US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)
Several hundred US troops left Afghanistan on Tuesday – the same day President Biden decided not to extend the Aug. 31 evacuation deadline – Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed Tuesday evening.
“These troops represent a mix of headquarters staff, maintenance and other enabling functions that were scheduled to leave and whose mission at the airport was complete. Their departure represents prudent and efficient force management. It will have no impact on the mission at hand,” Kirby said in a statement, confirming CNN’s earlier reporting from two defense officials that the US’ troop withdrawal from Afghanistan had kicked off.
The fact that a small number of American troops have already left underlines how quickly the situation is moving. The pace of evacuations has rapidly ramped up in recent days but with a week until Biden’s deadline, the US military will soon be forced to switch from transporting Americans and Afghans out to concentrating on safely moving all the troops out and winding down the security operation at the airport.
“So far, the reduction does not affect the mission,” one of the officials said, adding that the commander on the ground can decide what military personnel are in units that are no longer required. That decision can be based on a few factors, including the number of gates open at the airport, the number of people coming through and more.
“If you can have a smaller mission set and still conduct the mission, then you can reduce your footprint and reduce your risk,” the official said.
The Pentagon has been acutely aware of the threat posed by ISIS-K and other terror groups around the airport, developing alternate routes to the field for US citizens and Afghan evacuees. In addition, the Taliban have stated openly that they do not want a US military presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of August, warning that there will be “consequences” were the US to stay longer.
In remarks to an emergency meeting of the G7 on Tuesday, Biden said the threat to US troops in Kabul was one of the key reasons he was sticking to the end of the month as the final withdrawal date.