Pentagon Sends 3,000 Troops to Secure Kabul Airport as US Evacuates Embassy Staff, Interpreters
Secretary Austin is also requesting additional military aircraft be ready to assist, rapidly get personnel out.
The U.S. is sending 3,000 additional troops to Kabul to secure the airport, speed the evacuation of U.S. embassy staff, and get Afghans who helped U.S. forces over the last two decades out of Afghanistan, as the Taliban continues its rapid advance across the country.
Three infantry battalions that are already deployed to the Middle East “are on the way now” and will be on the ground in Kabul within the next 24 hours, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday. In addition, an infantry brigade combat team from Fort Bragg, North Carolina—roughly 3,500 additional troops—will be sent to Kuwait in case additional forces are needed.
“The president has ordered the reduction of civilian personnel at our embassy in Kabul, and the acceleration of the evacuation of Afghan special immigrant visa applicants from the country,” Kirby said.
The Pentagon is also preparing to send additional airlift to assist.
“We do anticipate the increased need for U.S. airlift,” Kirby said. “The secretary has already had conversations with the [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and with Transportation Command about these potential needs. So we do fully expect that there'll be additional United States military airlift required, I just don't have the details here today for you exactly what that's gonna look like, how many tails and what the sorties are going to look like, but we absolutely anticipate being more involved in the airlift element of this mission.”
Both the Pentagon and State Department argued that this is not an non-combatant evacuation operation, or NEO—which is a specific term for getting U.S. citizens overseas out of harms’ way—despite the rapid deployment to protect the quick departure of embassy staff and Afghans.
“This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not wholesale withdrawal,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
The departure “shouldn’t be read as any sort of message to the Taliban” that the U.S. was abandoning its mission in Afghanistan, Price said.
But the evacuation is taking place against a backdrop of multiple Afghan provincial capitals falling to the Taliban, and amid the increased likelihood that Kabul could fall within weeks.
The evacuation was welcomed by Democratic House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., as a “pragmatic step” that would get Americans to safety.
Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said the evacuation is necessary now—but could have been avoided if President Joe Biden had not moved to take forces out of Afghanistan so quickly.
“The situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse in a matter of weeks,” Inhofe said. “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. What we don’t want is the worst-case scenario: a total Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that results in the loss of American lives.”
On Thursday, the U.K. also announced it is sending additional forces, and advised its citizens to depart the country as quickly as possible.
“The additional deployment of approximately 600 troops is in light of the increasing violence and rapidly deteriorating security environment in the country. In parallel, the number of staff working at the British Embassy in Kabul has been reduced to a core team focused on providing consular and visa services for those needing to rapidly leave the country,” the British ministry of defense said in a press release.
The Pentagon is also sending about 1,000 troops to Qatar to help establish a satellite site to process Afghan interpreters who have been seeking special immigrant visas to get out of Afghanistan, because their work with the U.S. over the years now has put their life at risk.
“A U.S. Army/Air Force support element of around 1,000 personnel to facilitate the processing of SIV applicants, initial elements of this movement of this element will arrive in Qatar in the coming days,” Kirby said.
Also on Thursday, the State Department urged all Americans to immediately evacuate Afghanistan, and it is evacuating the majority of its embassy staff there.
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.