The White House has signed off on a Defense Department plan for US troops stationed in Poland to help American citizens flee Ukraine if Russia invades — as the Biden administration tries to avoid a repeat of the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, according to a new report Wednesday.
Some of the approximately 1,700 paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne who arrived in Poland last week will soon set up tent camps, checkpoints and other facilities to house Americans inside Polish territory, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The US troops will not enter Ukraine, but will provide logistics support and help coordinate the departure of Americans from Kiev and other cities — most likely by land without military support, the report said.
There are currently about 30,000 Americans inside Ukraine.
The State Department urged US citizens in Ukraine to begin leaving the country last month, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters: “We are conveying very clearly now that now is the time to leave and that there are means to do that.”
The US and its allies estimate that Russian President Vladimir Putin has stationed up to 140,000 troops along the Ukraine border for months and has been bolstering the force almost daily, prompting warnings from White House officials that an invasion could come at “any time.”
As the Biden administration prepares for a potential evacuation from Ukraine, the chaotic and disorderly airlift of thousands of US citizens and Afghan allies in August is a reminder of how things could go badly wrong.
“Everyone who lived the evacuation from Afghanistan felt it was remarkable but also chaotic,” a defense official told the Wall Street Journal. “That was a messy, messy withdrawal. We don’t want a chaotic withdrawal from Ukraine.”
The Biden administration struggled to respond to the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the country, which resulted in the militants marching into the capital, Kabul, and taking control of the Afghan government two weeks before the last US forces were due to leave the country.
The US military had to bolster its existing forces within Afghanistan to provide security during the evacuation because the capital was under Taliban command.
In Ukraine, US officials don’t expect the Ukrainian government to topple, predicting Russia is likely to seize parts of Ukraine as it did in Crimea in 2014.
“I think it is really important to separate the two [situations]. We are not in a 20-year war with US troops in Ukraine. That’s a very different circumstance,” Psaki said at the White House on Tuesday. “We continue to view our relationship — both from the White House, from the diplomatic team and from the Defense Department — as one where we are closely coordinating.”
Two generals involved in the Afghanistan evacuation have been tasked with coordinating operations for Ukraine.
Army Maj. Gen. C.D. Donahue, who was in charge of the evacuation out of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, is heading up troops in Poland, as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, the newspaper reported.
Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who as the head of Air Mobility Command led the US evacuation planning for Kabul, is in charge of US Transportation Command, which coordinates transportation for military missions around the world, the report said.
An Army investigation into the withdrawal from Afghanistan found that military commanders urged the early evacuation of personnel from the US Embassy complex in Kabul but Biden administration officials pushed back, fearing that reducing staff might signal a lack of confidence in the Afghan government.
US officials now say evacuating Americans from Ukraine would indicate to Putin that Washington believes an invasion is imminent and that efforts to find a diplomatic resolution are pointless.
Others, though, believe Americans could be caught in Ukraine if Russia attacks.
Biden on Monday urged Americans to leave Ukraine because of the threat of invasion.
“I think it would be wise to leave the country,” the president said. “I don’t mean our — I don’t mean, I’m not talking about our diplomatic corps, I’m talking about Americans who are there.”
“I’d hate to see them get caught in a crossfire if, in fact, they did invade,” Biden continued. “And there’s no need for that.”