The decision, announced by State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Thursday, comes amid a devastating Taliban onslaught this week, which saw the takeover of 11 out of 34 provincial capitals in the country by the militant group.
“We expect to draw down to a core diplomatic presence in Afghanistan in the coming weeks,” said Price in the press briefing. “In order to facilitate this reduction, the Department of Defense will temporarily deploy additional personnel to Hamid Karzai International Airport.”
A top American envoy is also said to be engaged in an effort to persuade the Taliban to leave the embassy alone so that it can continue working, The New York Times reports. According to two sources cited by the Times, Zalmay Khalilzad has argued to Taliban leaders that any future assistance with a new Afghan government would hinge on the U.S. embassy being able to remain open.
An official who spoke to The Washington Post said “thousands” of American troops will be involved in the civilian drawback of an unspecified number of diplomatic employees. There are roughly 4,000 staffers at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, of which about 1,400 are American citizens.
Price emphasized that consular work will continue despite the evacuation, adding that the embassy will remain open despite this development. “This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not a wholesale withdrawal,” he said. “We’ve been evaluating the security situation every day to determine how best to keep those serving at the embassy safe.”
A complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan is slated for Aug. 31. The withdrawal of American troops from the country coincides with violent escalations between Afghan forces and Taliban militants, who, on Thursday, were also on the verge of capturing two major cities, Kandahar and Herat. Afghanistan’s capital city is also under serious threat, with Reuters reporting that Kabul could be captured within 90 days.
Meanwhile, U.S.-brokered peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban have been deadlocked for months.
“Taliban leaders continue to say one thing–namely, that they support a negotiated solution to the conflict–but as I’ve said in recent days, as others have said, those words ring hollow when they continue these types of actions,” Price said in another press briefing earlier this month. “They must stop targeted killings and they must prevent Taliban fighters from engaging in the types of horrific acts, including these attacks, that result in the loss of innocent Afghan lives and the displacement of the civilian population.”
The decision to strip the embassy down to a “core” group of staffers comes after multiple security alerts were sent to Americans in Afghanistan this month urging them to leave the country, and quickly.
“The U.S. Embassy urges U.S. citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately using available commercial flight options,” an August 7 security alert from the State Department read. “Given the security conditions and reduced staffing, the Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited even within Kabul.”