- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Pentagon is scrambling to evacuate thousands of Afghans who are in danger of becoming targets in a looming Taliban offensive, adding more pressure to the U.S. military as it exits Afghanistan after two decades of war.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and other top officials say that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to ensure that those Afghan allies — many of whom worked as interpreters and in other key roles alongside American military personnel — aren’t killed by the Taliban once all American and NATO troops leave. The U.S. withdrawal is set to be completed no later than Sept. 11 but could be done as soon as July.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday that America’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, being held in parallel with the pullout of thousands of foreign troops from allied nations, is “slightly” ahead of schedule, but he provided no details. There were between 2,500 and 3,2500 U.S. troops in the country when Mr. Biden took office.

Pentagon leaders said Thursday that by the end of the summer, the U.S. will enter a new phase in  Afghanistan, one that will no longer include the number of troops needed on the ground to protect innocent Afghans from the Taliban.

“We will now transition to a new bilateral relationship with our Afghan partners … one that continues to help them meet their responsibilities to their citizens, but one that will not require a U.S. footprint larger than what is necessary to protect our diplomats,” Mr. Austin told the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense Thursday.

The tight time frame means the Biden administration must act quickly. 

There’s even greater urgency around the effort amid signs that the Taliban is capturing territory faster than expected in the rural countryside and could mount major attacks against the capital of Kabul and other key cities within a matter of weeks. 

“There are plans being developed very, very rapidly,” Gen. Milley told the media outlet Defense One, which was traveling with the general on Wednesday. “We recognize that a very important task is to ensure that we remain faithful to them, and that we do what’s necessary to ensure their protection, and if necessary, get them out of the country, if that’s what they want to do.”

It’s unclear exactly how many Afghans might be evacuated, but the number is believed to be in the thousands. It’s all but certain that the Taliban would seek revenge on Afghans who aided the American military at any point over the last 20 years.

Lawmakers and regional analysts have suggested that the U.S. take an interim step of moving the Afghan allies to Bahrain, Kuwait and other friendly nations in the Middle East. Such a step may be necessary because while many of the Afghans may qualify for visas that would allow them to come to America, the visa process is so backlogged that there is no chance they can all be brought to the U.S. ahead of the military withdrawal.

Meanwhile, international leaders expressed cautious optimism that the Afghan security forces — which have benefited from years of Western military training and billions of dollars in aid — will be able to withstand the Taliban offensive. 

Afghanistan has come a long way, both when it comes to building strong, capable security forces, but also when it comes to social and economic progress. At some stage, it has to be the Afghans that take full responsibility for peace and stability in their own country,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the Associated Press in an interview Thursday.

U.S. military officials, however, have said that the Afghan military will be in for a difficult fight against a Taliban energized by the belief that it successfully pushed American forces out of its country. 

The U.S. government is committed to pay $4 billion annually until 2024 to finance Afghanistan’s security budget.

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