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The State Of The Evacuation Effort From Afghanistan


Hundreds, perhaps as many as 1,500, Americans are still in Afghanistan as a U.S. evacuation effort nears an end. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says his team is aggressively reaching out to anyone who might need to be evacuated. But he adds, this is dangerous work.


ANTONY BLINKEN: It's hard to overstate the complexity and the danger of this effort. We're operating in a hostile environment in a city and country now controlled by the Taliban with the very real possibility of an ISIS-K attack.

KELLY: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now with more. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let's start with numbers. How many Americans have gotten out of Afghanistan at this point? And do we know who else is on the priority list?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Well, Blinken says 4,500 have been safely evacuated, and the department is in touch with about 500 right now, directing them to the airport. But there are hundreds more, potentially up to a thousand. But it's a hard number to pinpoint, he says, because some of them have already left, some don't want to leave, and some have registered as Americans and are not Americans. Another priority for the secretary of state are the locally employed embassy staff. These are the Afghans who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. They did not make it out in the early phases of this evacuation because they don't live on the embassy compound and weren't able to get on those helicopters to the airport. So they, like other Afghans, have had really harrowing experiences trying to reach these evacuation flights.

KELLY: And in terms of this August 31 deadline, the Biden administration is facing, as you know, a lot of criticism for setting it and then sticking to it - criticism from overseas, from allies in Europe, also from here at home, from members of Congress. What are you hearing?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, European allies say it won't give them enough time to get their people out of Afghanistan. And here in Washington, we've been hearing Democrats and Republicans calling it an arbitrary deadline. And I want to play a bit of tape from a bipartisan news conference outside the Capitol today. This is Florida Republican Mike Waltz. He was a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan. And he said he and his staff have been trying to get Americans and Afghans out. Just listen to how he describes it.


MIKE WALTZ: I have members of my staff right now on the phone with people real time as they're traveling to the gates, helping them avoid Taliban checkpoints, connecting the dots with the gate guards, calling the airport managers. That's wrong. We're having to fight through our own bureaucracy to help fellow Americans and to help those who stood with us.

KELEMEN: And he said he's tired of hearing what he calls the happy talk at briefings in Washington.

KELLY: I want to follow on something we just heard Secretary Blinken say, which is - he noted this is a dangerous operation for Americans, also very real possibility of an ISIS-K attack. What do we know about how dangerous?

KELEMEN: Well, some lawmakers came out of a closed briefing today with the deputy secretary saying it is a real risk now. You heard him specifically talking about the threat from the ISIS group in Afghanistan. That's a big concern and one of the reasons why the U.S. is trying to reduce the crowds outside the airport.

KELLY: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.


And tonight the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan issued a security alert advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to the Kabul airport. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.