Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday ordered a third 82nd Airborne Division infantry battalion to Afghanistan to help American troops there secure Kabul’s airport as the military works to evacuate thousands from the country that is now controlled by the Taliban, Pentagon officials said.

The additional battalion will bring the number of U.S. soldiers and Marines at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to 6,000 in the coming days, said John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. As of Monday, about 2,500 U.S. troops were at the airport, where the United States and other countries had quickly moved their embassy staffs and thousands of Afghans had flocked in an attempt to flee the country as Taliban fighters entered the capital on Sunday.

The number of U.S. troops at the airport was expected to grow to more than 3,000 on Tuesday and increase to the 6,000 within a few days, Kirby said. The 82nd Airborne battalion, like two others ordered to Kabul over the weekend, had been ordered to Kuwait on Thursday on a short-notice deployment in case they were needed in Afghanistan.

Kabul’s airport, which includes civilian and military sections, has been the scene of chaos as desperate Afghans have gathered there in hopes of escaping the Taliban, which by Monday was in control of virtually the entire country for the first time since its hard-line Islamist government was toppled by American forces just months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The group at the beginning of last week controlled roughly half the country, but rapidly took control of Afghanistan’s key cities in a blitz over the weekend that culminated in the near-violence free capture of Kabul on Sunday as the U.S.-backed government crumbled.

By Monday, the United States had shuttered its massive, fortress-like embassy in Kabul, evacuating its diplomatic staff to the protected airport. The U.S. military took responsibility for air-traffic control and halted flights in and out for most of Monday at the airport as troops worked to clear runways of Afghan civilians crowding the airport grounds, Kirby said. Turkish troops were also helping security efforts at the airport, he added.

Pentagon officials said late Monday — at about 2 a.m. Afghanistan time — that airport operations had restarted, and one C-17 cargo jet with American troops had landed at the Kabul airport and a second would arrive soon. Those planes were expected to ferry evacuees out of Kabul later, said Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, the director of current operations for the Joint Staff.

U.S. military officials on Monday said at least seven people had died amid the chaos at the airport, including several Afghan civilians who fell from the wheel wells of a U.S. Air Force cargo jet as it took off over the weekend. Kirby said American service members killed two armed men in separate incidents at the airport. He said the troops acted in self-defense to hostile threats and there was “no indication that they were Taliban.”

“It’s our understanding that these [American] troops acted on what was perceived to be a real and tangible threat,” Kirby told reporters.

He said a preliminary report indicated one American service member might have been wounded at the airport. Taylor later described the individual’s wound as “superficial” and he said the service member had returned to duty at the airport. Neither Taylor nor Kirby would say whether the service member had been shot.

The Pentagon expected to restore order at the airport by Tuesday so military, commercial and charter flights could again take off and land at the airport and ferry people to safety outside of Afghanistan, Kirby said. Officials said they hoped to soon have 20 to 30 flights coming and going per day.

On Sunday, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command and Afghanistan operations, met face-to-face with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar. Kirby declined to provide specifics about the meeting, but he said the general issued a stern warning that any interference with the airport operations would be “met swiftly with a very forceful response.”

Once evacuation flights resume, Kirby estimated as many as 5,000 people could be shuttled out of the country per day.

“It’s a fluid situation, and it’s going to change day by day,” the Pentagon spokesman said.

In additional to American diplomats and civilians, the United States is also working to evacuate Afghans, their family members and others who could be targeted by the Taliban by issuing Special Immigrant Visas designated for those who have aided U.S. and coalition operations and officials during the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

This month, the United States began evacuating some 2,000 U.S.-allied Afghans to the Army’s Fort Lee in Virginia. Taylor said Monday at least 700 Afghans had been evacuated from Kabul since Saturday.

Kirby said Monday that the Pentagon had identified two additional bases in the United States to house up to 22,000 additional Afghans, though he declined to name those locations. The Reuters news agency reported they were the Army’s Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Kirby said a third-party nation, which he also declined to identify, had also agreed to accept some Afghans.

Kirby said the Defense Department had not determined a precise number of Afghans that it would relocate.

“We’re just trying to fill out that capacity as best as we think we need right now,” he said. “If we have underestimated that capacity, the secretary [Austin] is fully committed to finding additional locations and installations, if we need it.”

Kirby said the U.S. military would be “as aggressive as we can” at moving endangered Afghans out of Afghanistan before American troops leave the country for good.

Kirby would not say how long the United States would hold the airport and work to evacuate people from Kabul. He said the Pentagon expected to complete its operations in Afghanistan by Aug. 31, as President Joe Biden directed earlier in the summer.

“We’re going to work as fast and as efficiently as we can,” Kirby said. “The president, the commander-in-chief made it clear that he wanted to have the drawdown of the embassy personnel completed by the end of the month, and then consequent to that, the completion of the drawdown of U.S. military forces. So, that’s the rough timeline we’re on.

“How fast we can go is going to depend a lot on security and instability there at the airport, and the flow of aircraft, and then the processing of [evacuees]. There’s a lot of pieces to this, so I can’t be definitive…. I think that it’s a very fluid situation.”

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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