WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States-led military mission in Afghanistan was planning to hold a flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul on Friday with NATO allies, but the event was canceled at the last moment due to questions about the significance of the ceremony, according to three US servicemen. officials.
The cancellation reflected a wider sense of confusion and uncertainty surrounding the withdrawal of US troops, with defense contractors calling for more advice from Washington, former Afghan interpreters pleading for protection from the Taliban and the embassy American affected by a major Covid-19 epidemic.
President Joe Biden announced in April that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by September 11, but the withdrawal is proceeding faster than expected. Pentagon officials say the US military withdrawal is on track to end about two months earlier, in mid-July or even early July.
The flag-lowering ceremony at Kabul headquarters for NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission, which trains and advises Afghan security forces, was called off just hours before it began, defense officials said.
The ceremony was not meant to announce the end of the mission or the closure of the headquarters, officials said, but was an opportunity to bring together 13 NATO partners before the departure of the coalition troops. Senior Allied officers were planning to lower their country’s flags at headquarters in recognition of their country’s contribution to Afghanistan, officials said.
“It was causing confusion among allies and partners,” said a defense official, adding that it was seen by some as a closure of Resolute Support headquarters.
The ceremony would likely take place on another date, two defense officials said, and would only include officers and officials already working at headquarters due to concerns about Covid-19. As of August last year, the Resolute Support mission included 36 NATO member and partner states and approximately 10,000 troops.
The exit is accelerating
A number of factors could affect the exit schedule, including weather conditions and the precarious security situation in Kabul, as Taliban forces continue to gain ground across the country.
US troops have already handed over several bases and airfields to Afghan security forces, and C-17 cargo planes continuously carry equipment. The United States has pledged to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan in a deal with the Taliban signed last year under the administration of former President Donald Trump.
As the exit of US troops accelerates, the Biden administration has come under fire for the Afghans who worked for the US government. Lawmakers on both sides accused the White House of failing to develop adequate plans to protect former Afghan partners threatened with retaliation by the Taliban. Members of Congress and veterans groups have called for an emergency evacuation of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives working with the United States, but the administration has yet to announce a plan for an such operation.
About 18,000 US-funded contractors who maintain the Afghan government’s fleet of military aircraft and ground vehicles have also been ordered to withdraw from the country. But the contractors say they weren’t given advance notice of Biden’s move and it’s unclear how their companies will continue to support Afghan security forces once U.S. troops leave.
Three associations representing federal contractors wrote to the Pentagon, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development on May 13, asking for clarity and citing several “unanswered questions.”
“What is the role of continued support from contractors for Afghan government missions and capabilities, at home or abroad? Said the letter.
The Biden administration has yet to respond to the letter more than a month since it was sent, according to a spokesperson for one of the associations, the Professional Services Council, and a spokesperson for the administration.
“It’s hard for businesses to plan, and it’s hard for Afghans to know where things are going,” Stephanie Kostro, executive vice president of policy at the Professional Services Council, told NBC News.
She said it was a “complex and confusing situation” with contractors trying to plan without clear information on what arrangements might be in place to allow them to continue their work effectively and safely after departure. American troops.
“I feel like the DoD (Department of Defense) and the state (Department) are looking at each of these things contract by contract instead of having a general policy on how to deal with contractors,” Kostro said.
The Pentagon is aware of the letter, has appreciated comments from the contractor associations and has recognized the important role contractors play in maintaining the equipment of Afghan government forces, including planes, the carrier said. word, Major Rob Lodewick.
“Going forward, there are many options that can facilitate continued maintenance and logistics support under contract without requiring US sub-contractors to be on the ground in Afghanistan,” Lodewick said, without further details.
The Department of Defense “continues to research, analyze and refine the best available options and will announce corresponding decisions and implementation plans as they become available and appropriate,” Lodewick said.
Pentagon officials communicated the changes in requirements to contractors working with the Afghan Air Force and those contracts have been changed, ” he added.
The State Department and the US Agency for International Development did not respond to a request for comment.
Critics say Afghan security forces cannot keep their planes, helicopters and drones in the air without the support of American contractors, and that the lack of detailed plans for contractors has sent a damaging message to Kabul.
“As Afghans look for visible signs that the support Biden promised will continue, what they see is a rush to the door – and a silence on details that would make the promises real,” Ronald Neumann wrote , former US ambassador to Afghanistan, in a recent editorial in the Washington Post.
“Morale is as much a part of fighting power as is equipment and technology. The current uncertainty is undermining morale and could seriously weaken the Afghan army just as the great Taliban attacks begin. ” he wrote.
When Biden disclosed his decision to withdraw US troops, it was not clear how the country’s main airport in Kabul would be secured. The uncertainty has raised fears that foreign embassies will be forced to close without a safe way to travel in and out of the country.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said Thursday that Turkey had agreed to play a leading role in the security of Kabul airport. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan made the pledge during talks with President Biden earlier this week, according to Sullivan.
“The clear leadership commitment has been established that Turkey will play a leading role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport and we are now working on how to execute to achieve this,” Sullivan said.
At a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday, Biden, Erdogan and other NATO leaders pledged to “provide bridging funding to ensure the continued operation” of Kabul airport and “training and financial support ”to Afghan government forces.
As the administration has promised to speed up visa applications from Afghans who have worked with US troops or diplomats, the US embassy in Kabul is facing an upsurge in Covid-19 infections. An embassy employee died, 114 were infected and several had to be evacuated for medical treatment, according to a notice to embassy staff.
The United States Embassy has ordered a lockdown and confined staff members to their quarters except to obtain food or exercise alone.
The American Foreign Service Association, which represents diplomats working at the State Department, has expressed concern over the outbreak and urged the administration to make vaccination a requirement for any employee physically present at the Kabul mission. or in other US embassies around the world.
“At a time when the US military withdrawal accelerates, attacks on Afghan and coalition forces intensify and the United States seeks to establish a stable and positive presence in Afghanistan following the withdrawal, the damage to our national security and our national interests are potentially serious. “, the association said in a statement on Thursday.
The embassy, located in a sprawling compound, had hundreds of staff until recently, when authorities began to downsize as US forces withdrew. The State Department recently ordered the departure of US government employees from Kabul “whose duties may be performed elsewhere.”