Vets Are Worried Their Afghan Allies Will Be Killed Before They Can Evacuate : The NPR Politics Podcast The U.S. is evacuating thousands of people a day from Kabul, prioritizing Americans and citizens of NATO allies. The Taliban insist that all troops must be out of the country by the end of the month. That has left Americans who were deployed to the country worried about the fate of their Afghan allies — particularly those outside of the capitol city.

This episode: demographics and culture correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence.

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Vets Are Worried Their Afghan Allies Will Be Killed Before They Can Evacuate

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DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Danielle Kurtzleben.

And before we start the show, I am very pleased to announce our next NPR POLITICS PODCAST book club pick. It is "Jesus And John Wayne" by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. It's an engrossing read about the intersection of white evangelicalism, the GOP and masculinity. We will be talking about the book with Kristin in mid-September. You won't want to miss this. So go get your copy of the book now, read it and join our Facebook group at n.pr/politicsgroup - again, n.pr/politicsgroup. Kristin will be there to answer your questions. And I will be there to grab some of your questions to ask her on the podcast.

OK, here is the show.

NATE: Hey, folks. This is Nate (ph) up in Maine, currently stranded because our car engine has died. This podcast was recorded at...

KURTZLEBEN: 2:05 p.m. on August 23.

NATE: Things may have changed since you heard this. But hopefully, we will have our car repaired. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KURTZLEBEN: I like that people think of us in their moments of crisis. That's really touching.

Hey, folks. It is THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And we are joined by NPR's Quil Lawrence, NPR veterans correspondent and formerly our bureau chief in Kabul. Hey, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey there.

KURTZLEBEN: And today, we are going to talk about Kabul and more broadly, Afghanistan. We're going to talk about the status of evacuations from that country. President Biden spoke yesterday on this topic, saying that 28,000 people have been evacuated since August 14. In addition, the Pentagon said this morning that 16,000 people have been evacuated in the last 24 hours, including 11,000 by the U.S. military. And in the speech this weekend, Biden continued to defend the decision to withdraw troops.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Look. I had a basic decision to make. I either withdraw America from a 20-year war that, depending on whose analysis you accept, cost us $150 million a day for 20 years or $300 million a day for 20 years, who - and I - you know, I carry this card with me every day - and who, in fact - where we lost 2,448 Americans dead and 20,722 wounded. I either increase the number of forces we keep there and keep that going or I end the war. And I decided to end the war.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So, Quil, let's start with you. We've talked on this podcast, or rather our colleagues have, about the evacuation and the chaos surrounding it. Tell us, how did that situation develop over the weekend?

LAWRENCE: With fits and starts - there's been times where people have gotten through to the airport. American citizens have alternately been told to come to the Embassy and to shelter in place. Just most recently, there was gunfire for the first time outside of the airport. There seemed to be a gun battle between security forces there and someone in the crowd. It's still not clear exactly what was going on.

It's still a terrible gauntlet that people, especially Afghans trying to leave Kabul, are having to run. They're having to get across town past many Taliban checkpoints. Some of these people are wanted by the Taliban for some sort of reprisal. And then they end up in this massive crowd - thousands of people at a chokepoint trying to get into several gates into the airport that keep on opening and closing. There are some systems that have worked for getting people through. But I'd say ad hoc would be a generous way to describe them.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And a lot of us have seen that truly harrowing footage - and disturbing footage - of people trying to leave the airport. And I'm wondering - actually, quickly, if you could tell us, who are the people who are managing to get out? Is it largely American citizens, or is it a lot of Afghans as well?

LAWRENCE: You know, the Pentagon was not specific on that. We know that they had previously estimated there were 10- to 15,000 American citizens in Kabul. We don't know how many of those are American contractors working for American companies or how many of them are Afghans with American passports or Afghan Americans. It's not clear. But there are - there's that group.

There are tens of thousands more people who've received special immigrant visas. Those are people who worked alongside U.S. forces, fought alongside U.S. forces. Some of them are credited with saving American lives on the battlefield. They were promised visas for that. And then the president has been talking about women leaders and journalists. And it does seem to have opened it up to anyone who might be in danger now that the Taliban are in power, possibly. And that's a very, very large category.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Mara, I want to turn to you. Let's talk about once these people get on these airplanes, what's happening to them once they're flown out? Are they being brought directly to the United States? Or are they stopping somewhere in between?

LIASSON: No, they are not being brought to the United States, and President Biden made it very clear yesterday that the Afghans who are being removed from Kabul are not going to go directly to the United States. They're going to be taken to U.S. military bases, where they will be, he said, thoroughly vetted. Now, that could be an answer to some Republican attacks from Trump supporters. The Republicans have kind of changed their message a bit. First it was, oh, my goodness, you have to get out every Afghan ally and translator. And even Donald Trump said it was a travesty that Biden wasn't getting them out fast enough. Then, some Republican conservatives, Trump supporters, started posting images of these giant cargo planes filled with Afghans who were leaving the country and with captions like, do you want these people to come to your neighborhood? - the kind of old, you know, Muslim-immigrants-bring-terror-and-crime trope that actually launched Donald Trump on his career. And then, Trump quickly changed his message and said he believes Americans should come out first. So there is a sensitive issue. It gets all wrapped up in the immigration debate. But the bottom line is no. People leaving - Afghans leaving from Kabul will go somewhere else first to be vetted before they come to the United States.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And we have a lot more to talk about with regard to the domestic politics surrounding this, but I have one more question about what's going on in Afghanistan because a lot of attention has been focused on Kabul, like you said, but Afghanistan is a really big place. So what about potential evacuees who can't get to Kabul? Do we know what's going to come of them?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. You know, people have been talking about this in the community I cover, veterans, for months and months because this - the Taliban takeover was really swift, but it started months ago in some of these provinces like Helmand, where there were people who were well into this process of being approved for a U.S. visa. They'd been promised by a U.S. soldier or Marine. And these veterans in the United States were screaming to anyone who would listen that my interpreter, who I promised a visa to the U.S., and gave my word of honor, is stuck behind Taliban lines, that the road is closing between Kabul and Khost, or Kabul and - even Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, these other places. How are they going to get there? And we have covered this. There were people who were going dark, who were hiding out in their own villages. We would get messages from them, and then the messages would stop. I know of at least one case of someone we interviewed who was assassinated by the Taliban while still in this process. So, right now, America's presence is at the Kabul airport. And as they were setting up this this visa program, the P-2 program, they were initially saying, you know, you've got to get yourself out of the country, and we're sorry if you're not in Kabul because, just face it, we're not there anymore. We've shrunk down our footprint, and now they've surged it back up to almost 6,000 troops at the airport, but America is no longer in control of Afghanistan. That's a fact. And they can't help people who are in these provinces.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We have a lot more to talk about, and we will do that in just a second.

And we're back. And, Quil, before we get back to the latest news on the evacuations, I want to talk about your beat here at NPR - veterans' affairs. I'm curious about how American troops who served in Afghanistan are reacting to how this war is ending and how quickly the Taliban regained control. Have you talked to many troops? And what have you been hearing?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I mean, of course, you know, saying what veterans think is like saying what do Americans think?

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

LAWRENCE: They think everything. There are a really broad range of opinions on this. And so I'd say the first category, you know, die-hard political people are saying whatever their party says. They're using the same sort of attacks that you see on, you know, one side or the other's media or Twitter feeds. So there's that. There is an interesting thing, you know, that majorities of American troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan support the idea of ending these wars. And many of them say that these wars were not worth fighting, which I think a lot of people don't realize. What is shocking to everyone, including Afghans I spoke with, was just how quickly the Taliban took in particular Kabul and how quickly the American-sponsored government there just disappeared. And, you know, the American - the army that, at least on paper, was hundreds of thousands of soldiers evaporated. And I think that - you know, I had heard people saying, I don't think Kabul will last the year, or Kabul is going to fall, you know, by winter. I had no one - I heard no one beforehand say that it was going to fall in a fortnight. And I think, you know, anyone who claims they knew it was - who knew it was going to happen, I'd like to see that in print.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Mara, we've talked on the podcast about Biden's defense of withdrawing from Afghanistan. We heard him do that in the clip at the top of this episode. So what did you make of his speech yesterday and his continuing defense of the withdrawal?

LIASSON: Well, he's been quite defiant about the basic decision. The White House believes that on the question of the policy, pulling out of Afghanistan, they're on firm ground because big majorities of Americans favored pulling out of Afghanistan. They thought after 20 years and trillions of dollars, it just wasn't worth it. What I heard yesterday that was new from Joe Biden is he started talking a little bit more about the execution of the policy. That's where he's come under withering criticism. And because there are now thousands and thousands of Americans and Afghans being removed from the country, he was able to talk about that and say, look; you know, we're making progress. We're going to get every American out.

The big danger for the White House is if any American citizens are harmed or killed in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan. And that's something they have to really be worried about. But just - something else, there are so many things that Joe Biden has said that have turned out to be 180 degrees wrong, like the Taliban wouldn't take over. Back in April, he actually said, quote, "we will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We'll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely." Now he's saying that the chaos was unavoidable. So it's hard to square those two things.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, right, right. So I want to zoom out and take some perspective here from both you and Quil. There's been a lot of comparison between this and past crises that have gotten away from presidents. And it is possible to look at Joe Biden and Afghanistan and compare it to crises like Hurricane Katrina and George W. Bush or former President Trump and COVID, former President Carter and the hostage situation in Iran. And I'm wondering, are those comparisons apt? Mara, let's start with you.

LIASSON: Well, look; any time a president looks incompetent, it's bad. A chief executive is supposed to know what they're doing. And Joe Biden, more than anyone, ran on his experience and his competence that he knew how to govern. So that's why this is a big problem for him. Now, will it be a political problem over time? We don't know. Remember; the hostage crisis went on for a very long time. If he gets everyone out of Kabul and this fades from the headlines and there's no evidence of a resurgent al-Qaida that has a safe haven in Afghanistan and is able to mount attacks on the U.S., then maybe this fades. The thing about Katrina was those were Americans who were stranded on rooftops in Louisiana.

So I think it really depends on what happens over time. But in the short term, there's no doubt that Joe Biden has taken a hit. His approval ratings have dropped. Some of that was because of the delta variant and the fact that COVID was resurgent because the slip happened even before Afghanistan. But this has been, you know, a very difficult time for him, and he has - his approval ratings have really suffered.

LAWRENCE: I have to say, from the - yeah, from the community I cover, they've - I think they have seen pretty well how easy it is for America to forget about Afghanistan, essentially as it had for the previous eight to 10 years. So I think some of them are really betting that Biden will get away with people forgetting how badly this went and then - and go back to their general support for the idea of no longer being in Afghanistan. Now, one condition that might change as well is - remember; we left Iraq about eight years ago, and then we had to go back, according to - you know, Americans decided we had to go back because ISIS rose so quickly and took Mosul in a similar fashion to the way the Taliban just took Kabul. So - and I've had veterans tell me that, well, you know what? We'll be back and thinking that being able to shirk sort of their idea of our responsibility to keep the global order together, that we won't be able to get away with that. That's a counter - you know, countervailing opinion.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, there will clearly be plenty more to say about this, but we're going to have to leave it there for today. Quil, thank you so much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks so much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KURTZLEBEN: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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