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The Last U.S. Troops Meet Deadline And Depart Afghanistan


America's war in Afghanistan is over. Just before midnight, Kabul time, a final U.S. military flight left the Afghan capital. So what happens now? President Biden will speak to the country this afternoon. But for the moment, we're going to hear from a member of his administration, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. Good morning to you, sir.

JOHN KIRBY: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KING: We're pleased to have you. There are hundreds of American citizens, NPR and others are reporting, who are still stuck in Afghanistan. By what means will the United States get them out?

KIRBY: Well, the secretary of state's going to lead a coordinated effort with international partners to help ensure the safe passage for any Americans, Afghan partners and foreign nationals who want to leave. And you probably saw that yesterday the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that sends a clear message of what the international community expects the Taliban to deliver, in terms of freedom of travel.

So we've got lots of tools available to us, inside the international community and inside the interagency here, to hold the Taliban accountable for their assurances that these remaining individuals will be allowed to get out safely. And it's not unlike the way we deal with Americans in other countries around the world, trying to get people out of harm's way. You can do a lot of things short of having to resort to the - you know, the military tool.

KING: What are some of those tools? What's topping your mind because we know that extraction is difficult? It was obviously difficult for the U.S. military. This will be - as Secretary of State Blinken said yesterday, this will essentially be a diplomatic mission conducted from Qatar, so remotely. What are the tools in your mind that are most important?

KIRBY: Well, we have a range of tools short of the military, clearly. I mean, the Taliban says that they want to have a strong economy in Afghanistan. Well, there's economic levers that we can use. They said they want the legitimacy of the international community. OK, well, there's diplomatic ways to try to put pressure on them to meet their obligations. So there's a range of tools, and I think you're going to see the United States apply all of them, and the international community as well. But we don't necessarily see a military role here.

And I would remind that while we're certainly heartbroken that we weren't able to get everybody out by the end of the month, I mean, nobody here in the military, you know, is content that we didn't - we weren't able to get everybody out, obviously. But we are taking a measure of relief that we were able to get 6,000 Americans out, as well as more than 112,000 Afghans alone. So there were a lot of at-risk Afghans - a lot of our Afghan allies, interpreters and translators that were able to make it out to safety.

KING: I'd like to dig in a little bit on what you said about a military response and the end of the military response. If the Taliban or if, in fact, any extremist group were to go after Afghans who worked with the United States during the war or go after some of those American citizens who are still stuck in the country, what would the U.S. do? Are you saying the response would be sanctions rather than drone strikes, for example?

KIRBY: What I was referring to in my previous answer was our efforts to hold them accountable for their assurances of safe travel and safe passage for Americans and our Afghan partners. And we have a range of tools available to us. I won't preview or try to speculate about the potential use of any one option going forward. I was just referring to the fact that when it comes to safe passage, we have tools available to us inside the international community, as well, to hold them accountable.

KING: OK. Did General Milley or any other leaders at any time before August 16 urge a faster evacuation of these people with special immigrant visas who believe they are at great risk?

KIRBY: I would tell you that we worked hard inside the interagency, all of us, to make sure we were prepared for noncombatant evacuation operations. And we were planning on the potential for evacuation operations as far back as the spring. And in fact, we even pre-positioned forces, took Marines off of ships to put them closer to Afghanistan in case we needed them. It turns out we did. But I would tell you also that things unfolded very, very quickly. We went - in the course of mid-August, we went, over the course of 48 hours, from believing we had an Afghan government as a reliable long-term partner and Afghan forces as reliable long-term allies to working on the ground in a pragmatic relationship with the Taliban, a longtime enemy. Things unfolded very, very quickly. But we were pre-positioned and ready to go, should that be needed.

KING: Yeah, that's an interesting point about working with the Taliban. Let me ask you a follow on that about ISIS Khorasan. Will the U.S. conduct further drone strikes on this group, which killed 13 American servicemen and women and almost 200 Afghans last week?

KIRBY: And our hearts and prayers go out to each and every one of the loved ones and families of all of them, American and Afghan alike, who have suffered at the hands of ISIS Khorasan. What I would tell you - and you saw us take strikes subsequent to that attack as well - we have the capability, from an over-the-horizon perspective, of ensuring our national security interests are protected and defended. And what I would tell you, without getting into hypotheticals or speculating about future operations - we're going to continue to maintain those capabilities and use them if and when we need to.

KING: Do you believe it is accurate to say the war is over? I hear you saying if and when we need to, we could conduct drone strikes. We've all been saying - many of us - the war is over. Is that right?

KIRBY: I wouldn't dispute that characterization. Not at all. I mean, the military mission in Afghanistan is over, and that includes the conclusion of the 20-year war that we'd been fighting there. The president was very clear that he wanted to end this war. And we have ended it. And we're going to hear more from the president today, and I don't want to get ahead of how he wants to speak about it. But, yes, the military mission in Afghanistan is over.

KING: OK. An Afghan family in Kabul, it's been widely reported, says that a U.S. drone strike aimed at ISIS on Sunday killed 10 civilians, including children. Has the Pentagon confirmed that?

KIRBY: We are in no position to dispute those reports. We are investigating and assessing, even today, to try to learn more about the aftereffects of the secondary explosions from when that vehicle was hit. And we know there were secondary explosions of a significant size. But again, we're still looking at this and assessing it. I would just say a couple of things. One, no military on Earth does as much as we do to try to prevent civilian casualties. Nobody wants to see innocent life taken or hurt as a result of U.S. military operations, and we take these claims very seriously. That's why we're going to assess it and investigate it and make sure that we know what we did and what the potential possible other effects were.

And No. 2, that we are constantly trying to refine the precision of our operations to make sure that, going forward, we cause as little in terms of innocent life lost as possible. Our condolences go out to anybody that might have been hurt by U.S. military operations. And we'd be profoundly saddened if that was the case in this regard.

KING: We know that ISIS-K is in Afghanistan, but beyond that, we know that al-Qaida is also in Afghanistan. Does the Pentagon see these groups as an immediate threat to Americans in the United States?

KIRBY: Right now, we assess that the terrorism threat has metastasized out of Afghanistan to other places - the Levant, North Africa, for instance. And so we have to keep a focus on those regions as well. We do not assess that there is a significant threat to our national security emanating from Afghanistan right now. But we're not keep - we're not going to drop the ball here. We're not going to take our eye off of it. We have robust over-the-horizon capabilities. We're going to continue to use them where and when we need to.

KING: Our national security correspondent, Greg Myre, pointed out this morning that U.S. intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan will now be severely diminished. How will the U.S. in the future know what is going on in Afghanistan that may threaten our security?

KIRBY: No question that our intelligence capabilities are not going to be as robust going forward as they were when we had people on the ground, U.S. troops at a major size. I mean, there's no question it's going to be more difficult, but it is not impossible. I mean, I would say that, you know, from pre-9/11 to where we are now, the United States government's intelligence capabilities just writ large - our network and the way we can analyze and process information - has greatly improved over the last 20 years. And we can take advantage of that. Again, it's - is it going to be more difficult? I think so. Of course. But it's not impossible. And we're going to continue to try to refine it as best we can. Just in the last couple of days, we were able to take some over-the-horizon strikes against ISIS-K in Afghanistan. We will maintain that capability going forward.

KING: I want to ask you a question about American troops who were there at the end. I was speaking to a military veteran on my way to work this morning. This was a completely random conversation, but I told him I'd be speaking to you, and I asked him if he had any questions for you. And he said he wants to know how the Pentagon plans to support U.S. troops who may suffer very real physical and psychological scars from this evacuation pullout.

KIRBY: It's a great question and a fair question. And what I would tell your friend is that we will always remain focused on doing everything that we can here in the department and with our partners at the VA to look after, to care for and to support not only veterans of this war, but their families as well, because their families also have been bearing a heavy load for the last 20 years. Some of these family members are caregivers of troops that have come home wounded. We know that there are scars that will last a lifetime. There are wounds that are seen and unseen.

And I can assure, again, your friend, as well as every veteran, that the department leadership will remain focused on making sure that they have the care and the support they need going forward. That is an obligation that never ends and that lasts a lifetime. In fact, it lasts more than one lifetime, because we know there are children now of these members, and they, too, suffer in their own way. They, too, are dealing with the sacrifices that their moms and dads, their big brothers and big sisters have have made in the course of the last two decades. We know we have a long-term obligation, and we're not going to walk away from that.

KING: In the 30 seconds we have left, do you believe the United States is safer today than it was before the Taliban took power?

KIRBY: I believe that - what I can tell the American people is we will remain laser-focused on making sure that we cannot be attacked again from Afghanistan the way we were on 9/11. And we're all mindful of the anniversary coming up here. I can assure the American people we will remain focused on that so that that kind of thing cannot happen again - certainly not from Afghanistan, but as I said earlier, from other places as well, because the terrorist threat has metastasized outside Afghanistan since 9/11.

KING: Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, thank you, sir, for your time.

KIRBY: You're welcome, ma'am. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.