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U.S. Troops Are Arriving Back In Afghanistan To Help With Evacuations

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Thirty-five hundred U.S. troops are expected to be back on the ground in Kabul today to help get Americans and Afghans who helped them out of the country. One of the nation's top military commanders is in talks with the Taliban about those evacuations. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby is on the line with us. State Department spokesman Ned Price said that U.S. troops will get people out as long as they are able to. What factor will determine how long the U.S. will remain at the airport for evacuations?

JOHN KIRBY: Right now, the mission to complete the drawdown of our embassy personnel as well as to move other civilians out of Kabul extends until the end of this month, the 31 of August. So from a planning and execution phase, that's our focus is trying to get as many people out as we can over the next couple of weeks.

MARTINEZ: As many people as possible - but is the target to get everyone out that needs to get out?

KIRBY: That is exactly right - working in concert with the State Department to get as many people out and processed through as possible. We're working hand in glove with the State Department to do that. Our role in this is to provide as much airlift as possible. And again, we think, once we get up and running fully, that we could be able to manage between five and 9,000 people a day.

MARTINEZ: OK. How many Afghans with special immigrant visas will the U.S. military evacuate?

KIRBY: I think that's really a question better put to my State Department colleagues. What I can tell you is from a capacity perspective, we're prepared to move tens of thousands of them. And we are prepared even - here in the United States to receive up to 22,000 of them at installations here in the United States - Wisconsin and in Texas and in Virginia. We're working hard on this with - to do whatever we can to make it easier for these people to relocate.

MARTINEZ: What's behind the delay in evacuations? I know that many Afghans do have the proper paperwork. Is it about just securing flights?

KIRBY: There's a - certainly an application process that I can't speak to with great dexterity. The State Department can speak to that better than we can. But there is - you know, there's - I know the State Department has expanded the pool of people they're willing to look at for priority relocation into the United States. And again, from a Defense Department perspective, our role here is really the capacity. It's helping get them out of the country and then helping them find forward movement on to wherever it is they need to go. And again, that's where our focus is.

MARTINEZ: On capacity 'cause I know you mentioned the 22,000 - that number's a fraction of the - what? - 60,000 Afghans who reportedly could qualify for those visas and might need to be evacuated. Why aren't more Afghan special visa recipients being evacuated?

KIRBY: Well, sir, actually, there are a lot more being evacuated. I mean, since 2005, the United States has helped process more than 70,000 Afghans under the special immigrant visa program. In just the last few weeks, we've processed a couple of thousand. When I say 22,000, what I'm talking about are people that we can house temporarily at U.S. military installations. But even now, flights are coming into the country with special immigrant visa applicants, and some of them aren't going to a military base at all. They're simply going right into relocation throughout the country. So there are thousands that are still coming in, you know, over the course of the last few weeks. There's a train now that's in motion to continue to move these people into the United States. And from our perspective right now, it's about trying to help them get out of the country, including on military aircraft, and, if they need, to process more in the United States for temporary lengths of time to be able to house them at U.S. bases here in the United States.

MARTINEZ: President Biden said in his address yesterday that the U.S.'s national interest in Afghanistan has been to prevent terrorist attacks in the U.S. And you told Politico that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wants to reassess if terror groups could regain a foothold there. How will the U.S. be able to do that now that the U.S. is out and the Taliban is back in?

KIRBY: We have robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities already in place there in the region. It doesn't mean that it's perfect. Certainly, geography, time and space play a role here. But we have already established a capability in the region off of Navy ships, off of bases that we have in the region and even flying aircraft from the United States. Yes, it takes a little bit longer. Yes, sometimes the tactile nature of the intelligence is somewhat hampered if you're not on the ground. But we know how to do this. There's not a piece of the Earth that the military can't hit if we need to. And I would point to other places around the world where we are already conducting over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability.

A lot has changed in 20 years. This isn't the United States military of 2001. It's the military of 2021, and we have robust capabilities.

MARTINEZ: I think a lot of people were just shocked at how easily it seemed that the Taliban was able to take control of Kabul with little to no resistance. Does this prove that U.S. efforts to train Afghan security forces just simply did not work?

KIRBY: No, I would not say that at all. The Afghan forces that we worked with over 20 years became much more capable and competent in the field. In fact, in the last couple of years, they've been in a vast majority of - the leading element in all operations in Afghanistan. We were not leading combat operations over the last 18 months to two years. The Afghans were. They had the capability. They had the capacity. What clearly happened here was they didn't have the will. So you can train. You can resource. You can advise. You can assist. You can finance. But you can't finance will. You can't purchase leadership. And that was something that we just didn't see in the field or, frankly, in Kabul over the last couple of weeks.

MARTINEZ: Last thing - is there one thing maybe the U.S. can learn from this to make sure that we don't repeat the same mistake in the future?

KIRBY: I think everybody's going to look at the last 20 years in their own way, and we respect that - particularly veterans. But we have to remember how this all started on 9/11 and where the attacks on 9/11 were planned and resourced - from Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden. He's gone, and we haven't been attacked from Afghanistan like that since 9/11. That is not a small achievement.

In the process of making sure that couldn't happen, we also helped make happen a lot of great progress for women's rights, for the education of children, particularly girls, political, economic progress. Now the Taliban seems to be in control, and that's clearly worrisome. All that progress could be lost. But the fact that it was made, the fact that the Afghans themselves had a voice in that progress is not something that we should just easily dismiss or cast aside and say that the entire enterprise was a mistake.

What's going to be important now going forward, if the Taliban intends to govern, is holding them accountable for the kind of governance that can permit that progress not to be lost and for opportunity not to be squandered. And they should be held accountable by the international community. I can tell you the United States is very much going to be watching closely and will be leading the international community in accountability going forward.

MARTINEZ: That's Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. John, thanks a lot.

KIRBY: You bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.