The Pentagon on Aug. 12 detailed a massive plan to protect American diplomats and Afghan special immigrant visa applicants in Kabul, ordering 3,000 Marines and Soldiers to Kabul within days, with an additional 1,000 Soldiers and Airmen deploying to Qatar to facilitate visa processing and an Army Brigade Combat Team of up to 4,000 Soldiers on standby in Kuwait should security in Afghanistan further deteriorate.
An airlift surge will take the troops to Kabul, and the Pentagon expects gray-tail mobility aircraft will be needed to ferry out U.S. diplomats and a large increase in translators and other Afghans seeking visas to leave the country.
Ten Afghan provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban in recent days, and American airpower aimed at protecting large cities such as Kandahar and Herat is not enough for Afghan forces to prevent their likely fall.
Defense Department spokesman John F. Kirby said three infantry battalions will go to Kabul, two from the Marine Corps and one from the Army, joining some 650 American troops already on the ground. Kirby did not identify the units that will deploy, just that they are already in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility and able to quickly head to Afghanistan.
The units will be based at the Hamid Karzai International Airport to provide additional security and help bring out diplomats from the embassy, which is located a couple miles from the airport. The airport already hosts a small U.S. rotorcraft aviation presence, typically for transporting American and coalition personnel between locations.
The new deployments will raise the number of U.S. military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan to at least 3,650, more than the number deployed at the time President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal in April. Kirby said the mission will be short and “narrow in focus.”
Separately, the joint Army/Air Force group of 1,000 will go to Qatar to help the processing of Afghan special immigrant visas for interpreters and others who worked with coalition forces and would likely be targets of the Taliban. This team includes personnel such as medical specialists, engineers, security forces, and others.
Lastly, an 82nd Airborne brigade from Fort Bragg, N.C., will deploy to Kuwait and remain on standby. Kirby did not outline the exact process for this deployment. USAF C-17s work directly with the 82nd to facilitate quick deployment when needed, such as the early-2020 deployment to Kuwait amid rising tensions with Iran.
The number of backlogged visa applicants has been previously reported as in the tens of thousands.
“This is a temporary mission with a narrow focus,” Kirby said. “We certainly anticipate being postured to support airlift as well, for not only the reduction of civilian personnel from the embassy, but also in the forward movement of special immigrant visa applicants.”
Kirby said authorities for use of self-defense airpower remain in effect until the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline for U.S. troops. The spokesperson did not indicate that the U.S. Air Force would be used to bolster Afghan forces as it has in recent days, and he would not speculate about force presence or mission after the imminent deadline. He did say he does not expect the airport in Kabul to host U.S. close air support assets and that the over-the-horizon operations would continue.
Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani earlier in the day to discuss the decisions. Austin also consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Transportation Command in preparation for providing additional airlift to aid with the evacuation of civilian personnel.
Questioned about the manpower deploying for the unnamed mission, Kirby said the movement of military personnel was deemed “the prudent thing to do given the rapidly deteriorating security situation in and around Kabul.”
It is unclear how many American diplomats will be evacuated from the country and how many will remain at work from the Kabul airport.
“There is still a diplomatic presence in Kabul, and the intention is to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul,” Kirby said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price, during an Aug. 12 press conference, said the security situation has deteriorated to the point where Biden approved the downsizing of the embassy to protect Americans. The U.S. is “gravely concerned by the developments” across Afghanistan, and “given the situation on the ground,” the drawdown is a “prudent step.”
“This is not a full evacuation,” Price said, but he did not specify how many American diplomats would remain in Kabul.
Future Support for Afghan Government Unclear
The Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., referred Air Force Magazine to the Pentagon regarding the question of air support after the Aug. 31 deadline.
“We don’t have [a] good picture,” an Afghan government official in Washington, D.C., told Air Force Magazine on Aug. 12, when asked the nature of the Taliban advance and the role of American air support.
Thus far, the Taliban has ignored international commitments to negotiate a peace settlement with the government of Afghanistan, choosing instead to make battlefield advances and commit human rights atrocities against soldiers and civilians, according to the United Nations.
In recent weeks, Afghanistan has received Blackhawk helicopters to provide close air support for its soldiers on the ground, part of a promise to give the Afghan air force 37 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and three additional A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, and also to help refurbish its fleet of Mi-17 Soviet-era helicopters.
The U.S. Air Force has also bolstered the Afghan military fight against the Taliban with airstrikes, including from B-52s launched from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Kirby said earlier in the week that no airstrikes have originated from Kabul, the last remaining American military presence in the country.
Kirby said Aug. 12 it is evident that the Taliban is not interested in peace negotiations.
“The Taliban continues to act as if they believe the only path to governance is through violence and brutality and oppression and force, contrary to what they have said previously at the negotiating table,” he said. “We would provide support to the Afghan national security defense forces where and when feasible, with the expectation and the knowledge that is not always going to be feasible.”