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After 20 Years, U.S. Troops Are Out Of Afghanistan. What's Next?

NOEL KING, HOST:

The American war in Afghanistan is over. Just before midnight, Major General Chris Donahue, who commanded the 82nd Airborne, boarded a C-17 aircraft in Kabul. And with that, U.S. troops were gone. Not long after, Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked about what's next for the U.S. and Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: A new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It's one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun.

KING: With us now are NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam, who is in Islamabad today. Hello to you both.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: Jackie, there are still a few hundred Americans in Afghanistan. And there are many Afghans who helped the U.S. during the war and who are deeply afraid that the Taliban will target them. What is the plan for these people?

NORTHAM: Well, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said yesterday that the State Department is trying to keep in touch with Americans still in Afghanistan through cell phone and email, and that many of them simply could not make it to the airport. You know, it was just too dangerous. But helping the Afghans who are stranded is a real challenge as well because many are living in fear of retribution by the Taliban. And travel can be a real problem. You know, the only real ways to get out of Afghanistan are by air or overland. And that's particularly dangerous. The Taliban have given assurances that they'll allow people to leave if they have the right paperwork. But let's see if that actually happens.

KING: And is there any movement at all at the airport in Kabul today?

NORTHAM: No. There is no movement. It is closed. Some militants were seen on the tarmac and that, but that's about it. The Taliban said it will reopen it. But, you know, there's a lot more to operating an airport than just securing the perimeter, as the Taliban have done for the past couple of weeks. There's no air traffic control now or anything. There have been discussions involving Turkey and Qatar to help run the airport, maybe get some charter flights in there. But, you know, it's not just about getting people out of the airport. It's also needed to get humanitarian aid and supplies into Afghanistan. And some of the emergency supplies are now arriving in other cities, but not Kabul. And you know, what's arriving is just really a fraction of what's needed there.

KING: OK. So a long road ahead on that front. Greg, it has been 20 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. And so I guess a big question is, you know, what now?

MYRE: Yeah. There's a lot of things to look for, Noel. But let's just quickly review this head-spinning month. Here we are, the last day of August. And back on August 1, the beginning of this month, the Taliban didn't control a single Afghan city.

KING: Wow.

MYRE: By August 15, they had the capital. And the U.S. had started its airlift. And shockingly, the U.S. and the Taliban were cooperating. Now, here we are, the last day of the month. The U.S. is gone from Afghanistan. The Taliban are in full control. So the short answer is, all of the key U.S. agencies who've been involved in this - the military, the CIA, the State Department - will have to quickly take - catch a breath and then adapt to this new reality.

KING: What is the new reality for both intelligence and the military?

MYRE: So the military led this operation for 20 years. But it was just like they turned off a switch on Monday. General Frank McKenzie said, I'm here to announce that the mission is over. The military stresses they still have this over-the-horizon capability. And we saw that with a couple of drone strikes against ISIS in the past few days. But I don't think we're going to see very much of that, these drones. The U.S. wants to be out militarily. They have to come a long way from the Gulf. Now, the CIA faces similar challenges of operating long distance. But it still needs to keep tabs on Afghanistan on a daily basis. It needs to know if al-Qaida and ISIS are growing. Are foreign jihadists coming into Afghanistan? This is very hard to do without the bases they had, without the Afghans who were helping them. And what they really don't want is a repeat of the 1990s, where al-Qaida was able to grow unchecked.

KING: And so, Jackie, I think this brings us to a very important point, which is the Taliban are now in charge in name, in fact. But we don't know yet what their plans are for an actual government of Afghanistan, do we?

NORTHAM: No, we don't. And we don't know if an actual government has been formed or decided yet. You know, there've been a lot of meetings and that, but nothing's been announced. You know, the Taliban are not known for their transparency. So there's a lot of guesswork going on as to who will be the key figures in the operation and whether it'll be an inclusive government. And also, most importantly, is how the Taliban will run the country, you know? There are divisions in the Taliban, with hard-liners on one side and relatively moderate Taliban on the other. Whichever branch does rule, there's no question there's going to be real challenges ahead for them. It's a really poor country. It depends on Western aid. There's drought and there's COVID-19 as well going through the country. They've got a lot of work ahead of them.

KING: And some of that work will be solved, the U.S. is now saying, by diplomacy. Greg, I wonder, how has the U.S. diplomatic mission changed as the military's role ends?

MYRE: Well, the State Department is in the lead now. But it's going to be challenging. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, came out and ticked off several points. First of all, the U.S. embassy operation has been suspended in Kabul. It's been moved to Qatar. So you're going to be doing things long distance. The U.S. will probably maintain some regular contact with the Taliban. The U.S. will be deeply involved in deciding whether the international community recognizes the Taliban and what kind of humanitarian assistance and how that gets into Afghanistan without going, perhaps, directly through the Taliban.

KING: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam in Islamabad. Thank you to you both.

MYRE: My pleasure.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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