(CNSNews.com) – In what the Pentagon will not describe as a combat mission, roughly 3,000 Marines and soldiers will deploy to Kabul’s international airport in the next 24-48 hours with a “narrowly-focused” mission of safeguarding the withdrawal of all but a “core” of U.S. diplomatic personnel in the coming weeks.
Another 1,000-strong unit of soldiers and airmen will deploy to Qatar “in the coming days” to help process Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for Afghans who helped the U.S. and want to leave, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told a briefing.
And a U.S. Army 82nd Airborne combat team, 3,500-4,000-strong, will fly from Fort Bragg, N.C. to Kuwait “sometime within the next week,” to be on standby in case needed to help secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The 3,000 troops heading to Kabul comprise one Army and two Marine battalions, currently stationed in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility – Kirby would not be more specific. They will be in addition to the around 650 U.S. personnel still on the ground in the Afghan capital providing diplomatic security.
Forces in Kabul will fall under the command of Navy Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, who heads a recently stood-up entity known as “U.S. Forces Afghanistan Forward.”
Kirby stressed that the deployments were temporary, and did not amount to a reversal of the troop withdrawal ordered by President Biden with an end date of August 31.
At the same time, he declined to say how many troops could still be there after month’s end.
“I won’t speculate about what the footprint’s going to look like post-August 31, because there’s this additional mission set of helping process special immigrants, so we’re just going to have to wait and see,” he said. “But the drawdown itself is still on track to be complete by August 31.”
Once the “narrow” newly-announced mission is over, Kirby said he anticipated there would be fewer than 1,000 U.S. troops remaining on the ground, to support the diplomatic presence in Kabul.
In a matter of days the Taliban has captured at least 11 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, and is now claiming to have control of the third-largest city, Herat. A flurry of meetings in Doha, Qatar seeking a ceasefire have produced little more than a reiteration by the countries concerned that they will not recognize an entity that seizes power by force.
Britain also announced plans Thursday to deploy some 600 troops to Afghanistan “over the coming days,” and is also reducing staff at its embassy to “a core team focused on providing consular and visa services for those needing to rapidly leave the country.”
“I have authorized the deployment of additional military personnel to support the diplomatic presence in Kabul, assist British nationals to leave the country and support the relocation of former Afghan staff who risked their lives serving alongside us,” said Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
Kirby was asked several times whether the deployment constitutes a “combat mission.”
“This is a very narrowly-focused mission of safeguarding the orderly reduction of civilian personnel out of Afghanistan, and that’s what we’re going to be focused on,” he replied.
Asked again if it was a combat mission, Kirby said he had already described it.
“We’re mindful that the security situation continues to deteriorate in Afghanistan, and as I’ve said before, our troops will as always have the right of self-defense. But this is a narrowly-focused mission to help safeguard an orderly reduction of civilian personnel.”
Kirby said the troops deployed to the airport will have self-defense capabilities, including mortars, machine guns, and personally-held weapons, “and any attack upon our forces will be met with a swift and appropriate response.”
'Nobody’s abandoning Afghanistan'
Both Kirby and his State Department colleague Ned Price rejected the notion that developments in the coming days would present a picture of the U.S. abandoning Afghanistan.
Asked about comparisons to the fall of Saigon, Kirby said the U.S. was not walking away from it commitment to the Afghan forces, and would still have diplomats based in Kabul.
“Nobody’s abandoning Afghanistan. This is not walking away from it,” he said. “It’s doing the right thing at the right time to protect our people.”
In response to a question about what signal the U.S. actions would send, Price said, “This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal.”
“What this is is a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint. This is a drawdown of civilian Americans who will in many cases be able to perform their important functions elsewhere, whether that’s in the United States or elsewhere in the region.”
Price said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin had spoken by phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani “to coordinate our planning.”