US troops to help evacuate embassy staff from Afghanistan

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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 U.S. embassy. . The move highlights the astonishing speed of the Taliban’s 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 has said the embassy will continue to operate, but Thursday’s dramatic decision to bring in thousands more US troops is a sign of loss of confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to contain the rise of the Taliban. The announcement came just hours after the Taliban captured the western city of Herat as well as Ghazni, a strategic provincial capital south of Kabul. The advance and partial evacuation of the US embassy is increasingly isolating the nation’s capital, home to millions of Afghans.

“This is not abandonment. This is not evacuation. This is not mass withdrawal,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “What this is is a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint.”

Price dismissed the idea that Thursday’s actions sent encouraging signals to an already emboldened Taliban, or demoralizing to frightened Afghan civilians. “The message we are sending to the Afghan people is one of enduring partnership,” Price insisted.

President Joe Biden, who remained adamant on ending the 19-year US mission in Afghanistan at the end of this month despite a Taliban sweep, spoke with 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 US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday. The United States also directly warned Taliban officials that the United States would react if the Taliban attacked Americans during the temporary American military deployments.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Thursday it would send around 600 troops to Afghanistan on a short-term basis 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 that 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 troops from a combat brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. to Kuwait to serve as a reserve force. He said they will be on standby “in case we need even more” than the 3,000 going to Kabul.

In addition, approximately 1,000 army and air force troops, including military police and medical personnel, will be sent to Qatar in the coming days to support a State Department effort to speed up the processing of special immigrant visa applications from Afghans who once worked for the US government and feel threatened by the Taliban, Kirby said.

The 3,000 soldiers who are due to arrive at Kabul airport in the next day or two, Kirby said, are to help secure the airport and help organize the departure of embassy staff – not getting involved in the Afghan government’s war with the Taliban. Biden decided in April to end US military involvement in the war, and the withdrawal is expected to be complete by August 31.

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

Kirby said the influx of fresh troops does not mean the United States is going back to fighting with the Taliban.

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

The viability of the Afghan army trained by the United States, however, seems 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 to the Taliban within months.

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

“Our primary responsibility has always been to protect the safety and security of our citizens serving in Afghanistan and around the world,” Price told a briefing, calling the speed of the Taliban advance and the resulting instability arises from “serious concerns”.

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

The latest withdrawal will further limit the embassy’s ability to do business, although Price maintained it would still be able to operate. Non-essential staff had already been withdrawn from the embassy in April following 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 of them are Afghan nationals, according to the State Department.

Along with a full evacuation and embassy closure, Price said other contingency plans were being considered, possibly including moving its operations to the airport.

As personnel reductions take place over the coming weeks, Price said the United States, led by special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, will continue to press for a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government in ongoing talks. place in Doha, Qatar.

The Taliban, who ruled the country from 1996 until US forces invaded after the September 11 attacks, have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals in a week-long sweep that gave effective control of about two-thirds of the country.

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

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