WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 has left Washington and its allies scrambling to work out how to protect the diplomats and officials staying behind.

As he announced the end of America’s “forever war” in April, Biden pledged his administration would “determine what a continued US diplomatic presence in Afghanistan will look like” and how to keep it safe.

Chief among the challenges now confronting Western officials is that of maintaining security at Kabul airport — the vital link between the foreign embassies clustered together in the city’s fortified “green zone” and the outside world.

US eyes international effort to help secure airport, currently manned by Turkey, after withdrawal

As fears mount over a Taliban comeback once the US and allied Nato troops leave after almost two decades on the ground, there are major unanswered questions about how to maintain a facility vital for Afghans as well as foreigners. “That is one of the keys to maintaining a diplomatic presence,” said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley after a discussion with other Nato military heads in Brussels.

“So we are working out the details of how to secure the airport, how to support the Afghan military securing the airport, and what countries are willing to contribute to do that. And there was much discussion about that.”

According to him, a secure airport would be essential to ensuring that the US and European allies could maintain embassies in Afghanistan.

Milley said Nato chiefs of defence discussed the issue in Brussels on Tuesday, but decisions about any security force deployments by individual countries for the airport would be made later by political leadership.

Leaders from Nato’s 30 nations could take more decisions on future plans for Afghanistan when they meet on June 14 at a summit in Brussels, he noted.

However, he declined to speculate about the size of any international force at the airport.

“I think NATO and others are working that in various working groups to see what the exact number is going to be. Those numbers aren’t known right now,” he said For now, the strategy remains up in the air.

A Nato official told AFP only that the alliance “remains committed to its enduring partnership with Afghanistan and to supporting the sustainment of the Afghan security forces.” “We are now looking into the details on how we can continue to provide support,” the official said.

The Pentagon estimates that it takes around 1,000 to 1,500 soldiers to assure security at the airport, currently handled by Turkey, a Nato member, with support from Afghan troops.

As foreign troops eye the exit door, Afghanistan’s special forces are seen as the only local contingent capable of managing the task. But if the Taliban continues its offensive, these troops would most likely be required elsewhere to help stave off a collapse of the government.

US and European officials say several other options are being mooted to try to protect the airport. These include getting civilian contractors to handle security, individual countries agreeing to stay on independent of Nato, or turning to the United Nations.—AFP

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2021

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