The State Department on Tuesday ordered the departure of government employees from the US Embassy in Kabul “whose functions can be performed elsewhere” as the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan gets underway.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad told senators in a Tuesday hearing that some diplomats who “are not necessary to be there” and “can do their job from elsewhere” will be withdrawn from the embassy.
“It will not affect operation or the capabilities of the embassy. We are very much committed to that,” Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A State Department spokesman told CNN that “by minimizing the number of employees in Afghanistan whose functions can be performed elsewhere, personnel who are urgently needed to address issues related to the drawdown of US forces and to continue the vital work we are doing in support of Afghanistan and its people will be able to remain in place.”
President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that the United States would begin to withdraw all remaining forces from Afghanistan by May 1, bringing an end to nearly two decades of military involvement in the country.
The State Department spokesperson said the ordered departure affects “a relatively small number of employees,” noting, “we do not anticipate any changes to our operations and capabilities resulting from this action.”
When asked how the US would continue diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan without the protection of US and NATO forces, Khalilzad said the Biden administration will “take the necessary measures to protect that embassy.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, asked whether the number of diplomats was being reduced because of violence in Kabul.
Khalilzad said that such a decision on staffing by the chief of mission would take into account the chief’s needs “and the overall circumstances in the country.” Pressed by Menendez if the increased violence in Kabul would be one of those factors taken into account, Khalilzad admitted, “That must have been one of them.”
The State Department said it does not discuss personnel numbers or operational details for security reasons.
“The Ordered Departure at the US Embassy in Kabul ensures that American diplomacy and support for Afghanistan will be sustainable, robust, and effective,” they said. “This includes our active support of the Afghan peace process and our continued diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian support of the future the Afghan people want, including the gains made by Afghan women.”
An updated travel advisory issued Tuesday also reflected the ordered departure and warned US citizens against traveling to Afghanistan.
“The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul. Evacuation options from Afghanistan are extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and the volatile security situation,” the advisory said.
“Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Afghanistan. Unofficial travel to Afghanistan by U.S. government employees and their family members is restricted and requires prior approval from the Department of State,” it said. “U.S. Embassy personnel are restricted from traveling to all locations in Kabul except the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. government facilities unless there is a compelling U.S. government interest in permitting such travel that outweighs the risk. Additional security measures are needed for any U.S. government employee travel and movement through Afghanistan.”
When Biden announced the withdrawal of US troops, a senior administration official told reporters that the US would keep in Afghanistan only the military presence required to protect its diplomatic presence. That footprint remains unclear.
On Monday, defense officials told CNN that the Pentagon is assembling a force of around 650 troops to send to Afghanistan in the coming days to protect US forces as they withdraw from the country.
The deployment was approved by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin late last week as part of a package of military assets being sent to the country to facilitate the US withdrawal, which is due to be complete by September 11.
Secretary of State Tony Blinken traveled to Kabul the day after Biden made his announcement and met with embassy personnel, US troops and Afghan officials and civil society leaders.
In a news conference there, the top US diplomat acknowledged this was “a time of transition, and with any transition comes uncertainty, comes concern,” but suggested there was an understanding among US and Afghan officials that Afghanistan had changed from the country it was in 2001 or even 2011, and thus they need to build out “a partnership for our two countries fitting for 2021.”
Blinken told the embassy personnel, “I can only imagine that for many of you this time feels particularly stressful and maybe even emotional. You all serve one of the most challenging posts in the world,” according to the pool.
“We are committed to Afghanistan and despite the fact that our military forces are leaving Afghanistan, we are not,” he said.
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.