(WASHINGTON) – Hundreds of Afghan soldiers have crossed the country’s northern border to safety, as the Taliban continues a swift offensive to seize districts as part of the US military withdrawal.
The rapidly deteriorating security situation has alarmed US officials in Washington, DC and Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, where the government of President Ashraf Ghani is trying to establish calm and regroup its forces.
But the Taliban, the militant group that has been at war with the US and Afghan governments since the 2001 US invasion, are gaining more and more territory by the day, ignoring calls for a ceasefire or resumption of negotiations.
President Joe Biden has also shown no hesitation over his decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops, except for the 650 soldiers who will remain to protect the American embassy and, at least initially, the Kabul International Airport.
That withdrawal is now 90% complete, according to the Pentagon. But although most of the troops have left, the Defense Ministry said the pullout would not be complete until the end of August.
Amid the Taliban offensive, there are growing concerns about the security of the US Embassy in Kabul, which said it had “well-developed security plans to safely protect our staff and facilities,” but had “no intention of closing”.
There is also deep concern for Afghan interpreters, guides and other entrepreneurs who have worked for the United States and now say their lives are threatened by the Taliban. The Biden administration has said it will move a group of them out of Afghanistan, but it’s unclear how many, when and where.
A US official confirmed to ABC News on Friday that the group could move to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – three of Afghanistan’s northern neighbors in Central Asia – but stressed that planning was still early and no decision had not yet been taken.
There are approximately 18,000 Afghans seeking a Special Immigrant Visa, which gives those who have worked for the US military or diplomatic mission in Afghanistan and Iraq the opportunity to relocate themselves and their families to the States. -United. The long backlog has put the lives of these Afghans at risk, according to US lawmakers and lawyers, who have called for an evacuation to a safe place while their claims are processed.
A senior US administration official declined to provide details on the numbers or schedule, but told ABC News on Thursday they had “identified a group of SIV candidates … to be moved to another location outside from Afghanistan before completing our military withdrawal by September “.
Before these plans materialized, however, more than 1,300 Afghan border police and soldiers crossed the border into Tajikistan to evade the Taliban in recent days, according to local Afghan security sources. The Taliban have taken dozens of districts since announcing Biden’s withdrawal in April, and their offensive in the northern provinces has resulted in the surrender or death of hundreds of Afghan forces.
In the past six days, the Taliban have taken control of nearly 10% of Afghan districts, with almost half of them now controlled by the Taliban and another third being contested between militants and the government, according to the Long War Journal.
Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib told a press conference on Tuesday that the Afghan forces that had fled “were returning and would once again be in the service of the people and in defense of Faizabad,” the capital of the country. Badakhshan province.
While some of these returns may begin, the stampede of refugees across the border has alarmed several governments in the region, who fear a refugee crisis and regional upheaval as the United States leaves and the Taliban take over. territory and eventually target Kabul.
Tajikistan has mobilized 20,000 military reservists to strengthen security on its southern border with Afghanistan, according to official media, while its president Emomali Rakhmon called Ghani and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the “alarming” situation. Russia has pledged aid, according to the Kremlin, including from its huge, well-armed military base in Tajikistan.
Much of the Afghan-Tajik border is now controlled by the Taliban, who collect income from cross-border trade at their own mobile customs checkpoints on major highways, according to local Afghan security sources.
But despite the Taliban’s major gains on the battlefield, the Biden administration still refuses to deal with the deteriorating security situation.
Asked about a Taliban takeover, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday: “It’s a big ‘if’, it’s a guess and I don’t think it’s useful for anyone right now making assumptions about what might happen in months and years. “
At the State Department, spokesman Ned Price told reporters, “I’m not going to offer an assessment or feedback on our reaction from here.”
Price also declined to talk about contingency plans in place at the U.S. Embassy, ââincluding shutting down the huge complex and evacuating its 1,400 U.S. employees. Two former U.S. officials told ABC News the embassy will re-examine its emergency evacuation plans with a daily review based on ever-changing intelligence assessments, especially as more U.S. forces are leaving the area. ‘Afghanistan and that the embassy with a smaller reactionary force to come and help them.
âThe State Department, the Defense Department – these are planning organizations. We always anticipate any eventuality, âPrice said, declining to provide further details.
Despite the growing control of the Taliban, Price added that it seemed that the militant group “understands that it is only through diplomacy that they can gain any legitimacy, that they can expect to be accepted by the International community“.
But talks between Taliban and Afghan government delegations, which first met last September, have so far only resulted in a program. And while some meetings in Doha, Qatar, continue, the peace process is all but dead despite written statements made on both sides.
Pressed on this, Price said on Tuesday: “Believe me, I am not here to offer false hope as to what the Taliban may be looking for or what they are currently doing.”
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