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Update: US sends troops in to evacuate embassy personnel in Kabul

Not only would this be the "Saigon moment" Biden is trying to avoid, it would signal a full-scale diplomatic abandonment of Afghanistan.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

UPDATE 8/13: The U.S. government announced Thursday that 3,000 soldiers and Marines will be sent back into Afghanistan, and some 4,000 to the region to help assist in the evacuation of Kabul embassy personnel, unspecified American civilians, and the planned evacuation of Afghanistans who worked with Americans and who have applied for SIVs (special immigrant visas).

The move appeared to be in reaction to the rapid decline of the security situation in the country, with officials saying they plan to shrink the embassy staff to a "core" by the end of the month. Pentagon spokesman Ned Price was adamant in his press briefing yesterday that the embassy "remains open," though sources were telling reporters that depending on the violence the building could close by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, American negotiators, led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have urged Taliban leaders not to overrun the embassy, tying future aid to the security of the compound, and to the preservation of the government in Kabul, according to the New York Times.

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As the news from Afghanistan gets worse by the day, the Biden Administration is reportedly weighing the worst-case scenario — closing the U.S. embassy in Kabul. 

According to Politico reporters Quint Forgey and Alex Ward:

Three people knowledgeable of the situation said there are internal discussions underway about shuttering the U.S. embassy in Kabul (as one option among others), with one person saying the mission could be evacuated by the end of the month. Another said there has been a continuous and fluid conversation about how many American diplomats are needed in Kabul in light of the danger.

That “danger” is the increasing concern that the Afghan capital city could fall to the Taliban like other provincial centers have in recent days. According to the latest, nine capitals have fallen since the start of the month and three critical ones — Herat (capital of Hera),  Lashkar Gah (capital of Helmand), and Kandahar (capital of Kandahar) — are currently in play. 

Just this morning, it was reported that the Taliban now held the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and that the Afghan government’s acting finance minister had fled the country. Also today, major U.S. newspapers reported on an alleged U.S. intelligence assessment that Kabul could fall within 90 days. 

But an evacuation of the Kabul embassy would raise the very specter of the 1975 fall of Saigon that the Biden administration has been trying to avoid. More important, it would signal a full-scale abandonment of the country, far beyond troop withdrawal. We didn’t even do that in Iraq. As ineffectual as the diplomatic presence in Baghdad was after troops were first withdrawn in 2011, the embassy in the Green Zone remained. Our commitment to the central government there remained.

“Biden’s withdrawal decision recognized the inability of U.S. troops to end the war in Afghanistan," charged Quincy Institute fellow Adam Weinstein, who is also a veteran of the war, upon hearing the news. "Closing an embassy which has ample security is nothing more than a capitulation to hysteria and an ominous sign that Washington plans to disengage diplomatically from the region.”

While the State Department is clearly weighing contingencies, officials talking to reporters about possibly leaving by the end of the month is damaging to the morale of the people, and broadcasts to our partners in the region that we may already be one foot out of the door.

The core argument for ending this phase of our 20-year war and bringing the troops home was that there was no military solution to the problems in Afghanistan, and that our resources should be put into a regional diplomatic effort to help the Afghan government find a political solution with the Taliban. President Biden pledged to keep up aid to both civil society and the Afghan military so that Kabul would have the tools to defend and rebuild.

But to leave the embassy now — to even talk about it — undermines that pledge in the worst possible way, and convey to other countries that the United States may not be as invested in the long-term project.

"Shuttering the embassy in Kabul would send an unnecessary and, frankly, dangerous signal to other countries to end their diplomatic missions in Afghanistan just when they are needed most,” Weinstein added.

For its part, the State Department did not deny the reports that evacuation was being considered. ​​“Our posture has not changed,” a State Department official told Politico’s NatSec Daily. “As we do for every diplomatic post in a challenging security environment, we will evaluate threats daily and make decisions that are in the interests of individuals serving at our Embassy about how to keep them safe.” 

Weinstein reiterated that this would be the worst possible outcome and that the news from Afghanistan — as bad as it is — "simply does not justify closing the U.S. embassy.”

“We often hear about America in retreat; well, this is U.S. diplomacy in retreat."

US. Embassy in Kabul (US Department of State)
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