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The U.S. Has 1 Week To Complete Its Evacuation Mission From Kabul

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By this time next week, the last U.S. troops are aiming to be out of Afghanistan. Their goal is to bring out all U.S. citizens who want to leave, along with many Afghans who took the U.S. side in 20 years of war. For now, at least, President Biden is holding to an August 31 deadline that he set to depart the Kabul airport. And after Biden set that deadline, the Taliban, who surround the airport and control the rest of the country, insisted on it.

We begin our coverage with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it going to take to complete this mission in less than a week?

MYRE: Well, they're going to have to keep up this momentum that they've built in recent days. But there's still a lot of people who want to get out. So it's a real race to get these remaining U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghans on planes. The best numbers we have are that about 4,000 U.S. citizens have been flown out in recent days - not quite clear how many more remain.

Now, overall, more than 70,000 people have been evacuated since August 14. At this current pace, this final total could approach or even top 100,000. One final note - we're hearing that the crowds showing up outside the Kabul airport are much smaller today - not immediately clear why.

INSKEEP: And Greg, just as you've been talking and saying 70,000 out, the White House has updated the numbers. They're now saying more than 82,000 people are out since August 14. We don't know, but we can presume that number of 4,000 U.S. citizens perhaps has also gone up a little bit. But a lot of people remain.

Many thousands of Afghans also remain who worked with the United States. We continue hearing from them. So that raises a question for the United States. How do they define when they are done?

MYRE: Well, that's going to be a real trick. For example, with the U.S. citizens, they're not required to register in Afghanistan at the embassy. So they don't - the U.S. doesn't necessarily know how many are there. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the U.S. Embassy, which is operating from the airport, is trying to reach out by phone or email to all the Americans they're aware of.

But there may be some who they haven't been able to get in touch with. It does seem to be individual cases. Even if they can get in touch, if they're not in Kabul, it may be difficult for them to get to the airport. So this deadline of next week may make it very hard, if not impossible, for some people to reach the airport.

INSKEEP: I also think a lot about the troops getting out. They're supposed to go out last. They'll have to walk away from the walls they're guarding and get on planes and try to get out safely without anybody coming after them. What's it take for several thousand troops to evacuate?

MYRE: Well, the military says it will need several days. And that's coming up pretty quickly. A few hundred have left. But there's almost 6,000 troops at the airport, and they all need to pack up and leave. And it's not just putting a duffle bag on a plane. There's a lot of heavy equipment, armored vehicles and helicopters they have to deal with.

President Biden says, every day that they're there adds to the risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The Taliban have been taking steps to work with us so we can get our people out. But it's a tenuous situation. We're - already had some gunfighting break out. We run a serious risk of it breaking down as time goes on.

MYRE: Now, the Taliban says the U.S. needs to stick to this August 31 deadline - no extensions. And Biden has specifically mentioned the possibility of an attack by an Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-K, a group that has carried out attacks in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Greg, thanks very much.

MYRE: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.