The U.S. is sending thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan to assist with partially evacuating the embassy in Kabul, in response to the Taliban's rapid advance that places the nation's capital at risk.
The decision serves as a reversal from months of gradual withdrawal as the military had sought to remove the last handful of troops from Afghanistan by the end of August and bring the nearly 20-year-old war to a close.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a briefing with reporters Thursday that three infantry battalions -- two Marine and one Army, totaling about 3,000 troops -- already stationed in the Middle East will move to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in the next 24 to 48 hours, augmenting the 650 U.S. troops remaining in Kabul.
"This is a temporary mission with a narrow focus," Kirby said.
He declined to call the deployment a combat mission, but said the infantry battalions will bring weaponry including mortars, machine guns and troops' personally carried weapons.
The troops will head to Afghanistan to provide security for embassy personnel and other Americans leaving the country, and to help Afghans trying to get to America under the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program.
Kirby said he would not speculate as to what the U.S. military footprint will look like beyond the end of August, though he said the original drawdown mission is still on track to be completed by Aug. 31.
The Taliban issued a statement earlier Thursday saying it had assumed control of Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan and a strategic provincial capital not far from Kabul. The situation in the country is deteriorating rapidly following President Joe Biden's April announcement of plans to withdraw U.S. forces.
The Taliban also seized three more provincial capitals in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Farah provinces Wednesday, as well as a local army headquarters, The Associated Press reported.
CNN reported Thursday that intelligence assessments of the situation in Afghanistan are dire. While the estimated time frames differ, multiple assessments suggest that Kabul could be isolated and fall into Taliban hands in just a few months. An analysis cited by The New York Times estimated that the Taliban could control Kabul within a month, or mere days after U.S. forces were set to withdraw from the country.
In April, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said she did not expect the U.S. military withdrawal to result in a "fall of Saigon"-type evacuation. But the apparent danger now faced by the Kabul embassy potentially recalls those iconic and devastating scenes from the former capital of South Vietnam in April 1975, during which the U.S. chaotically evacuated personnel from its embassy, along with thousands of Vietnamese civilians.
"We're not walking away from our commitments to the Afghan forces," Kirby said when asked how the military would avoid parallels to the fall of Saigon. "We're not completely eliminating our diplomatic presence on the ground. ... Nobody is abandoning Afghanistan."
When Biden was asked about the country's deteriorating security situation last month, he stressed that "the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely."
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday fired his army's chief of staff, Gen. Wali Ahmadzai, in the wake of the Taliban's rapid advancements. The Afghan army's head of special operations, Gen. Haibatullah Alizai, was appointed to replace him. Afghanistan's special operations, along with its air force, have been practically the only parts of the nation's military demonstrating resistance against Taliban advances.
A joint U.S. Army-Air Force support element of roughly 1,000 personnel also will deploy to Qatar in the next few days to help speed up the processing of SIV applicants, though Kirby said it then could move elsewhere if needed, not ruling out a shift into Afghanistan. Qatar is one of the sites being considered for temporarily housing Afghans who served in interpreter and other jobs for the U.S. over the last two decades, and who now are trying to get to America because they face Taliban reprisal.
An infantry brigade combat team, which typically includes 3,500 to 4,000 troops, with the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, also will deploy to Kuwait in the next week, in case additional security is needed at the airport.
Kirby said there was not one specific event that led the administration to deploy these additional troops to the region. "We believe this is the prudent thing to do, given the rapidly deteriorating security situation," he said.
The United Kingdom on Thursday also announced a deployment of about 600 troops "in light of the increasing violence and rapidly deteriorating security environment in the country." Like the extra U.S. forces, the troops will focus on helping the British embassy in Kabul and British nationals to leave the country.
Earlier Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a warning for U.S. citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately, the second such announcement since Saturday. The message also offered information on loans for those who might not be able to afford the cost of commercial flights.
The agency warned that "given the security conditions and reduced staffing, the Embassy's ability to assist U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul" and directed Americans to a Q&A on its website titled "What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis."
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday that the embassy is not conducting a "full evacuation."
"We will continue to have a diplomatic presence on the ground," Price said during a briefing. "It's a very important distinction between planning and contingency planning."
The U.S. has continued to provide air support to Afghan forces as they try to hold back the Taliban's advances.
"We have the authority and the capabilities in the region to conduct airstrikes if needed," Kirby said, though he did not answer a question as to whether more drones or fighter jets would be sent. "That's not going to change as a result of these new missions."
The sudden collapse of Afghanistan's army mirrors what happened in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Carrying through on a campaign promise, President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops from the country, with the resulting power vacuum in the region giving the Islamic State an opening for a brutal offensive. ISIS took over large swaths of the country and imposed draconian rule on the local population while executing those it saw as allied with western powers or western cultural norms.
In 2014, Obama launched a massive air campaign in Iraq consisting of more than 150 airstrikes followed by multiple small deployments of troops back on the ground, virtually in the same spots U.S. forces had controlled just a few years before.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the United States is in talks with the Taliban to safeguard the embassy -- an effort to stave off the evacuation of the facility.
According to the Times, Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American envoy, is engaged in discussions and seeking assurances from the Taliban that it will not attack the embassy should it overrun the capital.
Kirby, however, said the Pentagon has not been in contact with the Taliban.
The Defense Department previously estimated that it had completed more than 95% of the withdrawal process and has officially transferred seven facilities to the Afghan government.
In a July 21 briefing at the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said the Taliban controlled roughly 212 of the nation's 419 district centers. He acknowledged that the "strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban" and said the militant group was trying to isolate major population centers such as Kabul.
Milley said that the U.S. government was looking at several different outcomes for the declining security situation, including a negotiated settlement, a complete Taliban takeover, a national breakdown, or return to "warlordism."
"I don't think the end game is yet written," he said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.