The Biden administration is working feverishly to ensure the U.S. Embassy‘s long-term security in Kabul as combat troops leave Afghanistan this summer, with analysts warning that failure to keep open a diplomatic outpost after two decades of war would be a foreign policy disaster of historic proportions.
With just three months until President Biden‘s Sept. 11 deadline for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan, top Pentagon and State Department officials are hashing out final plans to protect the U.S. Embassy from Taliban militants, who are quickly capturing more territory and moving toward the capital. Beyond the threat of violence, the U.S. faces the prospect that Afghan leaders will strike down a power-sharing deal with the Taliban and a new government will demand that American diplomats pack their bags and leave.
Gen. Kenneth F. “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said this week that the U.S. Embassy will remain open as long as “we’re invited to be there.” He said he is in direct consultation with the State Department to determine how much diplomatic security, in the form of U.S. Marines, will be needed in Kabul.
A State Department spokesperson said security at the embassy will be sufficient to “meet any particular threat.”
But major questions remain. Regional analysts say a 20-year commitment to Afghanistan will have accomplished little if a new government pushes out Americans or if security conditions force the State Department to shutter the embassy.
“My personal view would be that if we come to a conclusion we can’t maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul, that’s a disaster for the U.S.,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “After 20 years of pretty extensive investment in trying to rebuild and to assist Afghanistan to develop as a modern country, if after all of that investment and all that effort and the loss of so many American lives in the struggle, we can’t even sustain a diplomatic presence in Kabul? Then that’s a complete disaster.”
Mr. Feierstein served as ambassador to Yemen from 2010 to 2013. By 2015, the U.S. was forced to close its embassy in Sanaa because of a growing civil war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, backed by Saudi forces.
Three years earlier, militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four American diplomats, including visiting Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed. The disaster led to immediate changes in how Washington protects its personnel abroad.
“We went from having seven or eight Marines to having well over 100 Marines who were posted [at the embassy in Yemen] to provide security for the embassy as well as the residential area where our staff was living,” Mr. Feierstein said in an interview. “It was a fairly significant change to what had been the U.S. approach for centuries.”
The embassy in Sanaa and the consulate in Benghazi were hardly the first U.S. diplomatic facilities to come under threat. American diplomatic personnel were evacuated from the rooftop of a U.S. government building in Saigon in 1975 at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Four years later, Iranian activists stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of hostages in an event that marked the beginning of the country’s Islamic Revolution.
More recently, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has come under rocket attack despite a significant security presence on site.
The Associated Press this week cited anonymous administration officials as saying the Pentagon is eyeing a force of several hundred troops, up to “a bit less than 1,000,” for security missions in Afghanistan.
Those missions include protection of the embassy and counterterrorism. It’s unclear exactly how many U.S. troops will be stationed at the embassy.
Specific information about diplomatic security has become much more restricted since the Benghazi attack, though the State Department says the embassy in Kabul will be safe.
“Ensuring the safety and security of U.S. diplomats and personnel is our top priority, and the United States is committed to maintaining a robust diplomatic presence in Kabul through the U.S. Embassy,” a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times. “While we cannot comment on specific measures, the security at each and every diplomatic facility worldwide is constantly assessed based on a variety of factors, with resources allocated to ensure our personnel are well-positioned to meet any particular threat.”
As is the case at diplomatic facilities around the world, Marine security guards will work with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to guard the complex in Kabul.
‘At that point, you have to leave’
U.S. troops are just one part of the equation.
Pentagon officials stress that the Afghan government and its security forces bear much of the burden for guarding foreign diplomats in their country.
“The protection of any diplomatic mission in any country is first and foremost the responsibility of the host nation. So we won’t be there unless we’re invited to be there,” Gen. McKenzie told reporters on a conference call this week. “We do plan to have an embassy in Afghanistan, it will be at the invitation of the government of Afghanistan, and it will be first — and most important — their responsibility to protect that embassy, although we will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect our diplomats in any embassy anywhere in the world.”
Questions about the future of the U.S. Embassy have swirled since Mr. Biden announced the U.S. military withdrawal two months ago. During a speech on the chamber floor last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, rattled off a list of questions that critics say haven’t been answered as the withdrawal approaches its final stage.
“How many forces will be required to secure our embassy? If a pro-Taliban mob threatens to overrun it, what will we do to protect it? Where will a quick-reaction force be based, if not in Afghanistan? Will it be quick?” Mr. McConnell said. “The reality is, they don’t know.”
Administration officials reject the notion that there is no plan. Mr. Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a host of other administration officials have vowed that the U.S. will maintain a well-protected diplomatic complex in Kabul that will serve as a symbol of the American-Afghan partnership. The State Department and Defense Department are constantly developing “integrated crisis response options” to protect diplomats should the security situation rapidly deteriorate, a State Department spokesperson said.
Despite the administration‘s best efforts, there are serious questions about the reliability and willingness of Afghan troops to help protect the embassy. The Taliban have boasted in recent weeks about hundreds of Afghan forces abandoning their posts and joining the insurgent movement. Many of those accounts have not been independently verified, but the Taliban appear to be gaining momentum and growing their ranks as they capture territory across the country.
Even if the embassy in Kabul isn’t under immediate threat, Mr. Feierstein said, the State Department and the Pentagon must constantly assess whether Afghan troops are willing and able to defend it from attack.
In Yemen, “we made the decision we needed to close the embassy because, at that point, the Houthis had come into Sanaa … and it was our assessment that the authorities in control in Sanaa were neither capable nor did they have the political will to provide protection for the embassy,” he said.
“That will be the daily evaluation that the embassy is going to be making about their situation,” Mr. Feierstein said. “Even if you have 100 Marines, if the host government is not willing to provide security, then you don’t have a viable security situation. And at that point, you have to leave.”