US embassy staff in Kabul are destroying documents as Biden ‘braces for diplomatic drawdown by 31 August’

Any documents featuring ‘American flags...which could be misused in propaganda efforts’ will also be destroyed

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Saturday 14 August 2021 20:19
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Related video: US to send 3,000 troops to Afghanistan to aid embassy evacuations

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Staff at the US embassy in Kabul have begun to destroy documents and equipment, according to reports, as the Taliban advances on the Afghan capital.

The move underlines the deep concern being felt in the US and Afghanistan at the insurgents’ advance which has proven to be much faster and more expansive than initially feared.

President Joe Biden ordered the drawdown of the US military from Afghanistan on 14 April and so far, more than 1,500 troops have left the country.

The Taliban has between 55,000 and 85,000 fighters, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. The Afghan army, which stands 300,000 strong on paper, is really one-sixth of that, according to US officials this week. The Taliban has now taken control of 17 provincial capitals.

The Pentagon is making preparations for the full withdrawal of the American mission in Kabul, three people told Politico. US Central Command believes a full evacuation of the US embassy to be impossible to avoid, the report said.

Classified documents, electronic equipment, and laptops are to be pulverised using a large roller, according to directions in an internal memo.

Any documents that feature “American flags...which could be misused in propaganda efforts” will also be destroyed.

A spokesperson for the US State Department didn’t deny the Politico report but said that the embassy in Kabul was following standard procedure for a diplomatic posting anywhere in the world that has been told to downsize.

A State Department spokesperson told The Independent in a statement: “Drawdowns at our diplomatic posts around the world follow a standard operating procedure designed to minimize our footprint across various categories, including staffing, equipment, and supplies. Embassy Kabul is conducting their drawdown in accordance with this standard operating procedure.”

“Every day counts, and they’re using the time to process SIVs [Special Immigrant Visas] for Afghans and evacuate civilian personnel,” an administration official told Axios about the diplomats still at the US embassy.

Axios also reported that Mr Biden is “bracing” for the symbolic defeat of the Taliban taking over the US Embassy building, possibly before the month is out.

It now appears that the US will no longer have diplomatic presence in the country when the final troops leave on 31 August.

But one official added: “August 31st is a long way from now. We’re not going to be bullied out of there.”

The previous line of thinking was that Kabul could stand for a short time, meaning the US could maintain a diplomatic mission in the city and provide aid to Afghan women in securing their rights.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday that the Biden “administration should move quickly to hammer Taliban advances with airstrikes, provide critical support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) defending the capital, and prevent the seemingly imminent fall of the city”.

He said the “humanitarian cost to innocent Afghans will be catastrophic” if no action was taken.

Afghanistan veteran and former Defense Department and NATO official Mark Jacobson told Politico that “I think we underestimated the psychological shock of Biden's announcement,” on the Afghan army.

“I don’t think Afghans anticipated that Biden would essentially double down on the Trump strategy, which was to simply cut them loose,” he added.

Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby said on Thursday that “no potential outcome has to be inevitable, including the fall of Kabul. It doesn’t have to be that way. It really depends on the kind of political and military leadership that the Afghans can muster to turn this around”.

“We will do what we can from the air, but they have the advantage,” Mr Kirby added on Friday. “They have greater numbers. They have an air force. They have modern weaponry. It’s time now to use those advantages.”

Afghan forces are reeling from crushed morale, shrinking supply stacks, and the shock of losing the war with the Taliban much faster than most expected.

Doubts are growing among US officials that the Afghan army will be able to muster a sufficient defence to hold Kabul and produce a stalemate leading to a political settlement, according to The New York Times.

US officials said this week that 3,000 US troops would be deployed to Afghanistan to help with removal of any Americans, and that thousands of civilians could be moved every day. Plans to relocate Afghans who worked with the US are also being sped up.

At peace talks in 2019 between the Taliban and Afghan government, the insurgent group had demanded the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani.

However a spokesperson said Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Mr Ghani not to resign during a Thursday phone call.

The White House has put forward a calm face, but administration officials are cognizant of the possible political pitfalls that might befall the Biden administration and new channels devote more coverage to the sped withdrawal of troops and diplomatic staff.

Mr Kirby avoided questions comparing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in April 1975.

“We’re not focused on the history of the Vietnam War. We’re just not,” Mr Kirby said on Friday. “We’re focused on meeting the requirements we have today.”

In July, Mr Biden said that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable”.

Retired US Navy Captain Kenny Golden told WAVY that he saw similarities between the Afghanistan withdrawal and the end of the Vietnam War, adding that he’s troubled by Afghans who have worked with the US being left behind.

“It is an American tragedy and it’s unfortunate. And it is a tragedy for all those people over there that have tried to help us during the Afghan War,” he said.

“The most critical question is what happens after the country collapses? What is going to happen to our country? What is going to be the threat to our country?”

Mr Biden is at Camp David this weekend and is monitoring the situation, according to reports.

This article has been updated.

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