WASHINGTON (AP) — A fresh contingent of Marines arrived in Kabul on Saturday as part of a 3,000-troop force intended to secure an airlift of U.S. Embassy personnel and Afghan allies as Taliban insurgents approach the outskirts of the capital.
The last-minute decision to re-insert thousands of U.S. troops into Afghanistan reflects the dire state of security and calls into question whether President Joe Biden will meet his Aug. 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces.
After an advance group of Marines arrived on Friday, more flowed into the Kabul international airport on Saturday, said Navy Capt. William Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. Citing operational security, Urban declined to provide specific numbers. The Pentagon said on Friday that the bulk of the 3,000 — comprising two battalions of Marines and one of Army soldiers — are due by the end of the weekend.
Officials have stressed that the newly arriving troops’ mission is limited to assisting the airlift of embassy personnel and Afghan allies, and they expect to complete it by month’s end. But they might have to stay longer if the embassy is threatened by a Taliban takeover of Kabul by then.
On Saturday, the Taliban seized two more provinces and approached the outskirts of Kabul while also launching a multi-pronged assault on a major northern city defended by former warlords, Afghan officials said.
“Clearly from their actions, it appears as if they are trying to get Kabul isolated,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, referring to the Taliban’s speedy and efficient takedown of major provincial capitals this past week.
Biden had given the Pentagon until Aug. 31 to complete the withdrawal of the 2,500 to 3,000 troops that were in Afghanistan when he announced in April that he was ending U.S. involvement in the war. That number has dropped to just under 1,000, and all but about 650 are scheduled to be gone by the end of the month; the 650 are to remain to help protect the U.S. diplomatic presence, including with aircraft and defensive weapons at the Kabul airport.
But Thursday’s decision to dispatch 3,000 fresh troops to the airport adds a new twist to the U.S. withdrawal. There is no discussion of rejoining the war, but the number of troops needed for security will depend on decisions about keeping the embassy open and the extent of a Taliban threat to the capital in coming days.
Biden on Saturday morning approved Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recommendation that military flies in the lead battalion of the 82nd Airborne Brigade Combat Team – roughly 1,000 troops – to assist with the State Department’s drawdown, the Pentagon announced. The remaining two battalions of that Brigade Combat Team will stage in Kuwait as a ready reserve.
The announcement came as the Taliban on Saturday captured a large, heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan in a major setback for the government, and were approaching the capital of Kabul, less than three weeks before the U.S. hopes to complete its troop withdrawal.
The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country’s fourth largest city, which Afghan forces and two powerful former warlords had pledged to defend, hands the insurgents control over all of northern Afghanistan, confining the Western-backed government to the center and east.
Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from the Balkh province where the city is located, said the national army surrendered first, which prompted pro-government militias and other forces to lose morale and give up in the face of a Taliban onslaught launched earlier Saturday.
Ebrahimzada said Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad Noor, former warlords who command thousands of fighters, had fled the province and their whereabouts were unknown.
Noor said in a Facebook post that his defeat in Mazar-e-Sharif was orchestrated and blamed the government forces, saying they handed their weapons and equipment to the Taliban. He did not say who was behind the conspiracy, nor offer details, but said he and Dostum “are in a safe place now”
Having the Aug. 31 deadline pass with thousands of U.S. troops in the country would be awkward for Biden given his insistence on ending the 20-year U.S. war by that date. Republicans have already criticized the withdrawal as a mistake and ill-planned, though there’s little political appetite by either party to send fresh troops to fight the Taliban.
Kirby declined on Friday to discuss any assessment of whether the Taliban are likely soon to converge on Kabul, but the urgent movement of extra U.S. troops into Afghanistan to assist the embassy drawdown is clear evidence of Washington’s worry that after the rapid fall of major cities this week with relatively little Afghan government resistance, Kabul is endangered.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised speech Saturday, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains, and pledged not to give up the “achievements” of the 20 years since the U.S. toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
The Biden administration has asserted that Afghan security forces have tangible advantages over the insurgents, including a viable air force and superior numbers. The statement serves to highlight the fact that what the Afghan forces lack is motivation to fight in a circumstance where the Taliban seem to have decisive momentum.
Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, said in an interview the announcement that 3,000 U.S. troops were heading to Kabul to help pull out American diplomats and embassy staff likely made Afghan morale even worse.
“The message that sent to Afghans is: ‘The city of Kabul is going to fall so fast that we can’t organize an orderly withdrawal from the embassy,’” Biddle said. This suggests to Afghans that the Americans see little future for the government and that “this place could be toast within hours.”
The Pentagon also is moving an additional 4,500 to 5,000 troops to bases in the Gulf countries of Qatar and Kuwait, including 1,000 to Qatar to speed up visa processing for Afghan translators and others who fear retribution from the Taliban for their past work with Americans, and their family members.
The State Department said the embassy in Kabul will remain partially staffed and functioning, but Thursday’s decision to evacuate a significant number of embassy staff and bring in the thousands of additional U.S. troops is a sign of waning confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to hold off the Taliban surge. The Biden administration has not ruled out a full embassy evacuation or possibly relocating embassy operations to the Kabul airport.
There were a little over 4,000 personnel still at the embassy; the State Department has not said how many are being pulled out in the next two weeks.
The Biden administration warned Taliban officials directly that the U.S. would respond if the Taliban attacked Americans during the stepped-up deployments and evacuations.
AP Diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.