NATIONAL NEWS

US Rushes In Troops To Speed Up Evacuations In Afghanistan

Aug 13, 2021, 8:55 AM
FILE: Murals are seen along the walls at a quiet U.S. embassy on July 30, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanist...
FILE: Murals are seen along the walls at a quiet U.S. embassy on July 30, 2021, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
(Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rapid Taliban conquests across Afghanistan led the Biden administration on Friday to rush 3,000 fresh troops to the Kabul airport to help with a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in the capital and send thousands more to the region, to be on standby and speed airlifts for Afghans who worked with the American military.

The temporary buildup of troops for U.S. evacuations highlights the stunning pace of the Taliban takeover of much of the country. The Taliban completed their sweep of the country’s south on Friday as they took four more provincial capitals in a lightning offensive that is gradually encircling Kabul, just weeks before the U.S. is set to officially end its two-decade war.

The latest significant blow was the loss of the capital of Helmand province, where American, British and other allied NATO forces fought some of the bloodiest battles in the past 20 years. Hundreds of Western troops during the course of the war died fighting to try to knock back the Taliban in the province and give Afghanistan’s central government and military a better chance to take hold.

The State Department said the embassy will continue functioning, but Thursday’s decision to bring in thousands of additional U.S. troops is a sign of waning confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to hold off the Taliban surge.

Those advances, and the partial embassy evacuation, increasingly isolate the nation’s capital, home to millions of Afghans.

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

President Joe Biden, who has remained adamant about ending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan at the end of this month, gave the order for the additional temporary troops Thursday morning after conferring with national security officials overnight.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The U.S. also warned Taliban officials directly that the U.S. would respond if the Taliban attacked Americans during the temporary U.S. military deployments.

Britain’s ministry of defense will send about 600 troops to Afghanistan on a short-term basis to help U.K. nationals leave the country. Canadian special forces will deploy to Afghanistan to help Canadian staff leave Kabul, a source familiar with the plan told The Associated Press. That official, who was not authorized to talk publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say how many special forces would be sent.

The Pentagon’s 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 dispatch 3,500 to 4,000 troops from a combat brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division to Kuwait to act as a reserve force. He said they will be on standby “in case we need even more” than the 3,000 going to Kabul.

Also, about 1,000 Army and Air Force troops, including military police and medical personnel, will be sent to Qatar in coming days to support a State Department effort to accelerate its processing of Special Immigrant Visa applications from Afghans who once worked for the U.S. government and feel threated by the Taliban, and for their families, Kirby said.

Americans are preparing a military base in the region to receive and house large numbers of those Afghan translators and others as their visa applications are processed. The Biden administration has not identified the base, but earlier was talking with both Kuwait and Qatar about using U.S. bases there for the temporary relocations.

As of Thursday, the U.S. has flown 1,200 Afghans — former American employees and their families whose visas are farthest along in the approval process — to Fort Lee, Virginia.

Price said the U.S. would soon have the flights flying out daily, for those Afghan translators and others who manage to reach the Kabul airport despite the fighting. The total of Afghans flown out under the special visa program is going to ”grow very quickly in the coming days,” Price said.

Kirby said the 3,000 troops will assist with security at the airport and to help process the departure of embassy personnel, but will not 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 withdrawal is scheduled to be complete by Aug. 31.

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

Kirby said the influx of fresh troops does not mean the U.S. is reentering combat with the Taliban.

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

The viability of the U.S.-trained Afghan army, however, is looking increasingly dim. A new military assessment says Kabul could come under Taliban pressure as soon as September and, if current trends hold, the country could fall to the Taliban within a few months.

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

The latest drawdown will further limit the ability of the embassy to conduct business, although Price maintained it would still be able to function. Nonessential personal had already been withdrawn from the embassy in April after Biden’s withdrawal announcement and it was not immediately clear how many staffers would remain on the heavily fortified compound. As of Thursday, there were roughly 4,200 staffers at the embassy, but most of those are Afghan nationals, according to the State Department.

Apart from a complete evacuation and shuttering of the embassy, Price said other contingency plans were being weighed, including possibly relocating its operations to the airport.

__

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

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US Rushes In Troops To Speed Up Evacuations In Afghanistan