HILLARY: This is Hillary (ph) calling from Boykin, S.C., where I was stopped by a wonderful torrential thunderstorm.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER CLAPPING)
HILLARY: This podcast was recorded at...
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
1:26 p.m. on Wednesday, August 25.
HILLARY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK. Enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DAVIS: I used to love thunderstorms until my toddler decided she hates them and uses them as a reason not to go to sleep.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: I'll be honest, I was always scared of thunderstorms, and that never fully went away. So not the most relaxing thing for me.
DAVIS: (Laughter) Not the most relaxing sound.
DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And in remarks at the White House on Tuesday, President Biden said the U.S. is on track to soon complete airlifts out of Afghanistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31. The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.
DAVIS: Our colleague Greg Myre covers national security for NPR, and he joins us now. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Sue.
DAVIS: So let's start with this. Is it possible for the U.S. to evacuate all the people it is promising to evacuate over the next six days?
MYRE: Well, it's a fuzzy number. We don't know exactly what that figure is. We and others have been pressing for days and days. The U.S. says it wants to get out every American who wants to get out and all Afghans who worked with the Americans and others now who are at risk. But what is that number? About, as we speak, 4,400 Americans have come out. But when you go to a country as an American citizen, you don't have to register at the embassy. And when you leave, you don't have to deregister. So therefore, it's kind of hard to figure out, you know, exactly how many American citizens are in a country. The U.S. officials say they've been in contact via phone or email with U.S. citizens that they're aware of and - they're try (ph) to get them out. We've heard now, for a third time, the U.S. military has sent a helicopter from the airport in Kabul to pick up U.S. citizens and bring them back. So they are going to some pretty extraordinary lengths to try to make it happen. The question is the numbers, trying to figure out exactly how many are there, and this tight, tight deadline, which is fast-approaching.
DETROW: Sue, the White House has been pretty defensive about its inability to provide this number, has really explained this point over and over again. And it's worth pointing out that even as, you know, the White House has been increasingly proud to give two or three times a day updates of, like, the baseball stadiums' worth of people a day that it's airlifting out of Afghanistan...
DETROW: ...You know, it wasn't actually until yesterday that the government said how many Americans had been evacuated - a bit more than 4,000, according to the Pentagon - which of course means, you know, a big chunk of the people who were evacuated on those airplanes were Afghans, as obviously, people from other countries were evacuated as well.
DAVIS: Well, that's my other question, Greg, is, what exactly - or how much do we know about who is still there and how they're going to get out?
MYRE: Right. So it's presumed to be a few thousand more Americans, but perhaps still tens of thousands of Afghans. And they've kind of expanded the categories. Before the big crisis started just a couple of weeks ago, it was people known as SIVs, people with special immigrant visas. These were the translators, interpreters who'd worked with the U.S. troops over the past 20 years. But now we've seen this group expand. And again, it was their family members, so we're talking close - maybe up around 20,000 of the SIVs plus family members, and you get up maybe 70, 80, 90, 100,000.
But we're also talking now about the category they're calling that's just at risk. And these might be journalists or people who've worked in the Afghan government and feel they've been at risk, or they've received threats in some fashion from the Taliban. So that number is expanding. All of these huge bureaucratic requirements that the State Department had put in place have kind of fallen by the wayside - not entirely, but it's getting much looser about who can get on a flight at the airport. Now, these people are still supposed to be vetted when they arrive at a way station, at an air base in Qatar or Germany. But as we've seen, everybody's had to scramble because this has become such a rushed operation.
DAVIS: There's a lot of pressure right now on Biden from lawmakers in both parties, from world leaders saying don't stick to - don't make a hard deadline.
DETROW: Mmm hmm.
DAVIS: Scott, why is the White House so insistent that they keep this hard deadline? Why not push it back?
DETROW: Well, I think, first of all, remember; this all started because Biden was anxious to get out of Afghanistan. He didn't want any more soldiers there. He wanted to follow through on a promise. He wanted to be the president who actually delivered on the promise of leaving Afghanistan. And first this spring, then early this summer, he said the United States is pushing through with this and will be completely out of this country by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks - obviously a symbolic deadline, but also kind of the after effects of some loose agreements that the Trump administration had agreed to with the Taliban and Afghanistan's government last year.
Biden is trying to walk a fine line here. The messaging from the White House is that the U.S. is on pace to achieve its goals of airlifting Americans and Afghan allies out of the country by the 31st, that it's going to happen by that deadline anyway. I think a lot of people on the ground are very skeptical that that deadline will be met. So I don't know if that talking point will have to change as the deadline gets closer. And it's clear there are still people on the ground, but right now, you can clearly see the president try to satisfy both sides by saying so far, the 31st is the deadline.
And the other thing I'd add is that he, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, other administration officials have been saying a lot more bluntly lately that they are worried the longer that thousands of troops are securing the airport perimeter, the more vulnerable they are to an attack from ISIS-K, which is a terror group in inside Afghanistan, among other groups.
DAVIS: Greg, obviously the Taliban is a factor here. There was a story reported earlier in the week that the CIA director, William Burns, actually went to Afghanistan and met with leaders of the Taliban on Monday. What do we know about that meeting?
MYRE: So CIA Director William Burns flew to Kabul, and he had a meeting with effectively the top Taliban political leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He has been a top Taliban figure going way back, and he's got quite a history. We don't know where they met or what they discussed. Obviously, there were short-term issues like this August 31 deadline. There's also the question of what sort of relationship the U.S. and the Taliban might have after August 31 and when the U.S. is gone. But quite striking, I think it really shows that the U.S. and the Taliban are being pretty pragmatic here. There really was no relationship the last time the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001. And then they've been enemies on the battlefield for 20 years. But they're both understanding, I think, that there does have to be some sort of relationship here. The Taliban know they can't really govern being isolated and ostracized by the international community. And the U.S. knows it's going to have some leftover business after August 31, even after U.S. troops and citizens depart the country.
DAVIS: Wow. All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this in a second.
And we're back. And a question that I would put to both of you is, if we assume, for the sake of this podcast, that the Biden administration is successful, that they meet this August 31 deadline and the evacuation phase of this is over, are we then entering in sort of a refugee emergency phase of this crisis? What happens to these tens of thousands of people that have just been hastily removed from this country?
MYRE: Well, you know, we've seen this in the past in Afghanistan going way back to the Soviet invasion in 1979. This touched off a huge refugee crisis. Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan and to Iran. When the Taliban took over a quarter century ago, you saw another big exodus. Over time, some of these refugees have come back. But there's certainly the concern that if the Taliban take over, you would see a big refugee outflow. It seems unlikely that they would be able to get out by plane, but they could get across land borders. And Iran and Pakistan are the two most likely countries.
DETROW: And, Sue, I think that's one of many reasons why there has been such frustration and pushback from European allies about this, despite the fact that, you know, President Biden keeps insisting that's not happening at all. It's been pretty clear. It's been in public, you know, key officials in Germany, in Great Britain and other places have been very angry at how the U.S. has handled itself over the past few weeks. You know, I think one reason is that the Syrian refugee crisis totally destabilized European politics. I mean, that led to the rise of far-right-wing parties, among many other things. There's obviously a lot of things different between Syria and Afghanistan, but the idea of another big refugee crisis is something that, certainly, a lot of European heads of government do not want to have to deal with again because it was an enormous challenge.
DAVIS: Greg, you were just talking about the Taliban and how things have changed in Afghanistan. I mean, they are effectively ruling the country now, but they're also trying to present a very different face to the world, a more moderate face, at least by Taliban standards, even though we should note that there has been reporting on the ground of them still gathering up people, doing repressive-regime-type things. But how seriously are people taking the Taliban in this sort of new, more moderate presentation they're putting forward to the world? And how skeptical is the world of them?
MYRE: Well, there's very deep skepticism and with good reason. I mean, they were in power for five years, and they developed a reputation for brutality for - especially for limiting the rights of women. So I think the burden of proof is on the Taliban to show that they've changed. Now, their leadership has been in places like Qatar or in the Middle East. They know what the world is going to demand of them, and therefore they know what they should say that will sound pleasing to Western ears or to other people around the world. So, yes, they say they'll allow women to work within the norms of Islamic society or Islamic law, but they're not defining any of these details. And they had sort of a strange statement the other day of, well, some of our fighters, our rank-and-file fighters may not quite know how to treat women in public. So women should probably stay home and try to work from home for a little while till we sort that out.
And so already you can see some potential cracks here where the leadership may be saying one thing, and the Taliban fighters or Taliban members on the streets may be doing something else. And I think they're in a real contradiction here. The Taliban want foreign embassies to stay open. They want assistance from the rest of the world. They know they need that. But they do have some fundamental principles that they've never really compromised on. And if they're pushing the U.S. and its allies out the door, they could very much find themselves in a position of isolation once again.
DETROW: And I think it is worth pointing out that there is deep, deep, deep, deep, deep - I could keep going - skepticism from the global community that the Taliban is going to be significantly different than it was 20 years ago and that it's going to run a more open and welcoming government. I think President Biden would be delighted if that was the case, but I don't think anyone at the U.N. is making plans for that to happen.
DAVIS: All right. I think we'll leave it there. Greg Myre, thanks so much.
MYRE: My pleasure, Sue.
DAVIS: Before we end the show, I just wanted to say that this is going to be my last podcast for a while. I'm going to have a baby next week, so I'm going to be on maternity leave until the early part of next year. But I promise, Scott, I'm going to be listening to the podcast the whole time.
DETROW: Well, I can't wait to meet your baby. We will miss you here on the air. But you got much more important stuff to do. And I'll see you around if not in a podcast pretty soon.
DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DETROW: And I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.
DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.