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U.S. Troops Sent To Help Evacuate Americans As Taliban Makes Gains In Afghanistan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Pentagon announced this afternoon that it's sending 3,000 U.S. troops back into Afghanistan to secure the evacuation of U.S. diplomats and other civilians in the coming days. This unexpected announcement comes as the Taliban is rapidly advancing on the battlefield, taking more territory by the day.

Joining us now is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, I want to start with the U.S. withdrawal having been almost complete. So is this a major turnaround?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah, Audie, it really is. President Biden's withdrawal of virtually all the U.S. forces is supposed to be complete by the end of the month, and it's already well over 90% there - just really getting down to the final parts of it. But the Taliban are moving so fast, first in the countryside and now in some very important cities, that Kabul, the capital, is no longer considered secure. And so this prompted the announcement today at the Pentagon that 3,000 troops, three infantry battalions, are heading to Kabul in the next 24, 48 hours. Now, in addition - 3,000 troops, in addition, will be sent from the 82nd Airborne in the U.S. to Kuwait, and they'll be on standby if the conditions continue to get even worse.

CORNISH: And so what exactly is their mission in terms of heading to Kabul?

MYRE: So Pentagon spokesman John Kirby gave a briefing. Let's hear what he said here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: The president has ordered the reduction of civilian personnel at our embassy in Kabul and the acceleration of the evacuation of Afghan special immigrant visa applicants from the country.

MYRE: So he's talking about, obviously, U.S. diplomats, as well as other civilians in the very large U.S. Embassy in Kabul and as well as these thousands of Afghans who have worked with the U.S. over the past 20 years and are now applying for visas to come to the U.S., which they've been promised. Now, Kirby tried to portray this as a very limited mission. He called it an orderly reduction of civilians. He called it temporary with a narrow focus. So the aim is to complete this quietly, peacefully by the end of the month, which is also the goal, as I mentioned, for the broader U.S. pullout.

CORNISH: So with diplomats and civilians evacuating in addition to the troop pullout, what we're looking at - is this the U.S. intention to withdraw completely from Afghanistan?

MYRE: Not quite. So right now the State Department says it will keep a core diplomatic mission at the embassy in Kabul. The military is also planning to keep a force of about 650 troops to guard the embassy and the Kabul airport. But over the past week, conditions on the ground have just literally been changing by the day, sometimes by the hour.

CORNISH: And what more can you tell us about the Taliban, about these conditions on the ground?

MYRE: So the Taliban have taken a series of provincial capitals all in the past few days. And it's also interesting to note these are mostly in the north and the west of the country, not the traditional strongholds in the south or east. So they have a strong presence basically everywhere now, outside of Kabul. The government remains in control of Kabul, but the army has not been putting up much resistance. This creates an atmosphere that can be really hard to reverse. The U.S. and several other countries are trying to negotiate with the Taliban in Qatar, but right now the Taliban are showing no serious sign that they want to talk at this point.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.