(CNN)The American flag at the US embassy in Kabul has been taken down, marking a final step in the evacuation of the embassy, days earlier than US officials initially projected, according to a source familiar with the situation.
The US scrambled to evacuate embassy staff and top officials from its diplomatic compound in Afghanistan Sunday as Taliban fighters entered the city, Afghan government officials fled the country and gunfire was heard at Kabul airport, multiple sources told CNN.
Early Sunday, two sources familiar with the situation told CNN that the plan was to pull all US personnel from the embassy in Kabul over the next 72 hours. Hours later, most US embassy staff had been moved to Kabul airport for flights out of the country.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House lawmakers Sunday that the evacuation was a “highly dynamic and very risky operation,” even as he and other senior US officials worked to project a sense of control.
“This is not Saigon,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” when asked about President Joe Biden’s July assertion that under no circumstances would US personnel be airlifted out of Kabul in a replay of the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.
Blinken said on ABC that instructions to diplomats to destroy documents, US flags or other items that could be used in Taliban propaganda are “standard operating procedure.” Echoing Austin’s talking points, Blinken added that the evacuation “is being done in a very deliberate way, orderly way. It’s being done with American forces there to do it in a safe way.”
At the same time, the US military is considering the possibility of sending additional US forces to Afghanistan, according to a defense official and US official familiar with the ongoing discussions. Both officials caution no decision has been made.
The defense official said the “current plan” is that as long as any US diplomats maintain a presence at the airport, there will be a contingent of US forces there to protect them. But the official acknowledged that if the Taliban are essentially in charge, the “reality” of keeping diplomats and troops at the airport may not hold.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, arrived in the Persian Gulf region Sunday to directly oversee the situation in Afghanistan, according to the defense official. The official declined to publicly name McKenzie’s location, but said the general is not in Afghanistan.
In the coming hours, a military team is expected to arrive and set up its own air traffic control system at the airport in Kabul in order to increase the number of evacuation flights out of the airfield. This type of capability is routinely maintained by the Air Force so it can operate at airfields in remote or war zone environments.
“We are going to ramp up flights,” the defense official said.
This official added that “the current situation is going south pretty fast” and that from the outset, in the view of some, “there was no assessment pessimistic enough.”
The rushed withdrawal of embassy personnel and the rapid military deployment to protect US personnel marks the acceleration of a process that had only been announced on Thursday.
On Sunday, the embassy issued a security alert saying that it was exploring options to help US citizens leave the country on charter flights. It also issued instructions to US citizens in the capital to shelter in place Sunday.
The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport. There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing U.S. citizens to shelter in place,” the security alert said.
In another reflection of the widespread uncertainty, other US allies and NATO members, including Canada and Denmark, announced they were suspending embassy operations or moving them to the airport.
Most of the American diplomats who have been moved to the airport in Kabul were slated to then fly back to the US, sources told CNN. A small number of core personnel, including the top US diplomat in the country, will remain at the Kabul airport for now, the sources said.
As of Sunday morning, it seemed clear that the Afghan government was ceding control to the Taliban. A source at the Afghan presidential palace told CNN that eight or nine representatives of the Taliban’s delegations from Qatar — where talks for a solution to the conflict are ongoing — were inside the palace as of Sunday morning.
An Afghanistan senior official and a senior diplomatic source told CNN Sunday that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled Afghanistan. Afghan Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah also said in a video statement that President Ghani has left the country, referring to him as “former President.”
Blinken defended BIden’s decision to end the US’ war in the country when pressed by CNN’s Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday.
“The fact of the matter is had the President decided to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1 attacks would have resumed on our forces. The Taliban had not been attacking our forces or NATO during the period from which the agreement was reached to May 1,” Blinken said, in reference to the May 1 withdrawal agreement the Trump administration had brokered with the Taliban.
“The offensive you are seeing across the country now to take the provincial capitals would have commenced. We would have been back at war with the Taliban,” he added.
The secretary also noted that the US plans to “keep in place in the region the capacity to see any reemergence of a terrorist threat and to be able to deal with it.”
Blinken would not say if the US has offered the Taliban anything in exchange for promise of safe passage for Americans and others out of the country, telling Tapper that: “We haven’t asked the Taliban for anything. We’ve told the Taliban that if they interfere with our personnel, with our operations as we’re proceeding with this drawdown, there will be a swift and decisive response.”
Biden announced on Saturday that he had authorized an additional direct deployment of 1,000 troops to Afghanistan “to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of US personnel and other allied personnel and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.”
The President’s authorization of 5,000 troops on Saturday included 1,000 who are already on the ground in country, according to a defense official. A battalion of 1,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division were redirected to Kabul, instead of their original standby position in Kuwait. The Pentagon had previously announced 3,000 additional troops were on their way, the defense official said.