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U.S. Embassy Staff Evacuated From Kabul

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan has been evacuated to Kabul's airport, and the security situation at the airport is described as on the decline. And yet Secretary of State Antony Blinken bristles at any comparison to the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: This is not Saigon. We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11. And we have succeeded in that mission.

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Blinken was speaking there on CNN's State of the Union earlier today. And we're joined now by NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

KEITH: I know that a lot is changing, and it is a bit confusing. But I'm hoping you can update us on what's going on at the airport and with the diplomats who are there.

KELEMEN: Right. So the acting ambassador and a small group of diplomats are now working out at what they're calling an alternate site at the airport. The idea is that, you know, they're supposed to stay there, provide some basic consular services, help facilitate the departure of Americans and Afghans who worked with the U.S. and who now fear for their lives, really. But there are reports of gunfire at the airports.

And now the State Department is telling American citizens - and we're talking mostly about, you know, dual nationals, Afghan Americans - to shelter in place, not to try to get to the airport now. The State Department wants them to fill out forms online if they need help getting out of Afghanistan. And the same is true for spouses and children of U.S. citizens who are trying to get immigrant visas to come to the U.S. The message is, stay where you are for now. And they're going to try to work out some evacuation route.

KEITH: Shelter in place is not an encouraging phrase necessarily...

KELEMEN: No.

KEITH: ...With the situation as it is. We heard a bit there from Secretary of State Blinken on his rounds on television this morning. What else did he have to say?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, his basic argument is that the U.S. had no other choice but to leave Afghanistan, given the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban last year. But when pressed on why the U.S. didn't plan for a more orderly departure, he admitted that, you know, he was surprised at just how quickly Afghan forces have folded. Take a listen to what he had to say on ABC's "This Week."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

BLINKEN: The Afghan security forces that we've invested in - the international community has invested in for 20 years, building up a force of 300,000, equipping them, standing by an air force that they had that the Taliban did not have - that force proved incapable of defending the country. And that did happen more rapidly than we anticipated.

KELEMEN: And, you know, just a couple of months ago, Blinken was on Capitol Hill, saying he didn't think something dramatic would happen from a Friday to a Monday. That was his quote. Well, you know, things moved pretty darn quickly, as we can see now in Afghanistan.

KEITH: Right. And we haven't seen President Biden yet. This weekend he is at Camp David, where, according to the White House - they've just sent out a note saying that he did meet by secure videoconference, along with the vice president, with their national security team to hear updates about what is happening in Afghanistan. I want to ask you also whether Secretary Blinken was pressed on the fate of women in the country and what he expects might happen.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, his argument is that if the Taliban want to get out from international sanctions and have legitimacy, they have to protect basic rights. And that includes of women. But, you know, he also argued that they wouldn't get international legitimacy if they took the country by force. So it's an argument that really doesn't seem to have any impact on the Taliban. And by the way, the Chinese and the Russians have met with the Taliban recently, and the Russians even say that they negotiated security arrangements so that they can keep their embassy in Kabul open. Blinken was asked if the U.S. offered the Taliban anything in exchange for a promise of safe passage for Americans. He said no. He said that if the Taliban interfere with the withdrawal, there will be a, quote, "swift and decisive response."

KEITH: Not clear that the Taliban are, you know, rational actors that can be negotiated with through traditional diplomacy.

KELEMEN: And that's been one of the problems all along here.

KEITH: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thank you so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.