The US Embassy in Kabul is instructing personnel to destroy sensitive materials as well as items “which could be misused in propaganda efforts,” according to a management notice sent Friday to embassy staff, seen by CNN and described by another source familiar.
The notice about “Emergency Destruction Services” underscores the dire situation on the ground in Afghanistan as cities continue to fall to the Taliban. The militant group controlled half of the country’s provincial capitals, including the second-largest city of Kandahar, as of Friday. A diplomatic source told CNN that one intelligence assessment indicated that Kabul could be isolated by the Taliban within the week, possibly within the next 72 hours, but stressed that does not mean the militant group would enter the capital.
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would withdraw American personnel from Embassy Kabul, leaving only “a core diplomatic presence.” Thousands of US troops are being deployed to Kabul and the region to assist with the effort, which comes weeks before the American military was set to fully withdraw from Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Friday “about the ongoing efforts to safely drawdown the civilian footprint in Afghanistan,” according to a White House tweet.
In preparation of that effort, Friday’s embassy notice said facilities would provide “destruction support” daily and called on personnel to “please take advantage and reduce the amount of sensitive material on the property,” including papers and electronics.
“Please also include items with embassy or agency logos, American flags, or items which could be misused in propaganda efforts,” it said.
The notice said there would be a variety of means to destroy these materials, including burn bins, a disintegrator, an incinerator and a compacter and heavy-duty equipment.
The State Department said that this was part of the standard procedure applied when minimizing the US footprint.
“Drawdowns at our diplomatic posts around the world follow a standard operating procedure designed to minimize our footprint across various categories, including staffing, equipment, and supplies. Embassy Kabul is conducting their drawdown in accordance with this standard operating procedure,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The situation on the ground is incredibly challenging for US diplomats, who say that plans are changing by the minute, one diplomat explained to CNN.
The administration is also considering relocating the US Embassy from its current location in the capital to the Kabul airport, CNN reported Thursday, a further indication of the precarious security situation on the ground.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday that at this point, the Defense Department does not believe that Kabul is “in an imminent threat environment,” but he acknowledged that the Taliban appears to be trying to isolate Kabul.
Blinken and Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Thursday to discuss the situation on the ground and the withdrawal of embassy personnel. The top US diplomat also had a similar call with his counterpart in Kazakhstan on Friday, according to State Department readouts.
Despite the speed with which the Taliban has gained territory – a pace that caught US officials off guard – and accusations by the US and other nations that the group has committed atrocities that may amount to war crimes, the Biden administration has held firm to the decision to pull all US forces from the country. It has continued to call for a political solution to the decades-long conflict and have argued it is time for Afghan security forces to defend their own nation.
The Afghan Air Force has significantly increased the number of airstrikes it is carrying out against the Taliban, according to the diplomatic source, concentrating those strikes on the southern part of the country.
In the past 72 hours, the Afghan Ministry of Defense claims on Twitter it killed approximately 1,000 Taliban militants in districts throughout the country, including the south.
“They have an air force - a capable air force - which, oh by the way, is flying more airstrikes than we are every day,” Pentagon spokesperson Kirby said at a press briefing Friday. “They have the material - the physical, tangible advantages [over the Taliban]. It’s time now to use those advantages.”
However, experts on the region and former American diplomats have said that Biden’s decision to pull US forces from Afghanistan regardless of the conditions on the ground, combined with government ineffectiveness in Kabul, have hampered the Afghan national forces’ ability to fight back.
As the Taliban rapidly surges and American diplomats and military leave, many in Afghanistan have been left in a state of unease, fear and despair. There is particular concern among women, minorities, and those who worked for the US government – groups who now face repression and reprisal by the Taliban.
The Biden administration said it will increase the pace of relocation for Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their families, but there are 20,000 applicants in the pipeline and thousands more who have worked alongside US organizations and don’t qualify for the SIV program.
CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Ellie Kaufman, and Maia Noah contributed to this report.