The United States will send additional troops to Afghanistan to help draw down the American embassy in Kabul and remove personnel, President Joe Biden has announced, as the Taliban seized control of the country’s north in another major setback for the Afghan government.
In a statement on Saturday, Biden said he authorised “the deployment of approximately 5,000 US troops to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel” based on recommendations from US diplomatic, military and intelligence teams.
He added that the deployment would also be used to evacuate some Afghans going through a special visa programme.
The bolstered deployment – up from 3,000 US soldiers announced earlier this week – comes amid an ongoing advance by the Taliban, which on Saturday seized Mazar-i-Sharif, the country’s fourth-largest city.
The fall of the key northern city that Afghan forces and two powerful former strongmen had pledged to defend deals a massive blow to Afghanistan’s Western-backed government, which is now confined to the centre and east of the country.
As the Taliban pushes towards the capital, Kabul, after weeks of battlefield victories, the Biden administration has faced criticism for sticking to its plan to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of August.
But Biden again defended his decision to pull US troops out of the country, saying: “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.”
Biden also said his administration had told Taliban officials in Qatar that any action that put US personnel at risk “will be met with a swift and strong US military response”.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said Biden’s troop deployment announcement indicates “that the Biden administration did not count on this happening, the massive Taliban advance”.
The Pentagon estimates it will need to evacuate about 30,000 people before it completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31.
“Now the question being raised is, why is this being done so late, as the Taliban forces are within some 20 miles of Kabul itself,” Hanna reported. “Clearly most observers believe the Biden administration had not put structures in place, had not thought this through, that there was going to be this massive Taliban resurgence.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday about the latest developments in the country, including “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,” the State Department said in a statement.
Earlier on Saturday, President Ghani said remobilising the country’s national security forces was a “top priority” and that he would help the thousands of people displaced by the fighting.
“We have held extensive consultations with everyone within the government and international partners … Consultations are ongoing and the results will be shared soon,” he said in a pre-recorded statement.