U.S. Marines have begun arriving in Kabul to help secure the evacuation of embassy staff as the Taliban offensive sweeps through Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Friday.
In just the past day, mIlitants have captured two of the country’s largest cities, and they appear to be trying to isolate Kabul before launching an offensive there, said Defense Department spokesman John Kirby.
In response to the worsening security situation, two battalions of Marines and a battalion of Army soldiers started arriving in the capital city on Friday to assist the State Department, Kirby told reporters at a Pentagon press briefing in Washington.
The battalions are expected to be in place by the end of the weekend, and will be capable of supporting the evacuation of several thousand people a day, both U.S. citizens and Afghan nationals.
Meanwhile, the State Department has instructed employees in Kabul to begin destroying “sensitive material,” including items featuring embassy logos or the American flag.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that providing burn bins to staff for incinerating documents was “standard operating procedure” for a “drawdown.”
Taliban militants captured Kandahar, the second-most populous city in the country, as well as the third-largest city of Herat, NBC News reported Friday , citing a Taliban spokesman and local Afghan officials.
The insurgents have now seized at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, taking control of roughly two-thirds of the nation and encircling Kabul, where the U.S. Embassy is preparing to evacuate all but its core diplomatic personnel.
Kirby insisted the U.S. military had not been caught by surprise at the speed of the Taliban’s advancements, but that it remains “concerned” by the pace of military gains.
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He noted that the Afghan National Army battling Taliban forces on the frontlines is better trained and better equipped than the Taliban, thanks to decades of U.S. training and billions of dollars worth of American weapons.
President Joe Biden , who in April announced that all U.S. forces in the region would be withdrawn by Sept. 11 , on Thursday ordered 3,000 troops be temporarily deployed to the capital to help evacuate embassy personnel. The troops are expected to arrive within 24 to 48 hours.
Afghan government security forces have crumpled and many civilians have fled their homes amid the Taliban’s surprisingly swift advance toward the nation’s power center.
But the White House on Friday morning said Biden stands by his decision to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The President is firmly focused on how we can continue to execute an orderly drawdown and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
” You heard him earlier this week : he does not regret his decision,” Psaki said.
In addition to the deployment of three infantry battalions from the Marines and Army to Kabul, a U.S. infantry brigade will be positioned on standby in Kuwait. Another 1,000-member unit comprising Army and Air Force personnel will deploy to Qatar to help process special immigrant visas for Afghan nationals who assisted U.S. and NATO troops during the war.
Nevertheless, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the U.S. still expects to fully withdraw all troops by the end of August.
Britain said Thursday it will send about 600 troops to help its citizens leave Afghanistan, where about 4,000 U.K. nationals are believed to be stationed. Canada is also deploying special forces to the country to evacuate staff in the Canadian Embassy in Kabul.
— CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report.