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News Brief: U.S. Controls Kabul Airport, Afghan Government Falls, Haiti Quake

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The government of Afghanistan has fallen. The Taliban are now in control.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The airport in Kabul is a mob scene. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of Afghans are trying to get out from there. Yesterday, President Ashraf Ghani fled. Helicopters flew diplomats from the U.S. Embassy to the airport, and Taliban fighters were seen inside of the presidential palace. That happened all in the span of just a few hours.

Now, the Biden administration acknowledged that the Taliban's victory, quote, "happened more quickly" than they anticipated. These images have drawn comparisons to the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN this is not that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

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.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Tom, what's the status of the evacuation right now?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, the Pentagon has just announced that more troops will be heading to Kabul, a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division, and that will bring the total number of U.S. troops to about 6,000 in the next few days to secure the airport. And right now, only military aircraft are flying out of Kabul (inaudible). Commercial flights have stopped. The U.S. is flying out hundreds of diplomats. And that, of course, is continuing.

MARTINEZ: What about the Afghan people who have helped the United States over the past two decades? What's happening to them?

BOWMAN: Well, 2,000 or so already have arrived at Fort Lee, Va. They got visas. But tens of thousands remain along with family members. And one of them is an interpreter who, for his safety, will identify only as Reggie. He told us he's afraid to even leave his home in Kabul.

REGGIE: I cannot leave for a single minute because there is always threat and scaredness (ph) in my heart, sir. Not just me - because of my service, sir, my family is suffering right now. My family, my kids are telling me that bad guys going to come in and going to kill first then us. And I keep telling them, no, there are a lot of good friends that I have in America, have made a lot of good friends. And they're going to take us. Baby, you don't have to worry about it.

BOWMAN: Now, as far as what happens to Reggie, we don't know. The embassy has shrunk to a small skeleton crew at the airport. They're processing visas. But just how many? We just don't know at this point.

MARTINEZ: And Tom, speaking of the airport, I mean, just looking at the television screen, it looks like a mob scene there. What's happening to other Afghans who are crowding the airport right now? Is the military doing anything to help them get out?

BOWMAN: Well, the military is flying them out. Military aircraft, including the massive C-17, they're getting people out. But it's up to the State Department to determine who gets out. The state has a list of people, including those approved for visas and others. So, again, more and more people will be showing up at the airport, clearly. But the question is, can they get on the flights? And this is where it is a parallel to Vietnam. At the very end, a lot of people just could not get out of Saigon. So there is that parallel. So we'll just have to see how many can get out in the coming weeks and maybe months.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MARTINEZ: While many expected chaos and renewed violence with the departure of American forces from Afghanistan, few expected the government to fall so quickly.

KING: Yeah. Afghan forces appeared to dissolve overnight. The government crumbled with barely a shot fired, and the country seemed to collapse over a weekend. How did the U.S. get it so wrong?

MARTINEZ: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is with us now. Michele, it was - what? - just over a month ago that President Biden said it was unlikely the Taliban would overrun Afghanistan, and now we're here. So what's the State Department saying about what led up to this?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also sounding confident that this government would survive longer than this. And I think he was also taken aback by the speed of the collapse. The line from the State Department just days before all of this was that the U.S. Embassy was going to stay there to support the Afghan government, that the Taliban understood that they wouldn't have international legitimacy if they take the country by force. Well, none of that materialized. All day yesterday, helicopters shuttled U.S. diplomats from the embassy to the airport in Kabul. They packed up the flag. They disposed of classified material before they shuttered what was, in recent years, one of the largest U.S. embassies.

MARTINEZ: Speaking of the embassy, you mentioned they're at the airport. How long are they going to continue to operate out of that airport?

KELEMEN: It's hard to say. I mean, right now, the U.S. military's in control to keep these evacuation flights going. But a lot's going to depend on what sort of security arrangements can be made with whatever government comes to power in Afghanistan. And as we see, things are moving rather quickly.

MARTINEZ: So what happens now with the Biden administration in terms of handling diplomacy with Afghanistan?

KELEMEN: The U.S. does have experience negotiating with the Taliban. The Trump administration made a deal with the Taliban a year ago that paved the way for this U.S. withdrawal. But again, the administration keeps saying, well, they're not going to have any legitimacy if they don't - if they take the country by force, but also if they don't protect human rights and women's rights. It's going to be hard to to do that, though, because other countries are dealing with the Taliban more directly. You know, think about Pakistan. Think about China and Russia. Russia, by the way, negotiated security guarantees with the Taliban so it could keep its embassy open.

MARTINEZ: On the topic of legitimacy, what does all of this now mean for the U.S.'s standing around the world?

KELEMEN: Well, I think it's taken a big hit. I mean, this is 20 years on in this war in Afghanistan. It was meant to respond to 9/11, to topple al-Qaida. But here we are again, 20 years later, with the Taliban now in control. And the U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, fled and said - and didn't put up a fight, said that he wanted to make sure - he wanted to avoid bloodshed in the streets of Kabul. And the U.S. packing up its largest - one of its largest embassies is a pretty big symbol of defeat.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: In Haiti, the death toll from this weekend's 7.2 magnitude earthquake is climbing.

KING: Right. At this point, almost 1,300 people have been confirmed dead. Thousands more people are injured. And search and rescue teams are pulling people out of collapsed buildings, including churches, schools, hospitals and prisons.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Jason, this is not the first crisis Haitians have faced this summer. So what's the latest on the recovery from this earthquake?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, Haiti was just emerging from the shock of the brutal presidential assassination last month. And now they've got this new state of emergency while they're trying to rescue people who are trapped, treat these thousands of injured. They don't even know how many people are missing and trying to figure out how they're going to deal with all of the people who've been left homeless by this quake. I was talking with Jerry Chandler. He's the head of the Office of Civil Protection for Haiti. He says the to-do list is vast. But the first priority right now, he's saying, is to get medical care for the people who had buildings just literally collapse on top of them.

JERRY CHANDLER: We have a lot of trauma patients that are still not attended. A lot of the hospitals that are in the region that was affected are either overrun or affected themselves structurally.

BEAUBIEN: You know, the city of Jeremie, which is about 200 miles by road from the capital - this is all being complicated 'cause a key bridge has been damaged. There's been mudslides and debris from the quake and - that have completely blocked the roads into the city.

MARTINEZ: If those roads are blocked, what happens then to the aid that's being sent?

BEAUBIEN: Chandler says they are managing to get supplies into this hardest-hit region. But again, it's a challenge. Goods are being sent by boat from Port-au-Prince. They're sending planes that are sort of hopping over the bay to get there. They're sending stuff in helicopters. Sending supplies by truck from the capital - it's been complicated not just by the quake damage, but because gang violence had made the main road to the south of the country incredibly dangerous. There has been what seems to be a lull post-quake in gang activity. Chandler said he doesn't know if that's for humanitarian reasons. But over the weekend, he was able to get a convoy of trucks through the section of road that's notorious for hijackings.

CHANDLER: The road should be passible and is passible. That being said, we're still not putting all our eggs in one basket. We are using boats. We are using the helicopters and the airplanes as much as possible. But also, right now, we can say that the road is open.

MARTINEZ: Jason, is more help on the way?

BEAUBIEN: I mean, you're getting aid workers flooding in here. We had a new search and rescue crew out of Fairfax County, Va. Sixty-five members of that team just arrived. You got medical aid groups coming in. The U.N. is planning to distribute food and water. But, you know, longer term, there's got to be homes rebuilt, businesses, buildings and, you know, repairing hospitals that right now are overwhelmed just trying to deal with the injured.

MARTINEZ: Jason, we mentioned that you're there. And we know that there's a storm headed your way as well - and also wondering, if you've felt any aftershocks.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, there have been aftershocks. And on top of that, we've got this this storm, Grace, it's gone back and forth between a tropical depression and a tropical storm, but it's expected to bring heavy rains that could come right into the region where people have now been left homeless by this massive quake, you know. And for Haitians, it's just one more blow. They just seem to keep coming.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Jason, thank you very much. Stay safe.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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