WASHINGTON—The U.S. is temporarily deploying thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan to evacuate personnel from the embassy in Kabul, cutting the size of the diplomatic presence as the Taliban advance toward the Afghan capital, officials said Thursday.
The evacuation will be undertaken by as many as 8,000 fresh troops in the region, who will augment the 1,000 already on the ground in Afghanistan. It comes in response to the rapidly deteriorating security situation, and the recognition that the Taliban’s sweep of a number of provincial capitals is at present irreversible and threatens the seat of the internationally recognized Afghan government.
The decision to reduce the size of the embassy to an essential core and send U.S. troops to the region to do it amounts to a remarkable turnaround for the Biden administration, which has publicly expressed confidence in Afghan security forces even as those forces melted away and the Taliban took over districts and provincial capitals. Only a week ago, the administration anticipated that it would maintain an enduring diplomatic presence to assist the Afghan government to counter the Taliban.
On Thursday, the Taliban conquered western Afghanistan’s main city of Herat and edged close to capturing the southern city of Kandahar, as Afghan police arrested the governor of the strategic Ghazni province for surrendering its capital city to the insurgents earlier in the day.
The accelerating Taliban victories have demoralized Afghan government forces and sown fears in Kabul that it is only a matter of days or weeks before the insurgents mount a large-scale attack on the nation’s capital, home to six million people. The militants have taken over the capitals of at least nine of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and taken control of more than half of the roughly 400 districts, which are similar to U.S. counties, across the country.
A new U.S. intelligence assessment concludes that Kabul could fall to the Taliban as soon as the next one to three months, according to U.S. officials. That is a stark revision of the classified intelligence assessment in June, which concluded that the government could fall within six months of the departure of American forces, or about March 2022.
State Department spokesman
on Thursday said that peace talks in Doha, Qatar, among the U.S., the Taliban, Russia, China, and Pakistan had failed to achieve U.S. goals, but he said hopes of a negotiated political solution weren’t dead.
“Diplomacy has not achieved what we want to see achieved,” he said, adding that the fact that talks continued in Doha was a positive sign. “We intend to move forward with that process.”
A U.S. official said embassy operations are likely ultimately to relocate to Hamid Karzai International Airport, a couple miles away from the embassy complex in Kabul, a move that would help facilitate an emergency evacuation.
About 5,000 civilians and military personnel are based at the U.S. Embassy and at the nearby airport. The reductions are expected to include American diplomatic personnel and contractors, some Afghans, and nationals of third countries who provide security and other logistical support to the massive complex.
“We are going to a smaller diplomatic presence, given the security situation,” Mr. Price said.
A Taliban spokesman last month wrote on Twitter that the group wouldn’t touch foreign embassies or diplomatic personnel. But a U.S. official said that could change if the U.S. continues airstrikes on Taliban positions, especially after the Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“The administration doesn’t want another Benghazi,” the official said, referring to the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya that killed four Americans.
The U.S. mission on Thursday advised U.S. nationals to leave the country as soon as possible on commercial flights, offering loans to Americans unable to purchase airline tickets.
More than 3,000 U.S. infantry troops, including one Army and two Marine Corps units, will arrive in Afghanistan beginning this week to carry out the evacuation of diplomatic personnel, Pentagon press secretary
In addition, 1,000 more troops will be deployed to Qatar as a reserve, and a brigade combat team of about 4,000 troops will deploy from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Kuwait as a precaution, Mr. Kirby said. That is all in addition to the roughly 1,000 troops already on the ground that the military had previously said would support the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Mr. Kirby declined to say how many of the newly deployed troops would remain in Afghanistan following Mr. Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for the end of the conflict. The U.S. aims to complete the diplomatic withdrawal by Aug. 31, Mr. Kirby said.
The U.S. military troops and hardware will also accelerate the evacuation of Afghans who worked alongside U.S. military and diplomatic personnel over the past 20 years.
Mr. Kirby said there was no “one, precipitating event” that prompted the Pentagon and the State Department to act. Top military officials, however, had been urging the State Department to move faster to plan the evacuation.
“We believe this is the right thing to do and this is the right time to do it,” Mr. Kirby said.
U.S. Secretary of State
and Secretary of Defense
informed Afghan President
of the diplomatic draw-down Thursday, telling him the U.S. remained “invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan in the face of violence by the Taliban,” Mr. Price said in a statement.
The U.S. had the largest diplomatic presence of at least 12 nations still operating in the capital, and U.S. allies have also begun evacuating staff. European missions are weighing moves to locations where U.S. troops are already based, at the military headquarters or Kabul airport.
The U.K. announced Thursday that it was deploying 600 troops to Afghanistan to assist with an evacuation of British personnel and former Afghan staff. It said it was relocating the embassy to a more secure location. On Monday, India sent a plane to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif and evacuated its consulate there. More than a dozen nations have contacted the U.S. military for assistance in removing their personnel from Kabul should the security situation dictate it, officials said.
Turkey, which keeps Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport operating to an international standard, has yet to agree on the terms under which it will stay. The Taliban have warned the Turks not to keep troops in the country, complicating negotiations over the airport.
In the weeks immediately following the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces, which was largely completed last month, State Department officials had been loath to cut the size of the diplomatic corps in Kabul. Still, charter flights have begun evacuating nonessential personnel.
By this week, the United States Agency for International Development mission, which has had a robust presence in Afghanistan for years, with hundreds of employees, had already dropped to about two dozen non-Afghan employees there, according to officials.
About two weeks ago, the USAID mission director told partners in the country the agency was drawing down to skeleton staff. In total, it expects just 22 expats to remain, including U.S. and third-country nationals. Many U.S. government contractors have also pulled out, concerned about the fate of the civilian airport, further limiting American capacity to continue to deliver aid.
—Vivian Salama contributed to this article.
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