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The Afghan Government Has Fallen And The U.S. Begins Finger-Pointing


At Afghanistan's international airport in Kabul, there is a mob scene. Hundreds of Afghans, possibly thousands, are crowding the tarmac, trying to get out of the country. U.S. troops are attempting to keep order. Over the past few weeks and then over the day on Sunday, Afghan forces appeared to dissolve. Yesterday, the Taliban took control of the country. With us now are NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and national security correspondent Greg Myre. Good morning to you all.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Greg, I want to begin with you. What is happening right now in Kabul?

MYRE: Well, as you noted, the scenes of absolute desperation and chaos at the airport, where it seems thousands of Afghans have poured in - and not only to the departure lounge but onto the tarmac. A really stunning video of a large U.S. military transport plane sort of rolling down the runway with hundreds of people jogging alongside the plane, in front of it, on the sides, behind it, even guys clinging on to the wheel section - so it's been just a very chaotic scene. U.S. forces have set up razor wire to try to keep the crowd back. There have been some reports of gunshots either at or near the airport. We don't have details on that.

But this just shows how desperate this situation is getting. Up to 6,000 U.S. forces are at the airport or will be in coming days. The U.S. is taking control of the air traffic control tower. This airlift is supposed to take out thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people. These would be dual U.S. and Afghan citizens, as well as Afghans who've helped the U.S. But it seems many people have just rushed to the airport on their own.

KING: Michele, I know you've been in contact with diplomats there. What are you hearing about the situation at the airport and about the evacuation from the embassy?

KELEMEN: Right. Well, I mean, as you've been reporting, it's pretty chaotic. The U.S. was using part of the airport all day yesterday to take staff from the embassy to the airport by helicopter. The State Department says all embassy personnel are safe and there and that the military has secured the perimeter. But as you heard Greg say, there's - a lot of Afghans are just hearing rumors about U.S. flights, so they crowded onto the tarmac. On the civilian side of the airport, we've heard reports that thousands spent the night at the airport. It's not clear how many have been able to get out or have given up and - trying to go home right now. But, you know, those scenes of people trying to rush U.S. military planes are pretty dramatic.

KING: They sure are. Michele, the State Department wanted to keep the embassy or at least hoped to keep the embassy. Was the State Department prepared for this?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the talking points have just seemed so wildly off-base in recent weeks. White House and State Department officials kept saying that Afghan forces vastly outnumber the Taliban; this is their fight. And as you said, they didn't fight at all. They said they're focused on helping Afghans who risked their lives to work with the U.S., to get them out, but it took them a really long time to get that process started to evacuate them. And they kept talking, as you said, about how they wanted to keep the embassy open as - kind of as a sign of confidence in the staying power of the Afghan government. That proved impossible.

There's another thing that has struck me about all of this, and that's just how much the U.S. has misread the Taliban. The U.S. says that the Taliban won't have legitimacy if they take the country by force. Now they say they won't get out from under international sanctions if they don't protect human rights and women's rights. Well, China, Russia, Pakistan and others don't seem so worried about that.

KING: OK. Tom, many people are pointing out that the U.S. is sending troops back in to help with the evacuation. You've been talking to Pentagon officials. What are they telling you?

BOWMAN: Well, this whole thing came as a complete surprise. They did not see this coming. I spoke with a senior Pentagon official just three weeks ago, and he predicted that Kabul would not fall; there would be a civil war, and there would then be a big meeting called a Loya Jirga to work out the future. And of course, the whole thing collapsed. Some of the best troops, the commandos, fell. President Ghani fled. The warlords never engaged with their forces. And the Taliban quickly took Kabul. It was a complete surprise. Noel, his one big thing - you have to remember - one big problem, many Afghans, including soldiers, never had trust in their government, but the Taliban had a fighting spirit to battle for Islam and rid the country of foreigners.

KING: Greg, because so many people were so astonished by this, this is being called an intelligence failure. And I wonder how people in the intelligence community are responding to that accusation - we didn't know what we should have known.

MYRE: Well, they're not happy about. I've talked to a number of former intelligence people who worked in Afghanistan for a long time, and they say they were warning for years and years about the strength of the Taliban and the weakness of the Afghan military and that this kind of scenario could play out. Here's former CIA officer Dan Hoffman.

DAN HOFFMAN: The idea that it's an intelligence failure in this case is just a red herring. This was a policy decision, and President Biden made it clear during his campaign that he wanted to remove our troops from Afghanistan. He called it an endless war.

MYRE: So some of these former intelligence officials have noted there were long-running disagreements between, say, the CIA and the military. The CIA often painted a darker, gloomier picture of Afghanistan and what was likely to play out eventually, while the military would tend to be more upbeat about an Afghan military that was far from perfect but was getting stronger. But still, they say that both the CIA and the military had been warning Biden against a pullout, saying something like this could happen.

KING: All right, that's really interesting. Tom, if the military was more upbeat, even if they were warning, if they were more upbeat, how much of this do you think will be laid at the feet of the U.S. military?

BOWMAN: Well, there's no question military officials were much more upbeat on the strength of the Afghan army - billions of dollars spent on training and so forth and a steady flow of U.S. military equipment. In fact, they recently sent more equipment over. Here's Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just a few weeks ago.


LLOYD AUSTIN: We have provided - begun the provision of the aircraft that we mentioned to you earlier that we're going to provide - three newly refurbished UH-60s landed in Kabul. And they'll continue to see a steady drumbeat of that kind of support going forward.

BOWMAN: UH-60s - he's talking about Black Hawk helicopters. Now, what does the U.S. do - destroy this equipment or just pack it up and fly it out? But I think you also have to bear in mind that this can't all be blamed on the Afghan army. The commando forces were quite good but spread too thin. Many died fighting the Taliban in the past. And here's something else to remember - the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual, written a decade ago by the likes of General Petraeus and General Mattis, said to fight a successful counterinsurgency, you need a good local partner and no safe havens. The U.S. never had a good local partner with the likes of Afghan President Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani. There were always safe havens in Pakistan that exist to this day.

KING: And, Michele, I must ask you about all of those Afghans who worked with U.S. forces who are trying to get immigrant visas to get out of the country. Is there a sense that the State Department moved too slowly and now people are stranded?

KELEMEN: Well, there's a lot of frustration, and that frustration has been building for a while. It seemed like they were trying to avoid what happened yesterday, this chaotic last-minute scramble to the exit. If they had done it earlier, maybe it could have undermined confidence in the Afghan government and the military, but as you've been hearing, it seems there's little confidence in the Afghan government and military, anyway. The other problem is that, you know, this is a really lengthy process - vetting these people, making sure they worked for the U.S. government, making sure they pass security checks, all these - health checks. And it's the kind of thing that they needed to speed up, or they needed to find a third country where they could do that kind of processing. But they didn't get their act together to get that done and to speed it up. And they also inherited a refugee program that was, frankly, decimated by the Trump administration.

KING: So a lot of red tape on the State Department's end. Tom, what's the state of the military's effort to get Afghans who helped the military out of the country?

BOWMAN: Well, the military is - they're flying out Afghans who worked with the U.S. military. But you have to remember; this is State Department-led, not Pentagon-led, and military officials say, we can move people, so, State Department, tell us who you want us to move. It's been going too slowly. As Michele said, there's a lot of paperwork and hoops to jump through. The military is frustrated, as are Afghans hoping for visas, hoping to get out. Now, 2,000 or so visa applicants and their families have already been sent to Virginia's Fort Lee, but tens of thousands remain, along with family members. So the embassy has shrunk to this small skeleton force at the airport. The military can help to a greater degree but have not been asked by State Department.

KING: OK. Greg, I was listening to NPR's live coverage yesterday, and I heard a couple of people express concern that the U.S. will have absolutely no presence in Afghanistan now, meaning no intelligence presence. And I wonder if that's accurate. In terms of the CIA's role, what happens now?

MYRE: Well, the CIA will say that they're able to operate anywhere, in some cases better, in some cases less good, depending on the resources they have. And so this is definitely a big blow to the CIA and other intelligence agencies. They depended on the U.S. military for security so they could operate around the country for the past 20 years, but with the U.S. military reduced to the Kabul airport and soon leaving, it seems, altogether, they won't be able to operate in the same way. Afghans who are working with the CIA now fear for their lives under a Taliban regime and would face extreme risks. And the U.S. intelligence concern, again, in Afghanistan will be that this country will attract extremists from other countries that will be hard to monitor. And there's a fear that it could return to a situation like the 1990s, when the U.S. didn't have a presence and al-Qaida was able to take root.

KING: NPR's Greg Myre, Michele Kelemen and Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MYRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SNOW BOUGH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.