Marines based in Bahrain along with the forward-deployed 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, were some of the first troops to bolster security of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the Hamid Karzai International Airport as the Taliban quickly captured the Afghanistan capital.
Task Force 51/5, made up of a Marine expeditionary brigade and a Navy task force, has been based out of Bahrain since 2016.
“Marines from Task Force 51/5 in Bahrain were part of the original element that reinforced security at the embassy,” a Marine official familiar with operations told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday.
As the Taliban rapidly captured city after city in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the 24th MEU to loiter in the region in case more troops were needed to rapidly response, The New York Times first reported.
“That was a decision he made several weeks ago because it was all part of the contingency, planning for the need to maybe do some evacuations,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a Monday news briefing.
The 24th MEU is made up of Battalion Landing Team 1/8, Combat Logistics Battalion 24 and the Medium Tilt-Rotor Squadron 162, all based in North Carolina, and had been in the area of operations since June, according to a Navy news release.
The Marine official confirmed that the roughly 1,000 Marines with the battalion landing team deployed from the MEU to Kabul.
Those Marines were the first on the ground at the airport, keeping the vital lifeline open for vulnerable Afghans attempting to flee and any U.S. citizens who remain in the country.
“Those Marines were the first ones on scene,” Kirby said Monday.
The U.S. plans on controlling the airport until at least Aug. 31, with the hopes of evacuating 22,000 Afghan interpreters and other vulnerable populations who fear the Taliban, Military Times previously reported.
The Corps touts itself as America’s 911 call and the MEU has long been the Corps’ go-to rapid response force.
When the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Marines from the 15th MEU left a training rotation in Australia to become some of the first conventional troops to land in the country.
The Marines in Afghanistan in 2021 were joined by a battalion that was “pre-staged” in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, the Marine official said.
Though the official did not say the unit involved, the nearest prestaged force in the region was likely 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, currently deployed to the area as part of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force–Crisis Response–Central Command, or SPMAGTF-CR-CC.
The SPMAGTF-CR-CC was first created in 2012 after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
Embassy reinforcement was the original mission for the unit, but eventually it was tasked to deal with any crisis in the region that required Marines. In December 2019 a detachment of 100 Marines from SPMAGTF-CR-CC were sent to reinforce the Iraq Embassy after Iran-backed Shiite militias attempted to storm the U.S. compound.
There are roughly 4,500 U.S. troops securing the airport in Kabul, Austin said in a Wednesday press release. Roughly 8,000 troops have deployed to Afghanistan to secure the evacuations out of Kabul.
The two Marine battalions in Kabul, Afghanistan, were later bolstered by three battalions from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division along with elements of the division’s headquarters.
Kirby said the 82nd Airborne Division had been given the lead on organizing the airport’s defense given the unit’s expertise in seizing and securing airfields.
On Monday American forces shot and killed two Afghans during an active shooter situation at the airport, though Kirby said there was no reason to believe those Afghans were part of the Taliban.
Since that incident an uneasy peace has been maintained between the American forces securing the airport and the Taliban currently holding the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan.
“Currently the security situation at the airport is stable, however there are threats,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday.
“If we identify them we will take immediate military action without hesitation in accordance with our rules of engagement and the Taliban and every other organization in that country knows it,” he added.