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Pentagon Issues Update On Efforts To Evacuate Thousands From Afghanistan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Top Pentagon officials spoke today for the first time since the Taliban captured Kabul. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley say more U.S. troops are arriving to secure the Kabul airport for additional evacuation flights, but they left many questions unanswered. We're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So give us more details about what Austin and Milley said today.

BOWMAN: Well, Secretary Austin said he's laser-focused on the Kabul airport, on security. And he's doing - he said, we're getting out Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans. We're doing all we can. Now, the problem is the Taliban have checkpoints and are preventing Afghans from getting to the airport. And General Milley also had this to say about what's happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILLEY: The Taliban are in and around Kabul right now, but they are not interfering with our operations. Through the State Department, the Taliban are facilitating the safe passage to the airport for American citizens. That is U.S. passport holders.

BOWMAN: OK, American citizens - now, Americans and some Afghans are getting out, about 5,000 so far, but the Taliban are interfering with Afghans. One of our colleagues trying to get out saw them beating women on the way to the airport, and he fled just this week.

CHANG: Wow. I mean, this operation, it's supposed to wrap on August 31, right? Are they even confident that evacuations are going to be done by then? Because that's less than two weeks away.

BOWMAN: No, you're right. It's supposed to end on August 31. President Biden, of course, could extend the deadline, but they dodged questions when asked about that. All they would say is that they'll work as hard as they can to get as many people out as possible. Now, the president on ABC acknowledged that there is some more difficulty getting Afghans out. And the problem is that the Americans run the airport, Ailsa. The Taliban own the streets...

CHANG: Exactly.

BOWMAN: ...And, again, are beating Afghans trying to escape.

CHANG: I also saw today that General Milley pushed back on reports of an intelligence failure leading up to the Taliban takeover. What exactly did he say there?

BOWMAN: Well, he said in his prepared opening statement - he said, listen; I'm familiar with the intelligence. And he said, in a war, nothing is ever certain. He said, I can tell you there were not reports that I'm aware of that predicted a security force, an Afghan security force of 300,000 would evaporate in just 11 days. And he said the intelligence indicated multiple scenarios. But the rapid-collapse scenario range from - get this - weeks, months and even years following the departure of American troops. And he also said that Central Command, which runs the operation at the airport, submitted a number of plans to meet those possible scenarios, including what we are executing now.

So they were pretty defensive about what's going on at the airport and about allegations of intelligence failures. And again, this is going to take a lot of time. And the big question is - and we don't have an answer to this yet - how many of those tens of thousands of Afghans can they get out? And nobody's giving us a straight answer in that right yet. It's still very, very problematic.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Bowman.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "LACRYMAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.