The orders to return American forces to Afghanistan come just weeks before the military is scheduled to conclude its withdrawal under a timeline established by President Biden. It coincides with the Taliban’s seizure of the capitals of Ghazni and Badghis provinces, the 10th and 11th provincial capitals to fall to militant forces in less than a week, and a grim new intelligence assessment forecasting the potential collapse of Kabul, home to the central government and international airport, within 30 to 90 days.
On Thursday, Herat and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second- and third-largest cities, also were under attack by Taliban fighters. The Associated Press, citing Afghan officials and witnesses, reported that both had been captured. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the evolving situation’s sensitivity, said that was not yet clear but that it was possible they could fall soon.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to call the military deployment a combat mission but said infantry soldiers and Marines will deploy with machine guns, mortars and other heavy weapons, and with authorization to defend themselves if attacked.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said “core” staffers would continue their diplomatic and consular work at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy but declined to say how many U.S. government personnel are among the roughly 4,000 people working there.
“The embassy remains open,” Price said. “This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not a wholesale withdrawal.”
But the administration’s decision is 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 troops dispatched to Kabul will include two infantry battalions from the Marine Corps and one combat unit from the Army, all already deployed in the region, Kirby said. In the next week, an additional brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 U.S. soldiers will be sent to Kuwait and put on standby in case even more combat troops are needed in Kabul, and about 1,000 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, with missions that include providing 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 without prior levels of air and logistical support from foreign troops.
The government of President Ashraf Ghani now controls less than a third of the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed the situation with Ghani on Thursday, the State Department said, and stressed “that the United States remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan in the face of violence by the Taliban.”
But the Biden administration also has been openly critical of Ghani and other Afghan leaders, urging them to set internal differences aside and unite behind a push for negotiated peace. The administration has made repeated calls for Afghans to stand firm on the battleground after 20 years and billions of dollars of support to their army and police.
The fall of Ghazni, a provincial capital 80 miles southwest of Kabul, intensified Afghans’ concerns about surrender deals between the Taliban and local leaders that appear to have contributed to the group’s dramatic battlefield sweep. In many instances, militants have commandeered areas without a major fight.
On Wednesday, hundreds of Afghan troops surrendered as part of a deal near the northern city of Kunduz. A day later, Ghazni’s governor was arrested by government officials after fleeing the provincial capital as it fell.
A top Interior Ministry official said the militants now have a recruitment team that is contacting Afghan officials and asking them to join their cause.
“One of the main reasons we lost so much ground is the cooperation of officials with the Taliban,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose such information to the news media. “We suspect a long list of governors who might have Taliban ties.”
Analysts said the Biden administration’s decision to reduce its embassy presence underscores its understanding of the impact that a full-scale withdrawal would have on the ground.
“Without a [U.S.] 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.”
As the administration hustled to execute the emergency departures, representatives of multiple countries and international organizations meeting in Doha with the Taliban and the Afghan government in a last-ditch effort to end the fighting issued a communique that seemed largely detached from the momentum on the ground, calling for a cease-fire and a relaunching of dormant peace talks.
The developments underscored the gargantuan obstacles to achieving the kind of peace settlement that officials had hoped would transform the Taliban into an accepted political actor and bring an end to Afghanistan’s long conflict.
On Thursday, the British government announced that it, too, would temporarily send troops to Afghanistan to help its citizens leave the country.
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 deploying 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.” U.S. civilians and Afghans have so far left for the United States on civilian flights, but Kirby said that he expected that military aircraft will now be involved, too.
“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.”
The initial response from Capitol Hill largely broke along partisan lines, with Republicans criticizing Biden’s decision to withdraw.
“The situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse in a matter of weeks,” Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “We all saw this coming, we all tried to warn President Biden away from this decision — but unfortunately, what we predicted is coming to pass.”
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 have not been completed, Kirby said this week, although he expressed certainty that they would succeed.
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, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkey fully intends to secure the airport. 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. 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.”
Merhdad and George reported from Kabul. Karen DeYoung, Anne Gearan and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.