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Drawdown of US embassy in Kabul is under discussion, sources say, as Taliban makes rapid gains in Afghanistan

These gains – which happened much faster than many U.S. officials thought – made the situation more urgent and sped up conversations that have been going on for some time now, a source said.

US officials no longer speak of six months as the likely time frame for the collapse of the Afghan government; they now believe it could happen much faster, the two sources said. The US military began withdrawing from the country earlier this year and has completed more than 95% of the US troop withdrawal, which will be completed by the end of August.

Right now, the State Department is working to identify key embassy staff and it is likely that some sort of partial staff pull-out will occur in the coming days or weeks, the sources said. . The embassy already reduced the number of diplomats in Kabul earlier this year where hundreds are serving and has slowly continued to reduce the overall footprint in recent months. A partial withdrawal would be a continuation of efforts to reduce the overall U.S. footprint due to the security situation.

No final decision has been made on the details of an additional withdrawal, but the decision should become clearer in the coming days, sources said.

Asked about the talks, State Department spokesman Ned Price said “the United States’ position has not changed” since the embassy ordered the departure in April. Price added that the department assesses threats daily “to determine which staffing position is in the best interests of those serving at the embassy, ​​and how we might continue to keep them safe.”

The changing security situation

Some officials in the Biden administration who were reluctant to remove U.S. diplomats are starting to change their minds and agree with the more cautious approach of officials who want to start the process now – even if that only means removing a small number. U.S. contractors and diplomats – before a significant number of staff have to be forced out, a source said. The United States doesn’t think the Afghan capital is in immediate danger, a source and defense official said, but the feeling is that the Biden administration needs to be prepared.

A defense official said the U.S. military would be broadly in favor of reducing the number of U.S. Embassy staff, because if an evacuation became necessary it would be more difficult to do with more people. The official told CNN that the military maintains a constant security and transport capability to be ready in case it needs to evacuate the embassy. But the defense official also stressed that the military was aware that the decision about the embassy was up to the State Department.

If an evacuation of the embassy is ordered, the U.S. plan would be to put a number of U.S. troops on the ground at that time to ensure the security of the embassy, ​​airport, and roads and the airspace in between, according to the defense official. . It would be very robust in large part to send a message to the Taliban not to interfere.

Continued diplomatic support

State Department officials have repeatedly stated that they intend to maintain their diplomatic footprint in Kabul once the US troop withdrawal is complete. However, a further reduction in embassy staff will quickly heighten concerns that the United States is leaving Afghanistan as it descends into a possible civil war, and will challenge the Biden administration’s claim that they will be able to maintain diplomatic support for the Afghan government. .

“We are withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, but we are not leaving Afghanistan. We will remain engaged diplomatically, supporting Afghanistan with economic, humanitarian, development aid, assistance to their security forces, and doing so. with our partners, ”said the Secretary of State. State Tony Blinken said last month.

President Joe Biden echoed those sentiments, saying the United States would maintain its diplomatic presence in the country.

The State Department had previously cut staff at the US Embassy in Kabul, one of the largest US diplomatic outposts in the world. In April, the department “ordered the departure from the US embassy in Kabul of US government employees whose duties may be performed elsewhere due to increased violence and reports of threats in Kabul.”

Over the weekend, the embassy urged US citizens in Afghanistan to leave the country “immediately using available commercial flight options.”

“Given the security conditions and reduced staffing levels, the embassy’s ability to assist US citizens in Afghanistan is extremely limited, even inside Kabul,” the embassy security alert said.

US

Despite the withdrawals that have already taken place, the embassy in Kabul “continues to pursue its comprehensive program of issues, including support for peace, security, economic, humanitarian and other assistance, cooperation in the fight against counterterrorism and law enforcement, consular services, including in particular the Immigrant Visa Program and Public Affairs, ”a State Department spokesperson said.

But while these essential functions are carried out, there are limits to what diplomats are able to do on the ground given security concerns.

“It’s a tough security environment,” Price said Tuesday. “If we were confident, if we were comfortable having a larger staff presence there, we would, but we assess the threat environment, on a daily basis. “

The withdrawal talks come as the United States continues to push for a diplomatic solution even as the Taliban continue to take territory by force.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad left for Doha on Sunday “to help formulate a joint international response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,” the State Department said on Monday.

Khalilzad “will urge the Taliban to stop their military offensive and negotiate a political settlement, which is the only path to stability and development in Afghanistan,” the department said.

In recent weeks, the State Department has also given close allies the ability to maintain a small diplomatic footprint by co-locating side-by-side with the United States on land that was once occupied by the NATO Resolute Support mission, according to three sources close to the situation. The State Department and its sub-contractors have taken over the operations and security of these grounds which are located right next to the United States Embassy.

Some countries are considering it, but do not see the current moment as an opportune time to make this decision given the rapidly disintegrating security situation. There are also concerns about the durability of some of the structures on the grounds which are now referred to as the “southern embassy”.

Meanwhile, as the Taliban’s gains escalate, U.S. allies are quietly sharing a blunt message with their U.S. counterparts: The U.S. must take action to stop the offensive, according to U.S. diplomats abroad.

“The German officials feel that you have to solve this problem and they are telling us so,” said one US diplomat.

This story was updated with additional details on Tuesday.

CNN’s Barbara Starr, Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra contributed to this report.

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