US general: Afghanistan deployments paused to protect troops from coronavirus
The U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is temporarily stopping the movement of troops into the country as officials work to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan confirmed Thursday.
In a statement, Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the decision also means some troops may not be able to leave Afghanistan.
“To preserve our currently healthy force, Resolute Support is making the necessary adjustments to temporarily pause personnel movement into theater,” Miller said, adding the coalition is establishing pre-deployment screenings. “In some cases, these measures will necessitate some service members remaining beyond their scheduled departure dates to continue the mission.”
As of Thursday, 21 Resolute Support personnel are exhibiting flu-like symptoms and are in isolation, he said. There is no lab to analyze coronavirus tests in Afghanistan, so samples are being flown to a U.S. military testing facility in Germany or other certified civilian testing facilities.
Miller also said 1,500 multinational troops, civilians and contractors who arrived in Afghanistan in the past week are in quarantine, but stressed that the step was taken “out of an abundance of caution, not because they are sick.”
Other measures to protect Resolute Support personnel include conducting meetings with Afghan partners using “technical means” rather than in person. The coalition has also limited base access to only “mission-essential” personnel and reorganized to create physical distance between people.
“Resolute Support leaders at all levels are evaluating and assessing the impacts of COVID-19,” Miller said. “Our priorities are clear: protecting the force and protecting our collective national interests.”
The anti-coronavirus measures come in the midst of a troop drawdown in Afghanistan required by the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban.
Under the deal signed at the end of February, the U.S. is to drop to 8,600 service members within 135 days of signing, with the international coalition drawing down by a commensurate amount. On March 9, the U.S. military said its drawdown had started.
On Wednesday, U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted that officials “continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8600” even as they work on ways “to reduce the risks of COVID-19 to those deployed.”
As of Tuesday, Afghanistan reported 22 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But with a porous border with Iran, where officials have reported more than 18,000 cases, there are fears of coronavirus ravaging war-torn Afghanistan, as well as concerns about the ability of an Afghan government locked in an internal power struggle to handle the crisis.
In the United States, lawmakers have also raised concerns about whether U.S. troops have access to coronavirus tests in Afghanistan. In a statement last week, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said he was concerned about “a number” of troops at a military base 75 miles from the Iranian border who had flu-like symptoms but tested negative for the flu.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) also wrote a letter expressing concern that members of the Wisconsin National Guard conducting operations in and around Afghan villages with coronavirus may not have access to tests.
The Pentagon has pushed back on those concerns, saying that while the machine to process the tests is not in Afghanistan, troops can have samples sent to and tested at U.S. military labs in Germany and elsewhere.