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The US forces to withdraw from Afghanistan before Biden’s deadline.

The Pentagon is facing the challenge of dismantling more than 20 years of intelligence infrastructure from Afghanistan, AFGHAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE PRESS OFFICE/AP

The withdrawal of US and Nato forces from Afghanistan is set to be completed by mid-July to bring a quicker end to America’s longest war than President Biden’s September 11 deadline.

Pulling out the remaining 3,500 US troops is proving easier than the Pentagon imagined but the accelerated pace is raising numerous security challenges, leading several western embassies to close or scale back operations.

Biden is also coming under pressure to evacuate thousands of Afghans and their family members who assisted US forces as translators and in other roles. The State Department has said that about 18,000 people applied for special immigrant visas to the US and many are still awaiting approval.

The defence of key cities and towns as well as several airports from Taliban takeover remains a main concern, as does the positioning of US troops in the region to provide rapid response to any terrorist threats from a resurgent al-Qaeda.

Australia announced plans to shut its embassy in Kabul this week due to security concerns while other embassies have sent home non-essential personnel, warned their nationals against travelling to Afghanistan and urged those in the country to consider leaving. The US embassy last month ordered home non-essential workers.

The Biden administration has yet to say whether US warplanes and drones will continue to provide air support to Afghan government forces in their fight against the Taliban.

Biden came under criticism for naming the notorious 9/11 date of the al-Qaeda attacks on America in 2001 as the deadline for withdrawal, and now faces pressure from Republicans in Congress to make a plan for Afghans under threat of retribution.

“We cannot allow Afghanistan to be another Saigon,” said Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House foreign affairs committee. “This isn’t just about the people waiting for these visas in Afghanistan. If our allies and partners don’t trust us to keep our word or think they will be abandoned, it could cause irreparable damage to our national security.”

McCaul and his Democratic counterpart, Gregory Meeks, wrote a letter to Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, urging the State Department to prioritise visas.

Jack Reed, the Democratic chairman of the Senate armed services committee, added: “We must do our part to aid those Afghans who have aided us. There are already troubling examples of Taliban plans to target those who have helped the United States. We must ensure that we have the capacity to bring them to safety.”

The Biden administration is being urged behind-the-scenes to prepare for a possible emergency airlift while the State Department has increased consular staff at the embassy in Kabul to process more applications. Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said the administration will “continue to look for ways to speed up this process”.

David Helvey, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, told the Senate armed services committee last week: “We have a moral obligation to help those that have helped us over the past 20 years of our presence and work in Afghanistan. We are working very closely with our State Department interagency colleagues to look at programs like the Special Immigrant Visa program.”

If the Taliban capture cities after the last of the US troops have left, American soldiers could return but never again as a large occupying conventional force, defence sources said.

“Those days are over,” one US source said.

The Pentagon is still mulling over how to organise an over-the-horizon force of special operations troops who could be flown into Afghanistan in a crisis, backed by fighter bombers based in the Gulf and on board an aircraft carrier.

One of the challenges facing the Pentagon is that the whole intelligence infrastructure built up over 20 years is currently being dismantled and prepared for evacuation from Afghanistan.

This includes the “highly sensitive” computerised back-up system for operating armed Reaper surveillance drones set up in Kabul and Kandahar.

Without any of this infrastructure, the sources warned, the intelligence-gathering process will be more complicated and more at arm’s length.

Although the troop withdrawals are relatively straightforward, the pull-out of the mass of equipment and infrastructure still in Afghanistan could take much longer.

So far, according to US Central Command, which runs the mission in Afghanistan and is in charge of the “retrograde” programme, nearly a quarter of this withdrawal process has now been completed. It has involved 160 plane-loads of equipment, totalling around 10,000 items.

The intelligence apparatus and Reaper drones are expected to be the last to be loaded onto C-17 transport aircraft because of their vital role for US special operations units in monitoring links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

General Richard Clarke, commander of US special operations command, has said that his forces were the first to arrive in Afghanistan in 2001 and will be the last to leave.

This means that the 800 special operations troops will continue counter-terrorism missions until the final moment and could remain in Afghanistan for several weeks longer than the regular forces.

Several hundred troops from Turkey, a Nato member, are defending Kabul’s international airport, but it is not clear whether they will remain, raising fears about travelling in and out of the country safely.

Kandahar airfield in the south, another split civilian-military facility, was handed over to the Afghans several months ago but a radar system has broken down and Afghan officials are looking for contractors to fix and operate it. Flights have been reduced and can only land during the day.


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