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US may raise number of troops in Afghanistan to assist withdrawal

There remains concern that the Taliban or other militant groups will launch attacks on departing forces

AT Monitoring Desk

KABUL: The US will likely increase its troop presence in Afghanistan temporarily over the coming weeks and months in order to fulfill President Joe Biden’s order to safely withdraw all forces from the country by September 11, the Pentagon said on Saturday.

Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby declined to provide specifics and said details are still being worked out. But he said “it’s logical to assume that you may need some logistics help, maybe some engineering help, you may have to add some force protection capabilities – again temporarily – just to make sure that the drawdown goes in a safe, orderly and effective way.”

Mr Biden announced Wednesday that the US would pull all of its more than 2,500 troops out of Afghanistan by September 11 – the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda terror attack on the US that had triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Nato announced it would follow the same timetable for withdrawing more than 7,000 allied forces.

The president’s decision defies a May 1 withdrawal deadline that was agreed to by the Trump administration as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban. Instead, Mr. Biden said that the US withdrawal would begin on May 1.

Speaking at a Pentagon press conference on Friday, Mr Kirby had few details on the pace and timing of the drawdown. He said it was not clear how many troops would be out of the country by May 1 as a signal to the Taliban that the US was abiding by its new plan to begin leaving.

The Taliban has warned that it will retaliate if the US does not abide by the Trump administration’s agreement. And those threats are a key concern for the Pentagon as it tries to safely move troops and likely millions of dollars in equipment out of the country.

Mr Biden, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and others have made it clear that the US is keenly aware of the Taliban threats, and that any attacks on US or allied personnel or facilities would face strong US reaction.

Mr Kirby also said it’s not clear if any US contractors will remain in the country. He said that the goal is to get all Defence Department personnel out and “I suspect that contractors will be part of that.” But he added that it’s not clear if there will be an ongoing reason to keep some type of contractor support in the country.

According to the Pentagon, the number of contractors in Afghanistan started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are close to 17,000 Defence Department-funded contractors in Afghanistan and less than a third of those were Americans.

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