The U.S. sent a warning to the Taliban Saturday that putting U.S. personnel on the ground in Afghanistan at risk “will be met with a swift and strong US military response,” as staff rushed to evacuate the Kabul embassy in 72 hours.
President Biden detailed the threat in a newly issued statement defending his decision to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, even as the Taliban is overrunning city after city.
“One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Biden said. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
Biden, who is spending the weekend at the Camp David presidential retreat, authorized 5,000 troops to deploy to the region “to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of U.S. personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.”
The first of 3,000 Marines and soldiers headed to Kabul started arriving late Friday, with all three battalions expected to arrive by Sunday. An additional two battalions were on their way to Kuwait to serve as backup, but reports said at least one, from the 82nd Airborne, was redirected to go straight to Kabul.
The embassy will be evacuated within 72 hours, CBS News reported, citing multiple security and diplomatic sources. Embassy staff and Afghans awaiting visas were rushing to the Kabul airport, while security personnel stayed to dismantle electronic equipment and destroy hard drives being left behind.
The evacuation comes as a U.S. defense official told the network it could be just a matter of days before the Taliban takes control of the capital, a city with more than four million people. Reports Saturday put the insurgent fighters as close as seven miles from Kabul, while the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif fell swiftly as Afghan troops abandoned the front line.
Ambassador Tracey Jacobson, a career foreign service official, was tapped to lead the effort to process, transport, and relocate Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and other Afghan allies, Biden said.
“Our hearts go out to the brave Afghan men and women who are now at risk,” he said in the statement. “We are working to evacuate thousands of those who helped our cause and their families.”
Biden, facing criticism for the startling speed of the Taliban’s takeover of much of Afghanistan, insisted that the troop withdrawal was justified.
He noted in the statement that the U.S. went to Afghanistan 20 years ago after 9/11, and that Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed over a decade ago.
“And yet, 10 years later, when I became President, a small number of US troops still remained on the ground, in harm’s way, with a looming deadline to withdraw them or go back to open combat.”
He noted that over 20 years of war, the U.S. has spent nearly $1 trillion and trained amd equipped over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, and maintained their air force.
Biden also pointed to the deal President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban to withdraw by May 1, which he said “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001,” and that he drew down troops to just 2,500.
“Therefore, when I became president, I faced a choice — follow through on the deal, with a brief extension to get our forces and our allies’ forces out safely, or ramp up our presence and send more American troops to fight once again in another country’s civil conflict,” the statement said. “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.”