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The Biden Administration Faces A Quickly Deteriorating Situation In Afghanistan

NOEL KING, HOST:

We have heard many different perspectives this morning. And now we have an opportunity to hear from the White House. Jon Finer is a deputy national security adviser in the Biden administration. Mr. Finer, thank you for being with us.

JON FINER: Thanks for having me on.

KING: Is the Biden administration speaking to the Taliban, who have taken control of Kabul?

FINER: The United States has been speaking directly with the Taliban. We have those conversations through our diplomats who have been deployed to Doha, where the Taliban maintains an office. By the way, those conversations have been going on over a period of months and even years in some cases. But, yes, those conversations are taking place in real time. Our team is in the field discussing the circumstances in Kabul directly with the Taliban.

KING: Can you tell us anything about the nature of the discussions over the last, say, 24 to 48 hours?

FINER: So I'd say we are laser-focused right now on the security situation at Kabul International Airport. The discussions with the Taliban involve, among other things, a very clear and direct message that they are not to interfere with the evacuation flights that we are preparing and that we have already launched for thousands of Afghans who worked alongside the United States, for American citizens who happened to find themselves in Afghanistan, for other Afghans who are vulnerable - and that the United States maintains a significant military presence in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban will face consequences if they interfere with our efforts to bring those people outside of the country and to safety. And so far, we are not seeing any evidence of the Taliban doing that. But that's something we're extremely vigilant to.

KING: Let's dive into two things here. Do you know at this moment how many American civilians are at that airport in Kabul and how long it will take to get them out?

FINER: I don't have an exact count of American civilians. I will tell you - and we've been pretty clear about this - that we are planning for flights that will remove thousands of people from harm's way. That includes American citizens. As I mentioned, it also includes Afghans who worked alongside the United States, interpreters and others, who now find themselves vulnerable because of their affiliation, association, their work on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. It also includes other vulnerable Afghans. So a significant number of people - we are planning a significant number of flights. Already, by the way, there have been 2,000 vulnerable Afghans, special immigrant visa applicants, who have been brought directly to the United States just in the last couple of weeks. And we expect that pace to intensify going forward.

KING: The rough estimate that I've heard is that there are around 17,000 Afghans who worked with and for the U.S. during the war. And then there are their family members. Will U.S. troops stay in Afghanistan until all of them are out?

FINER: We will continue to be working on securing the airport and maintaining these flights for as long as that can be done safely and securely. Right now, we are focused, again, on some of the images that we've all been watching this morning of people who are in a desperate situation for understandable reasons and who want to be brought to safety. But that cannot happen if the airport is not fully secure. So the first order of business is getting the airport under control so that those flights can resume. And we are doing that in real time as intensively as possible. We believe that we've got the forces on the ground to be able to secure that airport. There are also additional forces that are going to be coming into the country over the next day or two. But that's job one because without the airport fully being secure, it is going to be impossible to make those flights move.

KING: When President Biden made the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, did the United States not have intelligence showing that the Taliban could move with the speed that they have?

FINER: Absolutely. This is one of the sort of scenarios that was envisioned at the time of the decision. And I think the best evidence of that is the contingency planning that has been going on for several months for exactly this sort of situation. That is why these forces that you now see at the airport seeking to maintain security were prepositioned in the field. We were able to bring them in without them having to fight their way into Kabul, that we were able to evacuate our entire embassy compound, which was completed yesterday, again, without having to fight to do that. All of that is the execution of a plan that has been in place for months. Now, you know, you rightly ask, I think, did this all fall apart? Did the Afghan security forces all fall apart and melt away more quickly than I think many people expected? It's undeniable that that is the case. But there was a contingency plan in place for that scenario. You're seeing us execute that in real time right now.

KING: The Washington Post reports that when the U.S. made a deal with the Taliban in Doha last year, at that point, many Afghan soldiers and many members of Afghan law enforcement thought the U.S. is leaving, and the Taliban offered them deals to give up their weapons. And so they did. They wanted to be on the side of the people they thought would win. And that is, in fact, how this happened so fast. Did the U.S. have intelligence on what was happening on these deals being struck?

FINER: So I think the context here is really important because you're right. There was a deal made in February of 2020 when the U.S. had 13,000 troops in Afghanistan. That deal is what has been responsible for the United States not being attacked in Afghanistan over the course of more than a year now. So those who make the case that - the situation that the Biden administration inherited in Afghanistan was sustainable because you had a relatively small number of troops, now down to only 2,500 when we took office. And because those troops were not under attack, I think, ignore the fact that that deal was always set to expire on May 1. By that point, every assessment that we had was that combat was coming back to Afghanistan in a very serious way. We're now seeing that unfold.

And had the president made a different decision, it would have been U.S. forces directly at the center of the fighting that has taken place. The president was not prepared to make that decision, did not believe that it was in the U.S. national security interest for the U.S. to be back at war with the Taliban and faced with a decision, likely, to have to increase the number of troops on the ground again. And I think you're seeing, right now, the fact that the president is executing a very different mission - again, focused on civilian evacuations, focused on getting people out safely.

KING: Does President Biden still feel like he made the right decision? Watching these scenes of chaos at the airport today, hearing from people inside of Afghanistan, particularly women who are concerned about themselves and their children, does President Biden still feel he's doing the right thing?

FINER: I think these scenes that you're talking about are very difficult for all of us to watch. They're heartbreaking in many ways because they involve people who are desperate and desperate for understandable reasons. But I think what you are seeing unfold in Afghanistan, if anything, makes clear the fact that those who are arguing that had the United States spent six more months, one more year, five more years in Afghanistan trying to shore up the Afghan security forces after 20 years of a mission to train them, after $80 billion had already been spent - that additional investment would likely not have made the difference in making this a sustainable situation. I think what's happened since the president made his decision makes that very clear.

KING: How concerned is the administration about al-Qaida, the group that we went in to get, getting a foothold again in Afghanistan?

FINER: So you make a really important point. That was the core of the mission in Afghanistan. And the threat from al-Qaida emanating from Afghanistan has diminished considerably since the United States first went to the country 20 years ago. And that is largely due to the extraordinary efforts of the United States military and other U.S. government colleagues who have been focused on that counterterrorism mission. It's important to remember, though, that that mission had largely been achieved many years ago. Bin Laden, who planned, obviously, and worked on the execution of the 9/11 attacks was brought to justice a decade ago. And I think, at this point, again, the terrorist threat that you describe is not absent from Afghanistan but is significant in many other parts of the world where the U.S. does not have significant troop presence on the ground. We address that threat in those places. We will continue to address that threat in Afghanistan with the over-the-horizon counterterrorism presence that we have built to deal with this situation going forward, but without thousands of American troops being in harm's way for another decade.

KING: In the seconds we have left - this is an enormous blow to U.S. credibility. Many people will ask, why should our allies trust anything coming out of Washington right now?

FINER: Look; I think the United States stands by its allies. The United States is making extraordinary efforts right now - and you are seeing them on your televisions in real time - to get our allies out of the country. And those people who worked alongside us. Two thousand have already arrived to the United States. And we'll see many more arrive.

KING: Jon Finer, we have to leave it there. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.