U.S. President Joe Biden on Saturday authorized another 1,000 troops -- in addition to the 3,000 ordered earlier last week -- to go to Afghanistan to assist in the evacuation of U.S. personnel and other allies from Kabul as Taliban insurgents drew closer to the Afghan capital.
Biden's announcement comes as the Taliban have swept through most of the country, taking 25 out of 34 Afghan provincial capitals over the past week.
The stunning insurgent offensive captured several of them Saturday, including the fourth-largest northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Jalalabad, the last remaining major city outside the capital, Kabul, was taken Sunday.
The advances have raised fears of an imminent attack on Kabul, where Western countries are scrambling to remove their citizens.
“We have conveyed to the Taliban representatives in Doha, (Qatar), that any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response,” a White House statement quoted Biden as saying.
A U.S. defense official explained that there will be 5,000 American troops in Kabul: on Thursday, Biden ordered 3,000 troops for the evacuation mission, 1,000 were already in Kabul and 1,000 more from the 82nd Airborne were added on Saturday.
The Pentagon said the first batch of the authorized force, from a Marine infantry battalion, arrived Friday and that the rest of the troops were expected to be in place by the end of Sunday.
U.S.-trained Afghan security forces have crumbled in the face of insurgent advances and surrendered without firing a shot or retreated in many of the cases.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has blamed the sudden U.S.-led foreign military withdrawal for the shocking battlefield losses his government has suffered.
On Saturday, Biden defended his decision to withdraw all American troops from the war-torn South Asian nation, arguing that Afghan government forces had to fight back against the Taliban.
The U.S. president noted that during the past 20 years, Washington has sent young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion, trained more than 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air forces.
“One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” Biden said in his statement. “And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
The U.S. troop withdrawal, which is scheduled to be complete by the end of this month, stemmed from Washington’s agreement with the Taliban signed in February 2020 under former President Donald Trump.
On Saturday, Biden again criticized the deal, saying it “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001.”
The U.S. president stressed that he had to make a choice to follow through on the deal or ramp up U.S. military presence and send more American troops to fight once again in the Afghan civil conflict.
“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.”
Taliban fighters have carried out a blitzkrieg-like offensive across Afghanistan, advancing on Kabul even as the first of the thousands of U.S. troops to be sent back to the country set foot on the ground.
Saturday’s fall of Mazar-e-Sharif to the Taliban came just hours after Ghani vowed in a video message to the nation that he intended to fight the “imposed war” and would make sure that the Afghan security forces were up to the task.
“In the current scenario, our top priority is to revitalize the Afghan Security and Defense Forces,” he said.
The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif gave the Taliban control of the entire north of the country. The two warlords, Atta Mohammad Noor and Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had vowed to resist the insurgent assault on the northern city reportedly fled to neighboring Uzbekistan along with hundreds of their fighters.
Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, witnessed intense clashes before Afghan army and pro-government militia forces surrendered to advancing Taliban, Abas Ebrahimzada, a lawmaker from Balkh province, told The Associated Press.
“Unfortunately, the depth of the conspiracy, as a result of which Balkh collapsed, is very deep. The conspiracy is now facing #Kabul and its leaders,” Noor tweeted. He did not explain further nor did he discuss has whereabouts.
The latest Taliban advances left only two major cities under government control, Kabul and Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar.
“You can see that they are trying to isolate Kabul," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday, cautioning that the city "is not right now in an imminent threat environment.” Still, he called the speed of the Taliban's advance "deeply concerning.”
The Taliban attempted Saturday to assure Afghans that insurgent fighters had been strictly directed to protect the life and property of all the citizens of the country.
“We also assure all the diplomats, embassies, consulates and charitable workers, whether they are international or national, that not only no problems will be created for them by (the Taliban), but security and a secure environment will be provided to them,” a Taliban statement released to media said.
The Taliban have ignored calls from U.S. and members of the international community to cease hostility and negotiate a settlement to the country’s long conflict with the Afghan government.
The insurgent group demands that Ghani step down in order for U.S.-brokered peace talks between warring Afghan parties to move forward. Ghani has rejected the demand, insisting he will transfer power to an elected successor and not under Taliban pressure.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Ghani twice last week to stress the need for finding a political settlement to the Afghan war. The latest conversation between the two took place Saturday.
“They discussed the urgency of ongoing diplomatic and political efforts to reduce the violence. The Secretary emphasized the United States’ commitment to a strong diplomatic and security relationship with the government of Afghanistan and our continuing support for the people of Afghanistan,” said a post-conversation U.S. State Department statement.