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Overnight Defense: Troops head back to Afghanistan to aid diplomatic evacuation

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Just weeks before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is supposed to finish, thousands of troops are going to Kabul to help manage the fallout from the withdrawal.

The Biden administration announced Thursday it will send about 3,000 troops to Afghanistan to help evacuate diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, as well as Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for helping the United States during the war.

“As we’ve said all along, the increased tempo of the Taliban military engagements and the resulting increase in violence and instability across Afghanistan is of grave concern,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“Accordingly, we are further reducing our civilian footprints in Kabul, in light of the evolving security situation … we expect to draw down to a core diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, in the coming weeks.”

The breakdown: About 3,000 U.S. troops — two Marine infantry battalions and one Army infantry battalion — who are already in the Middle East will deploy to the Kabul airport in the next 24 to 48 hours to help “provide safety and secure movement of the reduction of civilian personnel out of the embassy,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.

Another 1,000 U.S. troops from a joint Army-Air Force support team are being deployed to Qatar to help process SIV applications, Kirby said.

Further, one infantry brigade combat team from Fort Bragg will deploy to Kuwait so they are “postured and prepared if needed to provide additional security at the airport,” Kirby said.

The U.S. military will also likely fly diplomats and SIV applicants out of Afghanistan, but U.S. officials are “working through the final plans right now to put that into place,” Kirby added.

And isn’t it ironic?: The United States had about 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan before President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: Progressives should celebrate budget passage, remain focused on fight Officials still looking for parents of 337 separated children, court filing says ​​Former U.S. attorney in Atlanta says abrupt resignation stemmed from not peddling Trump voter fraud claim MORE ordered a withdrawal. About 650 of those remain in the country securing the embassy and airport.

But Kirby rejected the idea that there’s any “irony” in sending in about the same number as were withdrawn.

“This is a very temporary mission for a very specific purpose,” he said. “That’s a big difference than saying you’re deploying for eight, nine, 12 months, forces to stabilize and secure Afghanistan, which we’ve been doing for the last 20 years. This is a very narrowly defined, very temporary mission.”

Don’t call it an evacuation: By any definition of the word, what’s happening in Kabul now is an evacuation.

But both Kirby and Price insisted that’s not the case.

“This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal,” Price said. “What this is is a reduction in the size of our civilian footprint.”

“The purpose here is to help with a reduction of civilian personnel out of the embassy,” Kirby said. “That is not the same as a noncombatant evacuation operation, where you’re moving a massive amount of people who aren’t necessarily U.S. government employees. It’s a different operation altogether, and we’re just not there.”

Not just the US: The United Kingdom also announced Thursday it was sending in about 600 of its troops to help evacuate some of the British embassy staff.

On the ground: The announcement of the evacuations came the same day the Taliban reportedly won three major prizes: Kandahar, Herat and Ghazni.

As Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities, respectively, Kandahar and Herat are the biggest ones the Taliban has seized yet. Kandahar holds symbolic importance to the Taliban as its former capital.

And Ghazni sits on a crucial road connecting Kabul to southern provinces, complicating the movements of government troops and supplies and further isolating the capital.

The insurgents also said Thursday they captured Qala-e-Naw, the capital of Badghis province.

 

SECDEF’S BIG TEST: THE VAX MANDATE

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Health Care: CDC officially recommends COVID-19 vaccine for anyone who is pregnant | Pressure builds for full FDA approval | Dems call for pandemic funding Pressure builds for full FDA approval of vaccines The Hill’s Sustainability Report: This plastic additive is ecstasy for hermit crabs MORE’s decision to soon mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for troops comes with potential hurdles, both political and legal.

The Hill’s Ellen Mitchell took a look at how Austin’s decision is shaping up to be a major test of his leadership that risks souring his relationship with the rank and file.

The move, which would add the coronavirus vaccine to the Pentagon’s list of required shots by mid-September and apply to the nation’s roughly 2 million service members, already has Austin battling calls from conservatives to keep the immunization voluntary.

And a vaccine mandate before the shot gets full approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is likely to create a slew of legal fights from troops who have thus far refused to get vaccinated.

Who’s upset?: Conservative lawmakers who have bristled at mandates throughout the pandemic, including some who have sparred with Austin over social issues in the past.

Rep. Mark GreenMark GreenSenators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships Overnight Health Care: CDC encourages schools to open for in-person learning, masks optional | President directs moves on drug importation, calls for plan to lower drug prices | FDA asks for federal investigation of Alzheimer’s drug approval Bipartisan lawmakers press NIH for info on deleted coronavirus data MORE (R-Tenn.), an Army veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, argued on Twitter this week that service members who do not wish to receive the vaccine “cannot be required to do so until the approval process is completed. Any action to require it is illegal.”

Green, who on Friday led a letter signed by 16 House Republicans urging the Pentagon chief not to issue a mandate, extolled the vaccine as “safe and effective,” but said any mandate ahead of FDA approval “is an unprecedented violation of federal law.”

Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassiePentagon to require all troops to get coronavirus vaccine by mid-September Rep. Ralph Norman tests positive for COVID-19 despite vaccination Biden asks Pentagon to examine ‘how and when’ to mandate COVID-19 vaccine for troops MORE (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has introduced a bill meant to prohibit a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops. Among the bill’s 30 Republican co-sponsors are Green and Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzPress: Inmates have taken over the asylum Photos of the Week: Olympic sabre semi-finals, COVID-19 vigil and a loris The Hill’s 12:30 Report – Presented by Facebook – CDC equates Delta to chickenpox in contagiousness MORE (Fla.), who in June sparred with Austin over critical race theory being taught at military institutions.

Massie — who in May was issued a $500 fine for refusing to wear a mask on the House floor — last week tweeted that he had been contacted by service members “to express they will leave the military if forced to take the COVID vaccine.”

And Rep. Clay HigginsGlen (Clay) Clay HigginsPartisan fight over vaccine mandates moves to House Make employer vaccine mandates illegal — its a matter of individual rights House GOP stages mask mandate protest MORE (R-La.), sent Austin a letter on Monday threatening a legal and “Congressional response” if the vaccine is mandated.

Past is prologue?: If the vaccines, which are under emergency use authorization, get full FDA approval before Austin’s mid-September deadline, that could help the Defense Department avoid the pitfalls from the last time the military required a shot under emergency-use authorization, which happened in 1998 with the anthrax vaccine.

The Pentagon became entangled in several court battles over the shot, which did not receive full FDA approval until 2004 and has since only been given on a limited basis to troops deploying to high-risk locations.

 

SENATORS PRESS FOR ANSWERS ON FOOD INSECURITY

Democratic Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: CDC officially recommends COVID-19 vaccine for anyone who is pregnant | Pressure builds for full FDA approval | Dems call for pandemic funding The Hill’s Sustainability Report: Seawalls protect some communities — at the expense of others Crypto industry seeks to build momentum after losing Senate fight MORE (Mass.) and Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOvernight Defense: COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops coming by mid-September Overnight Defense: Biden administration expands Afghan refugee program | Culture war comes for female draft registration | US launches third Somalia strike in recent weeks Overnight Defense: Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill | House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors | US increases airstrikes to help Afghan forces fight Taliban MORE (Ill.) are pressing the Pentagon on reports of food insecurity among National Guardsmen and reservists.

In a letter to Austin released Thursday, the senators cited census data the said National Guard members and reservists are more than twice as likely to be hungry than Americans as a whole.

“This is morally, and as a matter of national security, unconscionable. We must do better by our National Guard and Reserve service members,” the senators wrote. “National Guard and Reserve troops, as well as their families, deserve the department’s attention. This is especially true given the ongoing and vital role that those individuals have played in our nation’s response to the global pandemic.”

The senators asked Austin for answers by Aug. 25 on how the department plans to address the issue.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Cato Institute will host a virtual book discussion on “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump” with author Spencer Ackerman at 1 p.m. https://bit.ly/2Udfirj

 

ICYMI

— The Hill: US calls for immediate release of Afghan officials held by Taliban

— The Hill: US Embassy urges Americans to leave Afghanistan immediately

— The Hill: Opinion: Afghanistan post-mortem

— Washington Post: The grand illusion: Hiding the truth about the Afghanistan war’s ‘conclusion’

— Defense News: Biden’s Pentagon nominees: More diverse and more of them

— Army Times: Not shocking: Most of the Army’s tasers don’t work

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