Taliban Gains, U.S. Evacuates As Afghanistan Deteriorates : Consider This from NPR In the last week, the Taliban have gained control of large sections of Afghanistan faster than most people expected. The Pentagon is dispatching troops to assist in evacuating staff from the American embassy in Kabul, where refugee camps are growing more crowded. The U.N. says the country may be on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Audie Cornish the 300,000-member Afghan military needs "the willpower" to stand up to the Taliban.

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Taliban Gains, U.S. Evacuates: What's The Endgame In Afghanistan?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse.

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BILAL SARWARY: It is an incredibly, you know, painful and difficult situation for the Afghan civilians, for women and children. We're talking about more than a million Afghans being displaced. We're talking about millions more who simply can't leave their homes. They're stuck.

CORNISH: Bilal Sarwary (ph) is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, the capital, which is still under control of the Afghan government. But elsewhere, the Taliban now control two-thirds of the country.

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SARWARY: We have seen executions. We have seen Taliban taking your people captive who have disappeared. You know, snippets of it has appeared on videos that we have seen.

CORNISH: As Sarwary spoke to NPR Friday morning, the Taliban were continuing their rapid takeover of the country following the withdrawal of U.S. troops this month. On Thursday, after the Taliban captured the third-largest city near Kabul, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. would send several thousand troops back into the country to help evacuate people in the U.S. Embassy there.

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JOHN KIRBY: We believe this is the prudent thing to do given the rapidly deteriorating security situation in and around Kabul.

CORNISH: On Friday, NPR learned that embassy staff in Kabul had been instructed to destroy documents, computers and other sensitive equipment. Meanwhile, refugee camps in the city are crowded with people who have fled from other parts of the country. International aid groups have warned a humanitarian crisis is on the horizon. And all this is happening, Bilal Sarwary says, as the Taliban continue to close in, taking control of one provincial capital after another.

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SARWARY: The fall of these strategic provinces is having a very destructive impact on the psyche of the Afghan people. It is creating a climate of mistrust, uncertainty. People's hopes are shattered in the future of this country.

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CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - the U.S. spent 20 years in Afghanistan. Now there's growing concern that its efforts will be undone in a matter of months. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Friday, August 13.

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CORNISH: IT'S CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR, and we're recording this on Friday afternoon, Eastern Time, when the latest we know is that the Taliban have captured more than a dozen of the country's 34 provincial capitals. And late this week, representatives from several countries joined U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar to try and negotiate with the Taliban. The question is, is there any window left for success?

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RONALD NEUMANN: Absolutely not, not in the short term. Ambassador Khalilzad's process is absolutely busted.

CORNISH: Ronald Neumann, a longtime State Department official who also served as ambassador to Afghanistan, told NPR Friday that in his view, the Taliban have momentum on the battlefield and no reason to negotiate. The U.S., Neumann argued, should not have withdrawn from Afghanistan without a permanent peace plan in place.

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NEUMANN: I think we have a much larger moral debt. We have probably hundreds of thousands of Afghans who believed us, not only when we say - said we would stick with them, but when we talk about democracy and about women's rights and justice. And you have a whole generation of young people that has bought into our values. And I think this is a very sad, a very avoidable situation. But we are where we are.

CORNISH: Now, the flip side of that argument is that the speed with which the Taliban have threatened the country even after 20 years of American presence, well, that reveals that no amount of U.S. commitment, investment would have allowed U.S. troops to leave the country in the hands of the Afghan military alone.

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JOSEPH VOTEL: Well, I think there's a variety of factors that you have to look at with the Afghan force. You have to look at things like leadership. You have to look at things like command and control. You have to look at...

CORNISH: Retired General Joseph Votel, who served as the commander of U.S. CENTCOM until 2019, well, he told NPR that the Afghan military is stretched thin with small forces deployed in far-flung areas of the country where they don't have a lot of support. On the other hand...

VOTEL: There are good leaders at multiple levels. Their special operations forces are quite good. They do have some capabilities. The A-29s, for example, that fly with the Afghan Air Force are quite capable. So they do have the wherewithal. The key aspect of this will be making sure we can sustain it and they have the leadership that can apply it.

CORNISH: But if the Afghan military doesn't hold up, some believe one outcome is that the government is forced to negotiate a surrender. What that would mean for the people of Afghanistan, what kind of government the Taliban would install isn't totally clear.

AHMED RASHID: We all know they want to take power, but they say they don't believe in democracy. They don't believe in a dictatorship. They don't believe in any kind of authoritarian government. They want an Islamic government.

CORNISH: Journalist Ahmed Rashid is an expert on the Taliban and author of several books on Afghanistan.

RASHID: There is talk about greater freedoms for women, that women will be allowed to work. But also at the same time, we recently heard of stoning of women as punishment for adultery, heads being chopped off as punishment for the stealing. So there is a very strict interpretation of Islamic law, which, of course, was very prevalent in the early '90s when the Taliban had captured most of the country.

CORNISH: To Rashid, it feels like Afghanistan is lapsing back into a decades-long story of chaos and conflict.

RASHID: Well, it's just extremely depressing. This is something that I've been living with and seen all this happen before, not once but twice - when the Soviets left and the civil war erupted after that. And then the Taliban came in, which led to another civil war, 40 years of conflict. It's enough to make anyone weep, really.

CORNISH: Watching all this unfold may be easy to ask why the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan this way. The answer, according to the Biden administration, is that the Trump administration agreed to do so.

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NED PRICE: That team signed a deal with the Taliban - so-called U.S.-Taliban agreement - that required American military forces to be out of the country by May 1.

CORNISH: That's State Department spokesperson Ned Price. When we spoke on Friday, he said if the Biden administration did not honor the Trump deal with the Taliban, it would have put in danger the U.S. troops that remained.

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PRICE: And we've heard it. We've heard this a lot. Why not just violate a deal with the Taliban? Because if we were to have violated that deal, if our troops were to be on the ground going forward, they would have once again had a target on their back. They would have once again been in harm's way. There were several elements to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. The Taliban's application of this agreement has been uneven, but they did fulfill one element of this deal, and that is that they would not attack American or coalition forces. If we stayed beyond May 1, that would change. This president is not about to render our service members as sources of leverage or pawns in a broader effort

CORNISH: So you're saying out of that peace agreement, of which many things were discussed - right? - a cease-fire, the withdrawal, as you mentioned, but also intra-Afghan negotiations, right?

PRICE: That's right.

CORNISH: That the Taliban was to be negotiating with the Afghan government. It sounds like the U.S. is OK if those other things aren't happening, if its own troops can withdraw safely.

PRICE: No, Audie, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is this president attaches a high priority, the highest priority to the safety and security of our personnel. But here's the other point. There is this erroneous idea that somehow 2,500 American forces could have stood in the way of what we're seeing now. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have 300,000 fighters at their disposal, 300,000. What we need to see from the government of Afghanistan, from the parties in Afghanistan is the willpower to do this. We will continue to support them. In fact, President Biden's budget request for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces going forward has $3.3 billion of support. We're providing other forms. But to be

CORNISH: But to be clear, you're using the term willpower. So it is the position of the U.S. government right now that the Afghan forces have the wherewithal, the equipment they need, the training they need, the staffing they need, the support and security they need to stand up to the Taliban in this moment?

PRICE: If you look at it on paper, they once again have over 300,000 troops. They have an air force. They have special forces. They heavy equipment. The Taliban has almost none of this. The Taliban is a force of some 70,000 to 80,000, less than a third of the size of what the Afghan government can muster. So it's...

CORNISH: So you do not believe the Taliban - a Taliban takeover is not inevitable based on what we're seeing on the ground in these last few days?

PRICE: It's a situation that's evolved very rapidly. Look. The pace with which the Taliban has taken territory, it's been gravely concerning to us. The atrocities they've committed against their own people - gravely concerning to us. But what we know, what we're confident in is that the Afghan National Security Forces do have a sizeable force. They are trained. They have the equipment. They have the presence. What we need to see now is that put to use in an effective way.

CORNISH: While you're waiting for that to happen, I want to get to kind of a larger question of the war, because back in 2001, President Bush said that the goal was to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations. Does the Biden administration worry that Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for terrorists if it is not able to hold off Taliban rule or come to some true peace?

PRICE: Of course, it's a concern. And it's a concern that has been at the forefront of our planning. Even as we have withdrawn our military forces and made plans to do so, we have worked very closely with the intelligence community, with the full interagency to ensure that we have the capabilities the U.S. government would need in a so-called over-the-horizon capacity to be able to respond swiftly and decisively should we see a terrorist group - be it al-Qaida, be it ISIS, any other terrorist group - seek to regroup there and intend to target the United States, we're confident we'll be able to do that.

CORNISH: What people see from the outside is a rapid movement of the Taliban across the country and a rapid withdrawal of U.S. personnel under troop protection. What message does that send to the Afghan people right now?

PRICE: Well, the message we are sending to the Afghan people is one of enduring partnership. Again, this has been a partnership...

CORNISH: Ned Price, can I jump in there? I think if you are a young girl or a woman in Afghanistan right now and you see what the U.S. is doing, you may not feel that partnership.

PRICE: Well, look. What is happening is heart-wrenching. It is of grave concern to us. The images are difficult to watch. There is no denying that. What is also true is that over the course of the past two decades and still today, the United States has done more than any other country to support the people of Afghanistan, including the women and girls of Afghanistan, including Afghanistan's minorities. We are going to continue to do all we can, and we're doing that in a few different ways.

First and foremost is the diplomacy, the effort that we have to bring peace and stability to provide in Afghanistan in which all Afghans can live with some semblance of safety and security. Second is the humanitarian assistance we're providing. Just this year, we announced more than $250 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, $266 million dollars to be precise, bringing our total humanitarian assistance over the years to nearly $4 billion. The United States...

CORNISH: I think nobody has doubted how much the U.S. has spent or how many lives that have been lost. What I hear being questioned at this point is, looking at the situation on the ground, will any of those gains be able to be maintained? Or is the U.S. looking at a country that is controlled by the Taliban, the Taliban that it once ran out of Afghanistan?

PRICE: We're working as hard as we can across every single front to see to it that as many of these gains as possible can be preserved. The United States has done more to get us to this point of these gains. And right now, we are doing more than any other country on the face of the earth to see to it that they are preserved. That's what we'll continue to do.

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CORNISH: Ned Price, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, thank you for your time.

PRICE: Thank you.

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CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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