Navy SEAL Commander in Kabul Getting Bolstered by 82nd Airborne
(Bloomberg) -- The top U.S. commander in Kabul is a 30-year veteran and Navy SEAL who had a key leadership role at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Now with help from the 82nd Airborne he’s trying to keep Kabul’s airport operating after Afghans fleeing the Taliban clung to U.S. military planes.
Rear Admiral Peter Vasely used to be a member of Seal Team 6, the elite Navy unit best known for killing former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. His responsibilities in Kabul include ensuring Taliban forces around the airport don’t disrupt plans to get Americans and allies out of the country and completing a U.S. troop withdrawal by Aug. 31.
It’s not exactly the job Vasely, 54, expected in early July when he was named by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to lead a new command meant to protect U.S. diplomats after combat forces left Afghanistan.
At the time, most Afghan experts thought a possible Taliban takeover of the country would take months or longer. The U.S. embassy was still staffed and officials were handing over Bagram Air Base, the sprawling headquarters of American military operations in the country, to the Afghan defense forces. The U.S. spent more than $80 billion training those forces over two decades.
Now Bagram is in Taliban hands and the U.S. embassy is shuttered, with the American flag ceremonially lowered and transferred to the military side of Hamid Karzai International Airport, where the scenes of chaos on Monday prompted President Joe Biden to defend his decision to pull troops out.
Military officials under Vasely’s command have been having “multiple interactions a day” with the Taliban commanders to keep the airport secure and running, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, without saying who specifically leads those talks.
Vasely had already been in Afghanistan, slated to lead special operations there before Biden announced his plans for the withdrawal. Biden’s move delayed by three months a deal former President Donald Trump made with the Taliban last year.
“He was available. He had the experience,” Marine General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told the Washington Post during a visit earlier this year to Afghanistan. “I know and trust him.”
Vasely isn’t alone in trying to restore order at the Kabul airport: thousands of U.S. troops, part of the 82nd Airborne division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, are pouring back into the Afghan capital this week to bolster his effort. More than 4,000 were expected to be in place by Tuesday evening, the Pentagon said.
The 82nd was picked for the job because of its expertise in airfield and seaport seizure, and because it is trained to deploy on 18 hours’ notice.
Major General Chris Donahue will lead that division on the ground. Backed by an eventual 6,000 troops, his job will be to ensure that the military can keep the airport secure and ramp up operations to one flight per hour by Wednesday, with a total of 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees leaving each day, Kirby and Army Major General Hank Taylor told reporters Tuesday.
American officials want to avoid any repeat of Monday’s events at the airfield, when some Afghans died trying to hold on to a C-17 cargo plane, or hide in its wheel wells, an event now under investigation by the U.S.
Donahue, a West Point graduate, has deployed 17 times in support of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, according to his Army biography.
Talking to the Taliban
With an Aug. 31 deadline to get U.S. citizens and forces out of Afghanistan, Donahue and Vasely have little time to ensure operations run smoothly at the Kabul airport. For now, they’ve reached a working relationship with Taliban commanders in the area.
“There’s been no hostile interactions” from the Taliban so far, Pentagon spokesman Kirby said. “Thus far the results are speaking for themselves.”
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