President Joe Biden has doubled down on his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan despite the Taliban's rapid advances, but pledged to send more troops to evacuate civilians and warned the militants not to threaten that mission.
President Joe Biden has authorised an additional 1,000 US troops for deployment to Afghanistan, raising to roughly 5,000 the number of US troops to ensure what Biden called an “orderly and safe drawdown” of American and allied personnel.
US troops will also help in the evacuation of Afghans who worked with the military during the nearly two-decade war.
The last-minute decision to re-insert thousands of US troops into Afghanistan reflected the dire state of security as the Taliban seized control of multiple Afghan cities in a few short days.
The militant and fundamentalist movement gained control of key parts of the country it governed until being ousted by US and coalition forces after the September 11 attacks. Biden had set an August 31 deadline for fully withdraw combat forces before the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
Biden attributed much of the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan to former President Donald Trump's efforts to end the war, which Biden said created a blueprint that put US forces in a difficult spot with an emboldened Taliban challenging the Afghan government.
“When I came to office, I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor — which he invited the Taliban to discuss at Camp David on the eve of 9/11 of 2019 — that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001," Biden said in a statement on Saturday.
“I was the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
In his statement Biden didn’t explain the breakdown of the 5,000 troops he said had been deployed. But a defence official said in a media statement that the president had approved Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recommendation that the lead battalion of the 82nd Airborne Brigade Combat Team assist in the State Department’s drawdown.
Initially 1,000 troops were in place to aid with the withdrawal, and administration officials quickly judged that total to be insufficient.
Total of 5,000-troop force
An additional contingent of Marines arrived in Kabul as part of a 3,000-troop force intended to secure an airlift of US Embassy personnel and Afghan allies as Taliban militants approached the outskirts of the capital. The additional 1,000 troops approved on Saturday appeared to bring the total to 5,000.
Officials have stressed that the newly arriving troops’ mission was limited to assisting the airlift of embassy personnel and Afghan allies, and they expected 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.
As the situation in Afghanistan rapidly worsened, Biden, who was spending the weekend at Camp David, and Vice President Kamala Harris held a secure video conference on Saturday morning with national security officials before Biden announced the additional troops.
On Saturday, the Taliban captured Mazar-e-Sharif, a large heavily defended city in northern Afghanistan, and closed in on Kabul by taking the Logar province just to the south.
The Taliban have made major advances in recent days, including capturing Herat and Kandahar, the country’s second- and third-largest cities.
“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.
Biden had given the Pentagon until August 31 to complete the withdrawal of the 2,500 to 3,000 troops that were in Afghanistan when he announced in April that he would end US involvement in the war.
That number has dropped to just under 1,000, and all but about 650 were scheduled to be gone by the end of the month; the 650 were to remain to help protect the US diplomatic presence, including with aircraft and defensive weapons at the Kabul airport.
'Swift and strong' military response
But the decision in recent days to dispatch 4,000 fresh troops suggested that American forces and their allies were at risk. There was no discussion of rejoining the war, but the number of troops needed for security will depend on decisions about keeping the embassy open and the extent of a Taliban threat to the capital in coming days.
Having the August 31 deadline pass with thousands of US troops in the country could be problematic for Biden, who said he had no regrets about stopping the US war by that date. Republicans criticised the withdrawal as a mistake and ill-planned, though there was little political appetite by either party to send fresh troops to fight the Taliban.
The president said on Saturday his administration had conveyed to Taliban representatives in Qatar that any actions in Afghanistan that harm US personnel will be met by a “swift and strong” military response.
Support to Afghan President Ghani
Biden also directed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to support Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and engage with regional leaders in the pursuit of a political settlement with the Taliban.
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.
Despite the Taliban's gains, the Biden administration has said that Afghan security forces' air force and superior numbers could give them an edge against the militants. The statement served to highlight the lack of morale by Afghan forces to fight in a situation where the Taliban seemed to be speeding forward.
The State Department said the embassy in Kabul would remain partially staffed and functioning, but Thursday’s decision to evacuate a significant number of staff suggested concerns about protecting American and Afghan lives as the Taliban progressed through the country.
The Biden administration has not publicly ruled out a full embassy evacuation or possibly relocating embassy operations to the Kabul airport.