Following the withdrawal of soldiers, the US Embassy in Kabul’s security will be a primary issue.
As America’s ‘long war’ draws to a close, the US Embassy and other diplomatic missions in Kabul are monitoring the deteriorating security situation and determining how to respond.
In the countryside, districts are rapidly falling to the Taliban. America’s warlord allies are re-arming their militias, which have a history of violence, creating the possibility of another civil war once the US exit is completed in August.
According to a US Embassy official, security evaluations are conducted on a regular basis these days. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to comply with briefing guidelines, she said the embassy is currently down to 1,400 US citizens and roughly 4,000 staff members operating inside the town-sized compound.
That is, a well-defended town. Apart from its own tough security, the embassy is located within Kabul’s Green Zone, an area where entire districts have been isolated and streets have been closed to outside traffic. Afghan security troops patrol the district’s perimeter, which also contains the Presidential Palace, additional embassies, and key government officials.
The only way out is through Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is now guarded by US and Turkish forces. Before America can declare victory in the war, the airport’s security must be resolved. Ankara is in talks with Washington, the United Nations, and the Afghan government to determine who will protect and pay for the airport.
For the time being, the airport continues to operate normally, with the exception of constraints imposed by a fatal third COVID surge, which has forced some countries to stop flights to Kabul. India, on the other hand, is not one of them – up to eight aircraft arrive weekly from India – and as a result, the virus’ delta version, originally found in India, is rife in Afghanistan.
In Kabul, speculation about when and if the US Embassy will evacuate and close is prevalent, with images of America’s final days in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War resurfaced.
Long before the final US and NATO troops began packing their belongings to go, American diplomats arriving at the airport were whisked away by helicopter to the heavily protected US Embassy. The four-mile journey through Kabul’s hectic traffic was deemed unsafe.
Suicide bombers hit with alarming regularity along that road.
Many of Washington’s new diplomats in Afghanistan have a limited view of the country and Kabul from within the confines of the sprawling embassy compound, which is hidden deep inside the Green Zone and protected by 10-foot blast walls, heavily armed US Marines, explosive-sniffing dogs, and cameras at every corner.
An American employee of NATO’s military operation in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, who arrived in the country in November, had not left the mission’s massive gates by June.
Citing security reasons, the US official said she could not discuss evacuation preparations or even whether they were discussed during today’s call, but said that the embassy has extensive plans in place to safeguard its staff in any circumstance.
If an evacuation occurs, it will not be the first.
The US Embassy in Kabul ceased operations in 1989, when the former Soviet Union withdrew from the nation following a ten-year conquest of Afghanistan. Three years later, the pro-communist government collapsed, followed by a bloody civil war fought by the majority of the same US-allied warlords that continue to operate in Kabul today – another reason why fear of a new civil war resonates.
According to Taliban pronouncements, they are not seeking a military takeover of Kabul. Washington has frequently warned that an attack on the Afghan capital would relegate the rebel movement to pariah status, thus depriving it of international recognition and help.
Nonetheless, not long after President Joe Biden announced in mid-April that American troops would withdraw by Sept. 11, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern that Afghan forces might not be able to protect all of Kabul’s diplomatic missions, according to an official familiar with the discussions. There was even talk of smaller embassies relocating to the US compound for protection.
The United States Embassy immediately implemented a ‘ordered lockdown,’ significantly restricting personnel movement and new arrivals.
On April 27, Ross Wilson, the US Embassy’s charge d’affaires, tweeted that non-essential US staff would depart. The representative did not disclose how many individuals were laid off as a result of that directive, only stating that staffing levels are continually being evaluated.
Wilson cited ‘growing violence and threat reports in Kabul’ as the reason for his departure. He also put a message on the US Embassy’s website advising all American citizens to flee Afghanistan immediately on any commercial airline possible. And to Americans contemplating a journey to Afghanistan, the message was quite clear: do not.
The Australian Embassy ceased operations, and the majority of Western embassies cut their staffing levels.
The majority of expatriates and foreign personnel employed by international relief organizations in Kabul have also departed, said to Naemat Rohi, deputy director of Akbar, an umbrella organization comprising 167 humanitarian organizations, including 87 international charities.
‘They claimed to be going on R&R, but that was only to avoid creating panic among their local personnel; they were actually departing for security reasons,’ he explained.
The flight prompted the Taliban to publish a series of statements reassuring aid organizations and Afghans working for Western organizations that they faced no danger.
However, this has not comforted military interpreters. According to the spokeswoman, individuals may be evacuated from Afghanistan but transported to a third country while their U.S. immigration visas are finalized. Thousands of applications are currently being processed. Thousands more denied applications are being appealed.
The Taliban’s swift advances in northern Afghanistan, particularly their rapid surrender of Afghan forces in some instances, have heightened security anxieties in Kabul, where the presence of highly armed warlords evokes memories of the 1990s civil war.
Marshal Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord accused of war crimes, including against former allies, controls a military base perched atop a hill overlooking Kabul’s upscale Wazir Akbar Khan area. His militia is at odds with Ghani’s government and other prominent warlords, including newly appointed Defense Minister Bismillah Khan.
Guards armed to the teeth monitor the streets of Wazir Akbar Khan, which are dotted with marble homes of government leaders, many of whom are former warlords. Though they are unified against the Taliban today, they have a bloody history of fighting one another.
According to others, a Taliban bid for Kabul seemed inevitable.
‘After seizing districts and provinces, the Taliban will attempt to reach Kabul,’ said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan government adviser. ‘They will battle not just the regular army, but also warlords who have amassed enormous money through war-related contracts.’