US troops have been redeployed in Afghanistan to help evacuate thousands of people, including embassy staff, and Afghans and their families who worked with the US, as a sweeping Taliban offensive draws ever nearer to Kabul.
Diplomats and nationals from a host of western countries are scrambling to leave Kabul as the Taliban have now camped just 50km (30 miles) away after a campaign that has seen provincial capitals swiftly fall.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said “elements” of a battalion were now in Kabul, the vanguard of three Marine and Army battalions that the US was sending to the city.
Kirby said that most of the troops would be in place by Sunday and “will be able to move thousands per day” out of Afghanistan. “Capacity is not going to be a problem,” he said.
Some of those troops would be a reserve force on standby “in case we need even more” than the 3,000 going to Kabul, the Pentagon spokesperson added.
The US is moving an additional 4,500 to 5,000 troops to bases in the Gulf countries of Qatar and Kuwait, including 1,000 to Qatar to speed up visa processing for Afghan translators and others who fear retribution from the Taliban for their past work with Americans, and their family members.
Helicopters have been flitting back and forth between Kabul’s airport and the sprawling US diplomatic compound in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The UK said about 600 troops would be deployed on a short-term basis to support British nationals leaving.
Earlier on Friday, many countries including Spain, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands announced the withdrawal of staff from their respective embassies.
Canada said the first plane-loads of asylum seekers have already landed in Toronto on Friday, as part of its promise to take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees, including women leaders and government workers.
The foreign minister of Canada, Marc Garneau, added “owes Afghans a debt of gratitude and we will continue our efforts to bring them to safety”. The immigration minister, Marco Mendicino, said: “The situation in Afghanistan is heartbreaking and Canada will not stand idly by.”
In Kabul, US embassy staff have been ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material, as units from a planned re-deployment of 3,000 American troops started arriving to secure the airport and oversee the evacuations.
US military intelligence suggests Kabul could come under pressure within 30 days. If trends continue, the Taliban are likely to gain full control of the country in months, it says. Refugees from the insurgents’ relentless offensives elsewhere have flooded the capital.
The scale and speed of the Taliban advance has shocked Afghans and the US-led alliance that poured billions into the country after toppling the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks nearly 20 years ago.
Despite the swift evacuation efforts, the Biden administration said a complete Taliban takeover was not inevitable.
“Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment,” Kirby said on Friday, while acknowledging that Taliban fighters were “trying to isolate” the city.
The Taliban offensive has accelerated in recent days, with the capture of Herat in the north and, just hours later, the seizure of Kandahar – the group’s spiritual heartland in the south.