The United States will send thousands of troops to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf this week to evacuate most of its embassy staff in Kabul amid growing fears that the Afghan capital could fall to the Taliban within the next month.
The Pentagon announced on Thursday the deployment of at least 7,500 military personnel to the region, including 3,000 who will arrive in the “next 24 to 48 hours” at the Afghan capital’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to help get hundreds of embassy staff out of the country.
“We believe this is the prudent thing to do, given the rapidly deteriorating security situation in and around Kabul,” Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told a news conference.
The decision is a remarkable about-face after weeks in which U.S. President Joe Biden insisted that Taliban advances would not cause him to rethink the military withdrawal from the country, which was already 95 percent complete, according to the Pentagon.
The dispatch of 3,000 more troops to Kabul, where some 650 troops still remain, will bring the American contingent in Afghanistan to a slightly higher level than it was when the military withdrawal process began last May, when there were 3,500 troops in the country.
Those 3,000 troops come from three battalions —two Marine Corps and one Army battalion— currently stationed in the Central Command area of responsibility, Kirby said.
In addition, an infantry brigade combat team of about 3,500 troops will arrive next week in Kuwait from Fort Bragg Army Base, North Carolina, he added.
These troops will wait in Kuwait in case it becomes “necessary” to move to Afghanistan and reinforce the security deployment around the Kabul airport, the spokesman said.
Finally, another 1,000 military personnel will head to Qatar in the coming days to assist in the process of granting special visas to tens of thousands of interpreters, drivers and other Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war and who want to move to the country with their families.
The deployment is aimed at minimizing the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan’s staff of about 4,000 people, including about 1,400 American citizens.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told a news conference about that reduction in diplomatic headquarters staff, without giving figures on how many of its employees will remain in the country.
“This is not an abandonment, it is not a (complete) evacuation, it is not a withdrawal, it is a reduction of our civilian personnel,” Price stated.
He stressed that the embassy will continue working and open in its current location, although according to several media there have been conversations in the Biden administration about the possibility of moving it to the Kabul airport to facilitate a possible total evacuation process in case the capital falls.
Intelligence agencies estimate that, given the Taliban’s rapid advances, Kabul could fall into their hands within one to three months, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
Price insisted that the purpose of the troop deployment is “solely and exclusively” to assist in the departure of these diplomatic personnel, and not to become more deeply involved in the Afghan conflict.
However, the announcement of the operation prompted many in the United States to compare the situation to the fall of Saigon in 1975, when a helicopter had to evacuate Americans from the embassy in Vietnam from the rooftop.
The US legation in Kabul, which the Marines recaptured in December 2001 after it had been burned by the Taliban, on Thursday also urged US citizens still in Afghanistan to leave immediately on commercial flights.
Meanwhile, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmai Khalilzad, is trying to convince the Taliban that the embassy must be kept open and secure if the insurgent group is to receive American financial aid should it become part of a future Afghan government, according to The New York Times.
The U.S. announcement came as the Taliban were on the verge of capturing the country’s two largest cities after Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, in a lightning offensive that has prompted the Afghan government to offer to share power with them in exchange for an immediate cease-fire.
Shortly after the Pentagon’s announcement, the United Kingdom also announced the deployment of 600 military personnel in Afghanistan to help British nationals to leave the country, in view of the “rapid deterioration of security.”