December 2, 2022

US Marines have begun arriving in Kabul to ensure the evacuation of embassy personnel as the Taliban offensive sweeps through Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Friday.

Just last day militants captured two of the country’s largest cities and appear to be trying to isolate Kabul before launching an offensive there, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said.

In response to the deteriorating security situation, two battalions of Marines and one battalion of Army soldiers arrived in the capital on Friday to assist the State Department, Kirby told reporters at a Pentagon news conference in Washington.

The battalions are said to be stationed until the end of the weekend and to assist in the evacuation of several thousand people a day, both US citizens and Afghan nationals.

The State Department has now ordered employees in Kabul to destroy “sensitive material”, including items with embassy logos or the American flag.

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A State Department spokesman told CNN that providing incineration containers for personnel to incinerate documents is “standard procedure” for “acceptance”.

Taliban militants captured Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, and Herat, the third largest city, NBC News reported Friday, citing a Taliban spokesman and local Afghan officials.

The insurgents have now captured at least half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, taken control of about two-thirds of the country and surrounded Kabul, where the US embassy is preparing the evacuation of all diplomatic personnel except core personnel.

Kirby insisted that the US military was not surprised by the speed of the Taliban’s advance, but that it remained “concerned” about the pace of military gains.

He noted that the Afghan National Army, which is fighting the frontline against the Taliban, is better trained and equipped than the Taliban thanks to decades of US training and billions of dollars worth of American weapons.

President Joe Biden, who in April announced the withdrawal of all US forces in the region by September 11, ordered 3,000 soldiers to be temporarily sent to the capital on Thursday to help evacuate embassy staff. The troops are expected to arrive within 24 to 48 hours.

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The Afghan government’s security forces collapsed and many civilians fled their homes when the Taliban advanced surprisingly quickly into the country’s center of power.

But the White House said Friday morning that Biden stood by his decision to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after nearly two decades of fighting following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The president is firmly focused on how we can continue to conduct an orderly withdrawal and protect our men and women serving in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.

“You heard him earlier this week: he doesn’t regret his decision,” said Psaki.

In addition to the dispatch of three infantry battalions of the Marines and Army to Kabul, a US infantry brigade is on standby in Kuwait. Another 1,000-strong unit, consisting of Army and Air Force personnel, is being deployed to Qatar to help process special immigrant visas for Afghan nationals who supported US and NATO forces during the war.

The US national flag is reflected on the windows of the US embassy building in Kabul on July 30, 2021.

Sajjad Hussain | AFP | Getty Images

Still, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that the US still expects to completely withdraw all troops by the end of August.

The UK said Thursday it would dispatch around 600 soldiers to help its citizens leave Afghanistan, where around 4,000 British nationals are believed to be stationed. Canada is also sending special forces to the country to evacuate staff from the Canadian embassy in Kabul.

– CNBC’s Christina Wilkie and Amanda Macias contributed to this report.