeatedly said it intends to provide airport security despite Taliban advances, as long as it has the proper financial, diplomatic and logistical support from the United States. During a visit Thursday to Pakistan, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkey fully intends to man the airport, and that Turkish troops would not be in danger, despite Taliban statements warning of attacks against them.
But the delay in finalizing an agreement has concerned all of those foreign missions remaining in Kabul, as well as the Americans.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to elevate Turkey's status in NATO, and circumvent numerous disagreements with Washington over Syria, its defense purchases from Moscow, and domestic crackdowns over civil rights. In an interview Wednesday with CNN Turk, Erdogan said the situation in Afghanistan was "really, really troubling," and offered to meet with "the person who is [the Taliban] leader."
"Why? Because if we do not get control of things like this at a high level," he said, "it won't be possible to secure peace this time in Afghanistan."
Published : August 13, 2021
By : The Washington Post · Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Susannah George