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The U.S. Is Rushing To Evacuate Americans And Afghan Allies From Kabul

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The scenes at the airport in Kabul today have been harrowing, as Afghans sought to flee their country fearing retribution from the Taliban. President Biden addressed the nation this afternoon and said that he is committed to helping evacuate Afghan allies to safety. And he brushed aside criticism that the U.S. waited too long to help, pinning the blame instead on the former president of Afghanistan, who fled over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.

CHANG: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk about what we have been seeing today.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So can you just first tell us about this operation to evacuate Afghan allies? Like, what do we know about what happened today at the airport in Kabul?

KELEMEN: It was very chaotic at the airport. In fact, the U.S. had to stop flights for many hours because of the crowds on the tarmac. You know, there were these videos circulating on social media that showed Afghans running alongside a C-17, clinging to it. State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the video searing, painful and difficult to see. He also talked about how painful it is for many diplomats and aid workers who have experience in Afghanistan and know a lot of the people there who are at risk now to see what has unfolded in recent days.

CHANG: Yeah. What is Price saying about the State Department's operations now in Afghanistan?

KELEMEN: So the embassy was shuttered, but the ambassador and a small team are still working out at the airport under U.S. military protection. And Price says they're going to be there as long as it is responsible and safe to do so. Those were his words. They're trying to get American citizens out, as well as those Afghans who worked with the U.S. military. He calls it an ambitious and aggressive effort.

But, you know, the Biden administration really did get a late start on this. There are tens of thousands of people who want to get out, and about 2,000 Afghans have made it to the U.S. in recent weeks. About 1,600 people, and that includes mostly American citizens and embassy personnel, were evacuated in recent days. So this is just a small number of a really big number, and...

CHANG: Right.

KELEMEN: It's only just ramping up.

CHANG: And I mean, Michele, how long could this take? I mean, has the Biden administration negotiated any arrangement with the Taliban to get people out safely?

KELEMEN: It could take weeks, but it's not clear how long the Taliban is going to allow these evacuations and whether people are even going to be able to get to the airport when flights are available. There are a lot of big questions. Biden has said that his administration has made clear to the Taliban that if they interfere in the evacuations, there will be a response. The U.S. envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, remains in Doha, Qatar. He's been meeting with the Taliban and making that clear as well.

CHANG: Finally, I understand the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on Afghanistan. What came out of that meeting?

KELEMEN: A call for calm, a call for negotiations on a new government that's inclusive and a call for humanitarian access. You know, the U.N. secretary general said he's particularly worried about the fate of women in Afghanistan. The U.N. does still have operations on the ground. He called on countries to keep borders open and - for those who want to flee. And Afghanistan's U.N. ambassador, he's the one who represented the government that was ousted, is urging countries not to recognize any administration that is not inclusive, that does not represent the diversity of the country.

CHANG: That is NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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