US orders big drawdown at Kabul embassy as troops leave

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Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 27, 2021, during a hearing on the Biden administration's Afghanistan policy and plans to withdraw troops after two decades of war. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New York Times via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON – 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 order came as the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan told lawmakers that it no longer made sense to continue the 20-year deployment of American troops there. At the same time, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he shared lawmakers' concerns that the rights of women and minorities could be jeopardized after the withdrawal is complete.

“We should all remain concerned that those rights could suffer," Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Asked if the U.S. would retain any leverage to protect those rights once its troops are gone, Khalilzad was circumspect. He said aid and other types of diplomatic support "would be not available if they did not respect the human rights of Afghan women or others.”

Shortly before he spoke, the State 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drawdowns had been been underway since the Trump administration had announced last year that American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1.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.

The top U.S. diplomat in Kabul said the departure order was issued “due to increasing violence and threat reports," would affect only a relatively small number of employees, and there would be no reduction in services offered. Charge d'affaires Ross Wilson said it “ensures that American diplomacy and support for Afghanistan will be sustainable, robust, and effective.”