The Dire Reality In Afghanistan A Year After The U.S. Withdrawal : The NPR Politics Podcast The Biden administration concluded the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan a year ago this month. What has happened to the tens of thousands who fled the country, and what is life like for those who stayed behind?

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and international correspondent Diaa Hadid.

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The Dire Reality In Afghanistan A Year After The U.S. Withdrawal

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JEN: Hi. This is Jen (ph).

NATE: And this is Nate (ph).

JEN: And we're having a beer at the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

NATE: This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

11:15 Eastern time on Tuesday, August 23.

JEN: Things might have changed by the time you hear it.

JEN AND NATE: OK. Here's the show.

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

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: That's nice. I hope Jen and Nate send some photos.

KHALID: I haven't been. I was going to say, I felt like this summer should have been the big summer of going to national parks. And...

ORDOÑEZ: Oh, yeah.

KHALID: ...Unfortunately, we didn't do that. So hopefully next summer. All right. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KHALID: And a year ago this month, U.S. troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Taliban quickly took over. It was this chaotic end to 20 years of war - America's longest war. And here at home, it was a turning point in Joe Biden's presidency, the moment when Biden's approval ratings fell underwater, and they have never fully recovered. So today on the show, we are going to talk about Afghanistan one year after the Taliban takeover.

And to help us make sense of this all, we are joined by a special guest - I believe it is her first time on the podcast - NPR's Diaa Hadid, who covers the region. Diaa, it is so nice to have you with us.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's so lovely to join you.

KHALID: And, Diaa, I believe you were just inside of Afghanistan for a reporting trip, so we're going to have lots of questions for you all about that. But before we dive into the present moment, let's just go back to a year ago. The final U.S. troops were withdrawing from Kabul. And, Franco, there were these images on TV of just utter disorder and desperation.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it was just like you said. I mean, it's a just very chaotic end to the longest war. I mean, it was a rough moment for the United States. It was a particularly rough moment for Joe Biden. I mean, after promising a responsible and safe exit, saying there would be no U.S. helicopter evacuations from the embassy like there was in Saigon - that's practically what happened. And, you know, really what stuck in the minds of so many Americans is all those desperate Afghans rushing to the airport, chasing after, you know, U.S. airplanes, U.S. Air Force airplanes, hanging on and some even dying when they couldn't hold on.

I'll just add to that. A suicide bombing killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans. And then you had thousands and thousands of Afghan nationals who helped the United States fight the Taliban over those 20 years who were left behind. It really, really hurt Biden's image of - you know, basically of being the adult in the room, you know, of what he ran on, of bringing competency back to government. And as you noted, he suffered in the polls and hasn't really recovered.

KHALID: But, Diaa, the criticism here in the United States was not just about the American military leaving the country. It was about what happened after that and the fact that nearly instantly, the entire Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban retook control.

HADID: Yeah. And I feel like from the American side, there's a lot of blame that's put on Afghan forces for that collapse. And if I could just square up from what it looked like from here. You know, the morale of the Afghan forces had been fatally undermined by the U.S.-Taliban deal. And that was the deal signed in Doha in 2020, if I'm not mistaken.

KHALID: Under President Trump, the former president - yeah, yeah.

HADID: Under President Trump - and that deal excluded the Afghan government. That was the deal that led to American and NATO forces withdrawing. And for years, senior Afghan officials we spoke to just appeared to be in total denial. They didn't think it would happen. And they were pretty certain that if Biden won - as he did - that that deal would be called off because it just looked like such a bad idea to them. And when Biden stuck to it, that sense of denial really changed to a sense of betrayal that Afghan forces were being abandoned.

And, you know, to make it worse, Afghan foot soldiers were being killed in enormous numbers by the Taliban while Western forces were withdrawing. And, you know, the contractors were withdrawing, and that sort of disabled the Air Force, which was the key way that they were fighting the Taliban. And the Taliban were clever. They were negotiating local deals across the country to allow these demoralized, surrounded, under-armed Afghan forces to surrender peacefully and gracefully give them an exit. And that's really how they swept over and took the country so quickly.

KHALID: So after this withdrawal, the White House ordered a review of what happened. This review, we should point out, is not yet finished. But part of the reason the U.S. was in the country so long is that, you know, it was hard over the years to imagine what an exit would have looked like. I mean, this was something that I feel like we heard throughout President Obama's presidency, you know, about withdrawing troops. But the implication, I should point out, of this review is that things could have gone better, even if there was not a clear sense of how to exactly evacuate, how to withdraw without any casualties. There was a sense that it was more chaotic than it needed to be.

I spoke with a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, and he described the withdrawal to me as a, quote, "graphic demonstration of incompetence." You know, he did point out to me that he voted for Joe Biden, but he just was extremely disappointed in how this all happened. And, Franco, I mean, are you getting a sense, with the benefit of hindsight, that the administration is reflecting on that question?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think for sure they are reflecting on that question, and there is some acknowledgment of that assessment. You know, I spoke with John Kirby - he was the spokesman - or he is the spokesman - for the National Security Council - just a week ago. And what Kirby told me is that, you know, it's easier to get in a war than to get out of a war. But what Biden really believed in was that it was in the best U.S. interests to get out of the war. And that was a key point he made.

JOHN KIRBY: I would argue that the events of the last year bear that out, that we were able to focus on other threats and challenges, not keeping a couple of thousand, or perhaps even more, troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and he mentioned, you know, by leaving Afghanistan, that allowed Biden and the administration to focus more of their attention on, for example, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing challenges that the U.S. has with China. And he also said, you know, what has happened since proved that they could defend the U.S. interests in the region. And I'm talking about Biden just a few weeks ago approving a drone strike to kill al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan.

The United States is certainly making the case that, look; yes, it was hard to leave. It was necessary to leave. Resources needed to be applied elsewhere. And so far, at least since those, you know, very chaotic 17 days or two weeks or so, things have been relatively safe there.

HADID: It feels like I occupy a completely different universe when I hear you, Franco. I mean, Afghans feel an enormous sense of betrayal. This is one of the very few countries where people broadly welcomed America's presence, America's, you know, military presence on the ground, certainly in the cities. They really felt that Western countries had helped them create these bubbles where they could continue life as normal. And they feel an enormous sense of betrayal now that they're gone.

And the Afghanistan that I see now, well, the airport has moved on. I fly into Afghanistan from Islamabad. It's a one-hour flight with terrible biscuits and even more appalling tea. The airport is bright and shiny. There's big mottos sprawled along the wall. I think it's, the Islamic Emirate welcomes people to Afghanistan. You know, they're decorating the inner areas. Solar power keeps the whole thing going. But once you leave the airport, you can see a country that is mired in a deep humanitarian crisis, and it's visibly palpable.

Most Afghans don't get enough food to eat. Around half of them - we're talking around 20 million people - need food aid to survive. And you can see it - that women, they're mostly clad in burqas, will just wait outside bakeries in upscale areas quite silently, just waiting for people to give them bread. If you go to the hospitals, you can see the poorest women presenting with starving babies. And I had the unfortunate experience of covering and interviewing some of those women, and their babies were sticks - sticks with wrinkled faces, with just wrinkled bottoms. Their hands and their feet were just punctured from the injections they needed to survive.

And so after a two-decades presence of the United States, (snapping fingers) like that, within weeks that country fell apart. And that's partly because of international sanctions on the Taliban mean that it's incredibly difficult to do business in the country, and that has sent the economy into freefall.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, just adding to some of the challenges that, you know, Afghanistan is facing is the United States is withholding billions of dollars. I think it's $7 billion in funds that were supposedly to be put into safekeeping for the Afghan people that, you know, is just kind of being held there. And it's very controversial because, you know, this was money for the Afghan people.

KHALID: All right. Let's take a quick break. And we'll have more in a moment.

And we're back. And, Diaa, can you tell us a little bit more about what life is like now for women and girls inside of Afghanistan?

HADID: It differs from place to place. But largely in urban areas, where Afghan women and girls had enjoyed relative freedoms for 20 years through the Western-backed government, life has dramatically changed for them. The Taliban have banned girls from going to secondary school. They've pushed most women out of jobs. But certainly in rural areas, where women never really got to go to school, they never really got to go out, life hasn't changed that much.

And, you know, I would say even for Taliban supporters, there's a bit of disagreement around this. Most of them do want their girls to go back to school. And it's not like even they have fancy or cushy lives right now. We went to a village where many of the men had lost sons, cousins, brothers fighting for the Taliban. And when a village elder there wanted to host us and welcome us, his best meal was still rice, beans and yogurt. So life is tough there for everybody. But, you know, these are guys who are still savoring their victory.

I was there on the day of the anniversary of the takeover, and the Taliban had sort of held back from doing anything particularly big. And so all these young Taliban men, you know, waving the big black-and-white flag, they were zipping around on their bikes, their motorbikes and their cars in these convoys. And you could really tell this is a group that's still savoring the victory. And that's a real contrast to what I would say is the sorrow and fear that many other Afghans feel right now. It's a country that I would say is very divided.

And the other thing is this - is, you know, we are constantly talking about the Taliban government, but really for everyday Afghans, there's no clear chain of authority. It's not clear how decisions are made or who makes them. All major policy decisions are done in a huddle in the southern city of Kandahar, where the Taliban supreme leader lives, and he rarely appears in public. And so this has really worried diplomats because if the Taliban can't be more inclusive, if they can't manage government, the country might just tip into chaos again.

And that was certainly what one diplomat, Markus Potzel, told me. He's one of the few who are still present in Kabul, and he's the acting representative of the U.N. secretary general. I sat down with him when I was last in Kabul, and he told me he was really worried.

MARKUS POTZEL: You cannot govern the country against the will of the people for a long time. You can do it. I mean, there are examples in the world where it more or less functions for a certain time, but not long term, I would say. And you cannot not govern the country at all (laughter). It's not possible, you know? And otherwise, the country will plunge into chaos. There's the risk of disintegration, of course, as well. And you've seen, you know, especially in countries with tribal structures and - such as Somalia in the past, Yemen in the past, Libya - where these - where this goes. It's, well, anarchy, chaos and nongovernance. And if the Taliban do not change their behavior, my fear is that Afghanistan will go into that direction.

KHALID: Wow. That's quite a gloomy outlook.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. That's the big fear that, you know, so many in the United States have, I think. If it falls into that kind of chaos and it becomes a place where more chaos and dangers fester, I mean, that's a big concern in many different ways.

KHALID: And yet we see from the Biden administration a degree of confidence that they're able to at least deal with the terrorist threat from afar through drones - right? - that they're able to deal with that threat without actually having any boots on the ground.

HADID: If I could add to that, it's only been a year since they've been in power, and we can already see the impact it's had on security in the region. There has been a step-up in cross-border attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan by a local offshoot of the Taliban. It's unclear so far how this could hurt the United States, but we can certainly see security disintegrate regionally as a result of the Taliban coming to power.

KHALID: Diaa, I want to ask you about another issue, which is the challenge of refugee resettlement. I know that you recently met a man and his daughter who have been waiting for months to be resettled. And I want to hear a little bit more about their story.

HADID: So I can't say a lot about the family or their location, but the father was a senior figure in the Afghan government, and he showed me pictures of himself with a series of American and NATO generals. He couldn't make it to the airport after the Taliban took over. It was too dangerous for his children. So the American government put him in a safe house, and they move him around every few months. But a year on, they're still waiting. And I asked him, you know, how that felt. And he said every day for him, it felt like there was a sword hanging over his head that was waiting to drop.

What was that sword you called?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Damocles - Damocles, you know? This is the ancient Greek example, political example - the prisoner, her under the sword. Yeah (laughter).

HADID: And you're afraid...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Damocles - yeah.

HADID: Damocles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now I'm like (laughter) that prisoners - the Greek prisoners under the Damocles' sword (laughter). Yeah, because every moment I will face with the sudden - the interest and threat by the Taliban.

HADID: And that is true for thousands of Afghans who just can't leave the country and who are still living in fear of retaliation.

ORDOÑEZ: And just to add to that, I mean, there - the United States brought 76,000 Afghans to the United States. And those were basically the lucky ones, even though they are now living in legal limbo. You know, it's very uncertain where they will - whether - how many will be able to stay after two years, which is the kind of protections that many have. But as Diaa is saying, you know, with tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the United States during the 20 years, their future is uncertain.

I was talking with an advocate, Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, who heads the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. And she was just telling me about the vast majority of cases of Afghans in country who have applied for requests for humanitarian parole and that it is tens and tens of thousands who have applied, yet only a fraction have been approved. More than 90% have been rejected.

KHALID: What's the hang-up?

ORDOÑEZ: The hang-up is the criteria that is used in order to do it. Now, the Biden administration has changed some of that criteria to make it broader. But the reality is the initiative - she says, the problem is the initiative is not there, the manpower is not there and that they're just not fulfilling their promises.

KRISH O’MARA VIGNARAJAH: It's getting to the point that you have as good a shot of winning Powerball than you have of getting into the U.S., even though we made a promise to our allies that we would not leave them in harm's way to face Taliban retribution.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, and she basically says if this is not improved, if more people are not, you know, put into place where they can help these Afghans who helped, not only are you hurting the Afghans, but you're also hurting the United States' credibility.

KHALID: All right. Let's leave it there for today. Diaa Hadid with NPR's international team, thank you so much for joining us.

HADID: Thanks, Asma. Thanks, Franco.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, 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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