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World

NATO Secretary-General Sees Risk In Staying In Afghanistan Past Deadline

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

August 31 - it's now just six days away. And it's the deadline the U.S. is racing against to evacuate people at risk in an Afghanistan now under Taliban control. More than 82,000 people have been evacuated - that's since August 14 - 19,000 just in the last 24-hour period. Now, in that effort, the U.S. is being assisted by NATO allies, some of the same countries that fought alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan these last two decades. And this even as questions grow as to whether the U.S. and its allies are on the same page. Jens Stoltenberg is the secretary general of NATO, and he joins us now from Brussels.

Welcome.

JENS STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much for having me on.

KELLY: So Britain has urged the United States to extend this August 31 deadline. So has France. So has Germany. Can the evacuation effort required be accomplished by next Tuesday?

STOLTENBERG: What we see now is that massive evacuation where we are able to get the tens of thousands of people out. And over the last couple of weeks, we have been able to get more than 90,000 people out of Afghanistan. Over the last days, it's roughly 20,000 per day.

KELLY: Right.

STOLTENBERG: So that's a huge effort. And that's extremely important. And that's an effort by, of course, the United States but also by many NATO allies in other countries. So roughly 40% of those evacuated yesterday - they were evacuated by non-U.S. countries, by non-U.S. planes. So this highlights the effort of all NATO allies.

KELLY: So given how huge the effort is, can it be finished by August 31?

STOLTENBERG: We aim at getting out as many as possible, our own people, also people from NATO countries, U.S. citizens, citizens from other NATO-allied countries. But - and we are getting, also, many Afghans out now, people who have worked for us, supported us. But I think it's also clear that we will not be able to get all Afghans who have supported or all Afghans who are at risk out by by the end of this month. And that's, of course, the reason to do whatever we can to also get more time. At the same time, we all know that the risk for terrorist attacks, the risk for some really serious attempts to try to attack the airport increases if we stay beyond the 31 of August.

KELLY: You raised the fear, which President Biden has also discussed, that after August 31, forces on the ground, U.S. forces on the ground become a big, fat target for terrorists because the Taliban has said, we want you out. How worried are you about the prospect of terror attacks either against NATO forces in Afghanistan or about the possibility of al-Qaida, ISIS, others posing a transborder threat?

STOLTENBERG: As we have seen that before in Afghanistan - that different groups are ready to conduct horrific terrorist attacks. So, of course, there is a risk that that can also happen against the airport. I've been at that airport many times. There are hills actually surrounding the airport. So so it is a challenging place to operate. We also need to get people to the airport. And as we all know, Taliban is controlling the Kabul. So even with planes and even with military and operations still present at the airport, if we're not able to get people to the airport, then we're not able to get people out. So at some stage, this operation has to end. And then we need to continue to work to get people out in other ways, either by commercial flights and/or over land.

KELLY: If I asked you to name something that could have been done differently, that might have ensured less chaos now, what would it be?

STOLTENBERG: We were aware of the risk of the collapse of the Afghan government, the Afghan armed forces. And we communicated that risk very clearly when you made a decision. I remember many, many press statements where I said that we are faced with a very hard and difficult dilemma, either to leave and then risk Taliban returning or stay but then risk an open-ended military mission, risk that we will be forced to increase the number of troops, more casualties of U.S. soldiers, but also all the NATO soldiers and also more civilian casualties, because we see that when we have more combat, more fighting, also civilians are killed. And faced with that dilemma, we decided to end our military mission knowing the risk of the Taliban could return. The surprise was the speed - that the collapse happened during a few days. And that created extra problems for the evacuation. So if anything, we could perhaps have been more aware of the risk of a very sudden collapse. But that was the challenge - that it happened so much faster than anyone was able to anticipate.

KELLY: So last question because I remember interviewing you back when former President Trump led the United States. And he famously asked, should the U.S. even be in NATO? What is the point of being in NATO? What's the point of NATO? President Biden came to office promising to restore American leadership in the alliance and promising to restore faith that America keeps its promises. So my question to you is, has he? Is your faith restored?

STOLTENBERG: We welcome the very strong commitment from President Biden, which he also expressed very strongly at the NATO summit in July to NATO, to the trans-Atlantic bond. Then we all recognize that that the decision to leave Afghanistan was extremely difficult. It entailed risks. But that doesn't change the fundamental value of U.S. and Europe being committed to each other, especially in a time where we see the rise of China and the shifting global balance of power that makes it even more important, both for Europe and United States, to stand together in an alliance as NATO.

KELLY: Jens Stoltenberg is the secretary general of NATO, speaking to us there from Brussels.

Thank you very much.

STOLTENBERG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.