As a Taliban offensive encircles the Afghan capital, there's increasingly only one way out for those fleeing the war, and only one way in for the US troops sent to protect American diplomats still on the ground: Kabul's international airport.
A fresh contingent of Marines arrived in Kabul on Saturday as part of a 3,000-troop force intended to secure an airlift of US Embassy personnel and Afghan allies as Taliban insurgents approach the outskirts of the capital.The last-minute decision to re-insert thousands of US troops into Afghanistan reflects the dire state of security and calls into question whether President Joe Biden will meet his August 31 deadline for fully withdrawing combat forces.
Officials have stressed that the newly arriving troops' mission is limited to assisting the airlift of embassy personnel and Afghan allies, and they expect to complete it by month's end. But they might have to stay longer if the embassy is threatened by a Taliban takeover of Kabul by then.
On Saturday, the Taliban seized two more provinces and approached the outskirts of Kabul while also launching a multi-pronged assault on a major northern city defended by former warlords, Afghan officials said.
"Clearly from their actions, it appears as if they are trying to get Kabul isolated," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, referring to the Taliban's speedy and efficient takedown of major provincial capitals this past week.Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised speech on Saturday, his first public appearance since the recent Taliban gains, and pledged not to give up the "achievements" of the 20 years since the US toppled the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
Stephen Biddle, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, said in an interview the announcement that 3,000 U.S. troops were heading to Kabul to help pull out American diplomats and embassy staff likely made Afghan morale even worse. "The message that sent to Afghans is: The city of Kabul is going to fall so fast that we can't organize an orderly withdrawal from the embassy,'" Biddle said. This suggests to Afghans that the Americans see little future for the government and that "this place could be toast within hours."The Pentagon also is moving an additional 4,500 to 5,000 troops to bases in the Gulf countries of Qatar and Kuwait, including 1,000 to Qatar to speed up visa processing for Afghan translators and others who fear retribution from the Taliban for their past work with Americans, and their family members.The Biden administration warned Taliban officials directly that the US would respond if the Taliban attacked Americans during the stepped-up deployments and evacuations.
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