By Tom Squitieri
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is mobilizing around 6,000 troops to help evacuate and protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and qualified Afghans from Kabul, with the operation to begin within 24 to 48 hours, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Following the Pentagon announcement, officials in the U.K. and Germany said their governments are considering similar evacuations.
The number of embassy personnel to be evacuated was not disclosed. Yesterday the embassy issued yet another bulletin to U.S. citizens to leave quickly before commercial air transportation ceased.
The decision to withdraw the bulk of the remaining personnel from the embassy — which was symbolically reopened by then-Sen. Joe Biden in January 2002 — came as Taliban forces captured or neared capturing the major cities of Herat in the east, and Kandahar and Ghanzi in the south, among others.
With their new gains, the Taliban now essentially control the northern, western, and southern parts of Afghanistan, almost isolating Kabul.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the Pentagon will deploy three infantry battalions from the Marines and Army to Hamid Karzai International Airport in the next two days. That is about 3,000 troops. They will come from undisclosed locations in the Middle East.
An Army brigade from Ft. Bragg will head to Kuwait to be ready to also engage in Afghanistan depending on the turn of events, Kirby said. A brigade usually consists of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops.
Additionally, a joint Army-Air Force unit will deploy to Qatar to help process visas for Afghans who helped the U.S. and are now in the pipeline to leave, Kirby said. There will be about 1,000 personnel in this unit.
The new troops are in addition to the 650 that remain from the U.S. combat mission and who are to stay in Afghanistan to provide security at the embassy and airport.
Kirby said the Afghans who are evacuated would go to several locations, including some in the United States, but he did not offer specifics. Qatar is atop the list and thus the deployment of personnel to that nation.
“This is a very narrowly focused mission of safeguarding the orderly reduction of civilian personnel out of Afghanistan,” Kirby said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier Thursday, Kirby said.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whose country is contemplating running and protecting Kabul airport with assistance from the U.S.— told CNN-Turk television that he may meet with the Taliban leadership.
“If we don’t bring them under control at the highest level … it will not be possible for us to ensure peace in Afghanistan,” Erdogan said.
The U.S. decision was announced just hours after Afghan government negotiators in Qatar offered the Taliban a power-sharing deal in return for an end to fighting in the country, a government negotiating source told AFP on Thursday.
It also came as the U.S ambassador in Kabul, Ross Wilson, said Taliban advances have rendered it almost impossible for Afghans seeking to leave the country to do so.
“Any assumption that Afghan refugees can make their way to safety on foot does not reflect the new reality as Taliban forces exercise control of more than half of Afghanistan’s international border crossing points, and Pakistan and Iran resist adding to the sizeable refugee populations already present in their countries,” Wilson wrote in the cable obtained by NatSec Daily and first reported by CNN.