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NPR US News

U.S. Is Evacuating Afghan Allies — But Thousands Might Not Get Out Before Aug. 31

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, many Afghans are less hopeful about a future under the Taliban. They're trying to get out of the country, and we have an update now on the U.S. evacuation effort at the Kabul airport. The Pentagon says seven military flights today carried out hundreds of Americans and Afghan visa holders. The U.S. had suspended flights for several hours yesterday after hundreds of Afghans rushed onto the runway. NPR's Tom Bowman has been following the developments and joins us now.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: So what more can you tell us about these flights?

BOWMAN: Well, officials say the evacuation will soon speed up. They expect military flights every hour in the coming days, an effort that could fly out up to 9,000 people each day.

CHANG: Wow.

BOWMAN: But here's the thing - as many as 100,000 Afghans and their family members are trying to get out - those seeking special visas because they worked for the American government or those high-profile Afghans - journalists, human rights workers, who will be targeted by the Taliban - and again, their family members as well. So that's a lot of people.

CHANG: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And the evacuation mission ends on August 31 on orders from President Biden. So I asked Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, can you get all the people out by then? Let's listen.

JOHN KIRBY: The mission that we've been given, Tom, is to conduct this drawdown by the 31 of August.

BOWMAN: But if the airport's secure, you could continue into September, couldn't you?

KIRBY: That is - that's a decision that the president, commander in chief, would have to make. Our mission right now - we have to talk about what we're doing now, Tom, and what our focus is, and that's on getting this completed by the 31 of August.

BOWMAN: Now, that's an arbitrary deadline. The White House, again, as he said, could extend the deadline if the president chooses.

CHANG: OK. But, Tom, what about getting to the airport? I mean, are people able to move through the area freely with the Taliban controlling the city?

BOWMAN: No, it's a real problem. One Afghan we worked with for years was trying to get to the airport a couple of days ago. There was a Taliban checkpoint, and they were beating women. He fled back into the city with his wife and two young kids but lost his luggage and all his money - was really shaken up. The Pentagon says, listen, our job is only to secure the airport, not take any action on the streets outside. But senior U.S. officers are meeting with Taliban officials, trying to get assurances for the security - and not only of the airport but allowing safe passage of Afghans, but we have yet to see if that will happen.

CHANG: Well, the scenes yesterday at the Kabul airport were horrific. I mean, two armed men were killed by U.S. troops. Crowds chased a huge U.S. military aircraft. There was even video showing what appeared to be people falling from planes after takeoff. What is security like there now?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon says it's quieter today. Thousands more troops are heading in to beef up security. And there should be a total of 6,000 U.S. troops in Kabul at the Kabul airport in the coming days.

CHANG: And I understand that Afghan troops - now, these are troops who had been fighting for the now-collapsed government - they are helping to provide security within the airport. Is that correct?

BOWMAN: That's right. About 600 Afghan soldiers, and that was a surprise even to some Pentagon officials I spoke with today. And we asked, well, what happens to them after the mission ends? We were told they can apply for visas.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Bowman.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: Well, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.