U.S. sending thousands of combat troops to Afghanistan to bolster security as some embassy staff are withdrawn

By Missy Ryan, and Dan Lamothe

The Washington Post
12 August 2021 4:41 p.m. EDT
A helicopter is reflected in the windows of the U.S. embassy building in Kabul on July 30. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden administration will temporarily send thousands of additional military personnel to Afghanistan, U.S. officials said Thursday, as the United States bolsters security and braces for what could be a dramatic and dangerous departure after 20 years at war.

Approximately 3,000 combat troops will deploy to the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, facilitating the withdrawal of civilian staff from the U.S. embassy and assisting as the United States speeds up the departure of Afghans who have assisted the U.S. government in the war effort. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, declined to call the deployment a combat mission, but said infantry soldiers and Marines will deploy with machine guns, mortars and other heavy weapons, and authorization to defend themselves if attacked.

The departures take place as the Taliban continues a dramatic advance, seizing major cities across the country and moving to isolate Kabul just weeks before the Pentagon is scheduled to conclude its withdrawal under a timeline established by President Biden. On Thursday, Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities, were on the verge of falling to the militants.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said a “core” diplomatic staff would remain at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy to continue their diplomatic and consular work, but declined to say how many people that would include.

But the decision marks a tacit admission that the United States is uncertain how long it can ensure the safety of its staff in a country where conditions are changing on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.

The 3,000 troops being dispatched to Kabul will include two infantry battalions from the Marine Corps and one from the Army, all already deployed in the region, Kirby said. In the next week, an additional 3,500 U.S. soldiers will be sent to Kuwait and put on standby in case even more combat troops are needed in Kabul, and about a thousand other personnel will deploy to Qatar to assist Afghan allies evacuated from their home country with American help.

The additional muscle will augment a force of approximately 650 American troops who have been in Kabul since the U.S. military all but completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan last month. Those forces have been split between the airport and the U.S. embassy to provide defense against rocket attacks.

In April, Biden announced that he would fully withdraw military forces in keeping with a February 2020 deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban. News of the American departure after two decades appeared to have energized the Taliban and undermined the confidence of Afghan forces as they face their adversary.

Analysts said the decision reflects an understanding of the impact a full-scale embassy withdrawal would have on the ground in Afghanistan.

“Without a diplomatic footprint, the Afghan government would suffer a major psychological blow, narratives of U.S. abandonment would strengthen, and the Taliban would score yet another victory,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Wilson Center.

“The international community should absolutely prioritize the security of its diplomats,” he said. “But let’s be clear: Its departure from Afghanistan would send a sobering signal that the world is resigned to leaving Afghans to their fate.”

Although Price suggested that at least some of the departing diplomats would leave on commercial flights, saying that the Kabul airport remained open, the embassy has advised nonofficial U.S. citizens in Afghanistan to leave “immediately” and noted that flights are limited.

Kirby described the newly deployed troops’ mission as “narrowly focused,” and said it was far better to be prudent and deploy the troops now than to “wait until it’s too late.”

“We believe that this is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it,” Kirby said.

In a possible sign of the sensitivities involved, however, Kirby declined to call the new mission a noncombatant evacuation operation, a term the military generally uses to describe the departure of civilians and nonessential military personnel from a dangerous situation. The term “NEO” is politically charged, and the Biden administration has sought to avoid using it, two U.S. officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“The purpose here is to help with the reduction of civilian personnel out of the embassy,” Kirby said. “That is not the same as a noncombatant evacuation operation, where you’re moving a massive amount of people who aren’t necessarily U.S. government employees. It’s a different operation altogether, and we’re just not there.”

Others scoffed at that notion.

“This is, in no uncertain terms, a NEO, which is an operation designed to evacuate U.S. civilian personnel whose lives are threatened by war, civil unrest or natural disaster,” said Mark Jacobson, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration. “There’s no cut-out for embassy personnel unless you are trying to make a political point which was, simply, not to use the word, ‘evacuation.’ ”

A Defense Department publication for evacuation operations states that “diplomatic or other considerations may make the use of the term NEO inadvisable and require the use of other terms for the operation instead.”

A Taliban fighter poses for a photo as he patrols inside the city of Ghazni, southwest of the capital Kabul, on Thursday. The Taliban captured the provincial capital earlier in the day, the 10th insurgents have taken over a week-long blitz across Afghanistan as the U.S. and NATO prepare to withdraw entirely from the country after decades of war. (Gulabuddin Amiri/AP)

For the past several months, the Defense Department has been negotiating with Turkey over its offer to provide security for the airport after the U.S. withdrawal. Those negotiations are not yet completed, Kirby said this week, although he expressed certainty that they would be successful.

Turkey has repeatedly said it intends to provide airport security despite Taliban advances, as long as it has the proper financial, diplomatic and logistical support from the United States. During a visit Thursday to Pakistan, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkey fully intends to man the airport, and that Turkish troops would not be in danger, despite Taliban statements warning of attacks against them.

But the delay in finalizing an agreement has concerned all of those foreign missions remaining in Kabul, as well as the Americans.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to elevate Turkey’s status in NATO, and circumvent numerous disagreements with Washington over Syria, its defense purchases from Moscow, and domestic crackdowns over civil rights. In an interview Wednesday with CNN Turk, Erdogan said the situation in Afghanistan was “really, really troubling,” and offered to meet with “the person who is [the Taliban] leader.”

“Why? Because if we do not get control of things like this at a high level,” he said, “it won’t be possible to secure peace this time in Afghanistan.”

Karen DeYoung, Anne Gearan and John Hudson contributed to this report.

U.S. sending thousands of combat troops to Afghanistan to bolster security as some embassy staff are withdrawn