The US and UK will send troops to help evacuate their embassies in Kabul as the Taliban continued its rout of provincial capitals in Afghanistan following Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops.
The Pentagon said it would send 3,000 troops in the next 24-48 hours, including aircraft that could fly personnel out of the Afghan capital, and a back-up brigade of 3,500 soldiers to Kuwait in case the security situation deteriorates further.
The state department said it would pull out diplomats because of the threat posed by the Taliban advance, adding that only a small number of personnel would remain.
“We are further reducing our footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,” Ned Price, state department spokesman, told reporters on Thursday. “We expect to draw down to a core diplomatic presence in Afghanistan in the coming weeks.”
The UK deployment will include 600 troops for speeding up evacuations of some diplomatic personnel and Afghans who worked with British forces. Ben Wallace, UK defence secretary, said the embassy, which is on the outskirts of Kabul’s green zone, would be moved to a safer location.
The allies’ decisions underlined the unravelling of resistance to the Taliban as the group encircles the capital. The insurgents have captured at least 12 provincial capitals in less than a week, including Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second and third biggest cities, on Thursday.
The capture of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west after days of clashes are a devastating setback for the government as the deadly Taliban insurgency turns into a rout of the security forces.
“The city looks like a front line, a ghost town,” provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimo said by telephone from Herat, a city of about 600,000 people near the border with Iran. “Families have either left or are hiding in their homes.” A government official told Reuters: “Following heavy clashes late last night, the Taliban took control of Kandahar city.”
Of Afghanistan’s major cities, the government still holds Mazar-i-Sharif in the north and Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border in the east, as well as Kabul. But a US defence official cited US intelligence as saying this week that the Taliban could isolate Kabul in 30 days and possibly take it within 90.
John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, insisted the deployment was not a combat operation, though troops would be armed to defend themselves. “This is about preparation, we want to make sure that we’ve got enough on hand to adapt,” Kirby said.
Mr Price said the personnel reduction stopped short of a full evacuation and that the US embassy would remain open at its current location. He described the deployment as “prudent contingency planning” and said the US was co-ordinating with allies and would begin implementing the measures “soon”.
The US embassy in Kabul issued its second warning in six days urging American citizens to leave “immediately using available commercial flight options”, writing on Twitter that the Taliban had executed Afghan troops who had surrendered.
The first tranche of UK troops is expected in Afghanistan by the end of the week. Sir Laurie Bristow, Britain’s ambassador, is to remain in the country with a reduced diplomatic team focused on providing visa services to those needing to leave the country.
Mr Biden decided to start evacuations after a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday evening, according to a person familiar with the discussions. National security adviser Jake Sullivan and defence secretary Lloyd Austin briefed the president on Thursday morning on military options.
Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, who maintains a map logging rapid Taliban gains, said the civilian international airport in central Kabul would be “mobbed” once residents and foreign workers realised an evacuation was under way.
“If things keep going this way, they’re risking a Saigon moment,” he said, referring to the departure of US troops from South Vietnam in 1975.
The UK troops, drawn from 16 Air Assault Brigade and Joint Force Headquarters, will be in Afghanistan for what the Ministry of Defence called a “short-term” deployment. The force includes military medics, logistics staff, air movement personnel and protection forces.
One Whitehall official said fewer than 5,000 evacuees were expected, consisting of diplomatic personnel, UK nationals such as contractors and Afghan interpreters and staff who are eligible for resettlement under the government’s expanded relocation and assistance policy.
The policy was launched in April and has resettled more than 3,100 former Afghan staff and their families in Britain.
The US brigade headed to Kuwait will be drawn from the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Kirby would not disclose which battalions were being sent to Kabul, though he said the forces were already in the region. They will be based at the civilian international airport.
Another 1,000 US troops are being deployed to Qatar to help with processing visas for translators and other Afghan personnel who have worked with US troops. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. Additional reporting: Reuters