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US orders big drawdown at Kabul embassy as troops leave

Secretary of State Antony Blinken participates in a virtual bilateral meeting with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)

By MATTHEW LEE, WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department on Tuesday ordered a significant number of its remaining staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to leave Afghanistan as the military steps up the pullout of American troops from the country.

The department said it had instructed all personnel to depart unless their jobs require them to be physically located in Afghanistan. The order was not specific as to the number of people affected, but it went well beyond the usual curtailment of staffers for security and safety reasons. Such orders normally apply only to non-essential personnel.

In an updated travel advisory for Afghanistan, the department said it had ordered the departure of all U.S. government employees “whose functions can be performed elsewhere.” It also said American citizens should not travel to Afghanistan and those there who want to depart “should leave as soon as possible on available commercial flights.”

The embassy in Kabul is heavily dependent on the U.S. military for security, and staff drawdowns had been been underway since the Trump administration had announced last year that American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1.

The Biden administration extended that deadline until Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, but has accelerated the pullout.

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, said Tuesday the administration remains committed to keeping a functioning embassy in Kabul. “It is our intention to maintain an embassy in Afghanistan going forward. But we’ll have a very, very minimal military presence there — that which is strictly necessary to defend the embassy,” he said in remarks to the American Enterprise Institute.

The State Department order came just two days after Gen. Austin Miller, America’s top general in Afghanistan, said the U.S. military had begun closing down operations in the country and that Afghanistan’s security forces had to be ready to take over.

While the official start to the withdrawal of Washington’s 2,500 to 3,500 troops and NATO’s 7,000 allied forces is May 1, Miller said the pullout had already begun.

The U.S. military and NATO will be shipping some military equipment out of Afghanistan while deciding what would remain behind with the Afghan Defense and Security Force, he said.

In February last year, the U.S. military began closing its smaller bases. In mid-April, the Biden administration announced that the final phase of the withdrawal would begin May 1 and be completed before Sept. 11.

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