Biden sending troops to Afghanistan to help pull Americans out

The Biden administration, struggling to contain the rapid collapse of much of Afghanistan to Taliban forces, on Thursday announced it was pulling most U.S. Embassy personnel out of Kabul and urged American citizens — for the second time in a week — to leave the country immediately.

Several thousand U.S. troops will be dispatched to Afghanistan, mainly the Kabul airport, to help with what is shaping up as a military-run partial evacuation.

It was a significant escalation in a violently deteriorating situation. The urgent moves came as the Islamist Taliban, in its quest to topple the U.S.-backed government, reportedly conquered Afghanistan’s third-largest city and pushed its second city, Kandahar, to the brink. Afghan refugees have flooded Kabul, many sleeping in the streets, and talks to reach a political solution are going nowhere.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the administration will substantially reduce its “civilian footprint” in Afghanistan to a “core diplomatic presence” in face of the grave violence spreading across the country, and that many employees will be relocated to the fortified Kabul airport for safety.

The moves are also likely to dismay an already desperate Afghan population. Many say they fear imprisonment, torture, repression and execution at the hands of the Taliban, who ruled brutally in the 1990s. The group says it has modernized, but there is little evidence to support that. U.S. officials and human rights groups say they are already receiving numerous reports of atrocities by Taliban forces, including executions of surrendering soldiers.

Afghan security personnel take a position during fighting with the Taliban in Herat province, west of Kabul, on Aug. 3. The Taliban has swiftly captured territory in Afghanistan.

(Associated Press)

“The embassy remains open,” Price said — though he would not say if that meant in its current location. “We will complete our priority work.” But it clearly will become a skeleton operation.

Already, the State Department had reduced the number of its “nonessential” personnel in Kabul, once the site of one of the largest U.S. diplomatic missions in the world, and is constantly reviewing broader evacuation plans, officials said.

Officials hope to reduce the number of U.S. citizens in Afghanistan to avoid the need to mount large rescue operations if Kabul falls, which some analysts now believe could happen within weeks as the United States winds down its longest war and withdraws nearly all military forces. It especially does not want a Saigon-reminiscent, last-minute rescue of Americans at the embassy if Taliban forces march into the capital.

Yet the sight of helicopters airlifting American diplomats out of the Kabul embassy and U.S. transport carriers ferrying Americans out of the country, would probably conjure up those images anyway — and sow panic.

The administration will also speed up the processing of special visas for Afghan translators and others who worked for U.S. military and diplomatic missions, part of a program Washington created to attempt to provide a haven for the former employees. But the process has moved slowly and many Afghans say they cannot even reach Kabul nor cross Taliban-controlled borders to avail themselves of the visas.

Senior national security officials launched a round of urgent consultations in the last 24 hours with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The Biden administration, which privately complains of debilitating divisions within the Afghan leadership, insists it will not change course in its withdrawal of U.S. military forces by Sept. 1, and has placed the responsibility for security squarely on the shoulders of the weak Afghan government and its army.

“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation,” President Biden said earlier this week. “But they’ve got to want to fight.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the removal of American officials from the Kabul embassy and from the airport will probably include airlifts. About 3,000 soldiers and Marines will join 650 U.S. service members already deployed in Kabul, Kirby said. Another 3,000 troops, including members of the 82nd Airborne out of Ft. Bragg, N.C., will be deployed as backup in nearby Qatar.

“This is a temporary mission … a very narrowly focused mission of safeguarding the orderly reduction of civilian personnel out of Afghanistan,” Kirby said. Pressed repeatedly, he insisted it was not a combat mission, something that U.S. forces have not been involved in in Afghanistan for months, because Kabul was not yet a combat zone.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban says it has captured Herat, the country’s third-largest city, has taken 11 of 34 provinces, roughly two-thirds of the country.

With Herat in the hands of Taliban, all eyes have turned to Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, the fourth- and second-largest cities, respectively. With much of the north already under its control, the Taliban is set to begin a ferocious fight for Mazar-i-Sharif even as government-allied militia — now rallied by and enjoying the support of Ghani — vow they’ll claw back their traditionally anti-Taliban territories.

The battle for Kandahar, meanwhile, seems increasingly hopeless, according to Afghan military personnel fighting there. Reports from the ground Thursday said Taliban fighters were carrying out guerrilla attacks and controlled most of the city.

“Herat, the largest and most strategic province in the western part of the country, was also conquered,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid boasted on Twitter. “The provincial building, police headquarters and many other facilities came under the control of Mujahidin. The soldiers laid down their weapons and joined the Mujahideen. The surrender of the troops is ongoing.” The Taliban often refers to itself as mujahedeen.

U.S. officials say they remain prepared to assist Afghan security forces with any tools except ground troops. But at the same time, they are openly blaming a lack of united leadership in the Afghan government and the erosion in fighting forces from years of corruption for the dramatic failures that have allowed the Taliban to advance.

“There are other tools at our disposal that fall short of reintroducing U.S. forces,” Price, of the State Department, said earlier. “We have not ruled any of those out, and so if it’s appropriate for us to use them, we won’t hesitate to do so.”

He acknowledged the stunning speed of the Taliban’s movements and the terrible levels of violence. He added: “But at the same time, this is not a foregone conclusion, as many people seem to think, that this will be an inexorable march forward for the Taliban or any other force.”

The administration repeatedly asserts that the Afghan security forces enjoy numerical superiority over the Taliban because it fields 300,000 members, while the enemy only has 100,000 or fewer. But former diplomats who worked extensively in Afghanistan said the numbers are disingenuous. The 300,000 is diminished by tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers” who don’t exist but are used to pad payrolls and by thousands of members who aren’t actually fighters, they said. All taken, the government offensive army numbers are probably closer to those of the Taliban, experts say.

On the diplomatic front, the Biden administration regularly points to talks that have been taking place for months in Doha, Qatar, between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was dispatched urgently this week to the talks, but thus far the Taliban has shown little interest in declaring peace with the Ghani government.

“There is no realistic possibility that the Taliban will engage in deal-making until they have achieved more on the battleground — either as far as they can go or need to go to dominate the negotiating table,” said Laurel Miller, a former acting special representative for Afghanistan now at the International Crisis Group.

With the talks foundering, and U.S. disappointment in Ghani’s management of the conflict fading, the Afghan president is coming under growing pressure to resign. The president of Afghanistan‘s rival in Pakistan, Imran Khan, said Thursday the Taliban will not agree to further talks while Ghani remains in office.

Times staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.