WASHINGTON — The U.S.-led military mission in Afghanistan planned to hold a flag-lowering ceremony on Friday in Kabul with NATO allies but the event was cancelled at the last moment amid questions over what the ceremony was meant to signify, according to three U.S. Defense officials.
The cancellation reflected a wider sense of confusion and uncertainty surrounding the U.S. troop withdrawal, with defense contractors appealing for more guidance from Washington, former Afghan interpreters pleading for protection from the Taliban and the U.S. embassy hit by a major Covid-19 outbreak.
President Joe Biden announced in April that all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, but the pullout is moving faster than scheduled. Pentagon officials say the U.S. military withdrawal is on track to be wrapped up about two months earlier, by the middle of July or even by early July.
The flag-lowering ceremony at the Kabul headquarters for NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission, which trains and advises Afghan security forces, was called off only hours before it was due to begin, the Defense officials said.
The ceremony was not intended to convey the end of the mission or closure of the headquarters, the officials said, but was an opportunity to gather 13 NATO partners together before coalition troops depart. Senior allied officers planned to lower their nations’ flags at the headquarters building as a recognition for their countries’ contributions in Afghanistan, the officials said.
“It was causing confusion among allies and partners,” one Defense official said, adding that it was perceived by some as a closure of the Resolute Support headquarters.
The ceremony likely would be held at another date, two Defense officials said, and would only include officers and officials already working at the headquarters due to concerns over Covid-19. As of August last year, the Resolute Support mission included 36 NATO member states and partners and about 10,000 troops.
A number of factors could affect the exit timeline, including weather conditions and the tenuous security situation in Kabul, as Taliban forces continue to gain ground across the country.
U.S. troops already have handed over several bases and airfields to Afghan security forces and C-17 cargo planes are continuously flying out equipment. The United States promised to remove all its troops from Afghanistan in an agreement with the Taliban signed last year during former President Donald Trump’s administration.
As the U.S. troop exit gathers pace, the Biden administration has come under criticism over the fate of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government. Lawmakers from both parties have accused the White House of failing to make adequate plans to protect former Afghan partners who face threats of retaliation from the Taliban. Members of Congress and veterans groups have urged an emergency evacuation of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives working with the United States, but the administration has yet to announce any plans for such an operation.
Roughly 18,000 U.S.-funded contractors who maintain the Afghan government’s fleet of military aircraft and ground vehicles also have been ordered to withdraw from the country. But the contractors say they had no advance warning about Biden’s decision and that it’s unclear how their companies will continue to support the Afghan security forces once American troops leave.
Three associations representing federal contractors wrote a letter on May 13 to the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, asking for more clarity and citing several “as-yet-unanswered questions.”
“What is the role for continued contractor support for Afghan government missions and capabilities, either in-country or over-the-horizon?” the letter said.
The Biden administration has yet to answer the letter more than a month since it was sent, according to a spokesperson for one of the associations, the Professional Services Council, and an administration spokesperson.
“It's hard for companies to plan, and it's hard for the Afghans to figure out where things are heading," Stephanie Kostro, executive vice president for policy at the Professional Services Council, told NBC News.
She said it is “a complex and confusing situation” with contractors trying to plan without clear information about what arrangements could be in place that would allow them to carry on their work effectively and safely after US troops leave.
“My sense is that DoD (Department of Defense) and State (Department) are going through each of these things on a contract-by-contract basis versus having a policy across the board about how to treat contractors,” Kostro said.
The Pentagon is aware of the letter, appreciated the feedback from the contractor associations and recognized the important role played by contractors in sustaining Afghan government forces’ equipment, including aircraft, said spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick.
“Moving forward, numerous options exist capable of facilitating the continuation of contracted maintenance and logistical support without requiring U.S. contractors to be on-ground in Afghanistan,” Lodewick said, without elaborating.
The Defense Department “continues to pursue, analyze and refine the best options available and will announce corresponding decisions and implementation plans as they become available and appropriate,” Lodewick said.
Pentagon officials have communicated changes in requirements to contractors working with the Afghan air force and those contracts have been modified, '' he added.
The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development did not respond to a request for comment.
Critics say Afghan security forces cannot keep their planes, helicopters and drones in the air without U.S. contractor support, and that the lack of detailed plans for contractors has sent a damaging message to Kabul.
“As Afghans look for visible signs that Biden’s promised support will continue, what they see is a rush to the door — and silence about the details that would make the promises real,” Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post.
“Morale is as much a part of combat power as equipment and technology. The current uncertainty undercuts morale and could gravely weaken the Afghan army just as major Taliban attacks begin.” he wrote.
When Biden unveiled his decision to pull out U.S. troops, it was not clear how the country’s main airport in Kabul would be secured. The uncertainty prompted fears that foreign embassies might be forced to close without a safe way to travel in and out of the country.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said on Thursday that Turkey had agreed to take the leading role in providing security for the Kabul airport. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan made the pledge in talks with President Biden earlier this week, according to Sullivan.
"The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport and we are now working through how to execute to get to that," Sullivan said.
At a NATO summit in Brussels on Monday, Biden, Erdogan, and the other NATO leaders promised to “provide transitional funding to ensure continued functioning” of the Kabul airport and “training and financial support” for Afghan government forces.
At a time when the administration has promised to expedite visa applications from Afghans who worked with U.S. troops or diplomats, the American embassy in Kabul is facing a surge in Covid-19 infections. One embassy employee has died, 114 have been infected and several have had to be evacuated for medical treatment, according to a notice issued to staff at the embassy.
The U.S. embassy has ordered a lockdown and confined staff members to their quarters except to obtain food or to exercise alone.
The American Foreign Service Association, which represents diplomats working at the State Department, expressed alarm at the outbreak and urged the administration to make vaccination a condition for any employee physically present at the Kabul mission or other U.S. embassies around the world.
“At a time when the U.S. military withdrawal is accelerating, attacks on Afghan and Coalition forces are intensifying and the U.S. is seeking to establish a stable and positive presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal, the damage to our national security and national interests is potentially grave,” the association said in a statement Thursday.
The embassy, located on a sprawling compound, had hundreds of staff until recently when officials began scaling back its workforce as U.S. forces withdrew. The State Department recently ordered the departure of U.S. government employees from Kabul "whose functions can be performed elsewhere."