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US could close Kabul embassy if future Afghanistan government includes Taliban, top general says

US Embassy in Kabul (USAID Afghanistan/Released)

The United States is planning to keep an embassy in Kabul after U.S. troops depart unless Afghanistan’s next government tells U.S. officials to leave, the head of U.S. Central Command conceded Monday.

U.S. and coalition forces and the international embassies supporting them are there at the invitation of the current Aghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani. But that welcome may disappear if a new governing structure emerges that includes the Taliban.

“We won’t be there unless we’re, you know, we are invited to be there,” Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters on a Dubai media phone interview Monday.

Australia closed its embassy last month, citing the inability to guarantee security for its diplomats after withdrawal. In April, U.S. Embassy-Kabul ordered all staff whose jobs do not require them to physically be in Afghanistan to depart..

In 2015, the 36-acre U.S. embassy campus in Kabul supported roughly 1,000 government civilians and 4,500 contractors, according to the State Department Inspector General. More than $1.5 billion has been spent to construct temporary housing and permanent hardened facilities there over the last decade.

Protection of staff who remain will fall primarily to the Afghan government, McKenzie said.

“We do plan to have an embassy in Afghanistan. It will be at the invitation of the government of Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “It will be first and most important their responsibility to protect that embassy, although we will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect our diplomats in any embassy anywhere in the world.”

American consular staff who remain in country are flooded with requests to process Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who have worked with American or coalition forces over the years to help them leave as well.

On Monday, the Taliban issued a statement urging those Afghans to remain in the country.

“The Islamic Emirate would like to inform all the above people that they should show remorse for their past actions and must not engage in such activities in the future that amount to treason against Islam and the country,” the statement read.

“But none should currently desert the country. The Islamic Emirate will not perturb them, but calls them to return to their normal lives and if they do have expertise in any field, to serve their country. They shall not be in any danger on our part.”

To date, the State Department has completed processing about 20 percent of the 18,000 visa requests it has received from Afghans who worked for them over the last two decades. The vast majority of those applications are just in their beginning stages, with time running out.

But McKenzie suggested Monday that even if the drawdown has largely finished, the military will be able to help get those allies out of the country — if they are tasked to do so.

“We will have the capability to exercise whatever orders we’re given,” McKenzie said. “Clearly it is easier sometimes than others. But the United States military has remarkable capabilities for this type of thing. We can do whatever is going to be necessary, whenever it would be necessary.”

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