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 BidenGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Sanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal 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But Kirby rejected the idea that there’s any “irony” in sending in about the same number as were withdrawn.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 AustinBiden remarks on Taiwan leave administration scrambling Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan GOP lawmakers worry vaccine mandate will impact defense supply chain 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 GreenCities become pawns in redistricting game GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops A quick reaction force in India could prevent the worst of Taliban rule in Afghanistan 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 MassieEighth House GOP lawmaker issued 0 fine for not wearing mask on House floor Reps. Greene, Roy fined for not wearing masks on House floor Sixth House GOP lawmaker issued K metal detector fine 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) GaetzPhotos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room Justice Department adds 2 top prosecutors in Gaetz investigation: report House GOP leaders urge 'no' vote on Bannon contempt 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 HigginsRep. Tim Ryan becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress NY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House 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 WarrenSinema's office outlines opposition to tax rate hikes The CFPB's data overreach hurts the businesses it claims to help Runaway higher ed spending gains little except endless student debt MORE (Mass.) and Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthProgressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades Building back better by investing in workers and communities MORE (Ill.) are pressing the Pentagon on reports of food insecurity among National Guardsmen and reservists.
“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
— 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