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Biden: U.S. Is Making Progress On Afghanistan Evacuations


President Biden addressed the nation from the White House this afternoon. He delivered updates on two crises that are at the top of the nation's agenda this weekend - the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan and the response to Tropical Storm Henri, which made landfall this afternoon in Rhode Island and continues to hit New England with heavy rains and strong winds. We'll have more on the storm in a few minutes, but first, we're going to go over some of what the president said on the situation in Afghanistan. I'm joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, thanks for joining us.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: And NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers military and veterans' issues for us. Quil, thank you so much for being here as well.


MARTIN: So let me start with Mara. What was the biggest takeaway from what the president said?

LIASSON: The biggest takeaway was the amount of time he spent talking about the withdrawal itself and the execution of the withdrawal, which, of course, is the thing that's gotten him to - into so much trouble. He's on pretty firm ground when it comes to the basic decision to get out of Afghanistan. Majorities of the public support him on that.

But he talked about how many people had been removed - thousands of people in just the last 24 hours, tens of thousands since July. He said any American who wants to get out will be able to get out. And he also said - and this is, I think, countering a Republican criticism. He said everyone who is being taken out of Afghanistan is not going to come - no one will come directly to the United States unless they're an American citizen. Instead, they're going to be put on U.S. military bases and go through a thorough vetting process.

MARTIN: The...

LIASSON: So he did defend the execution in a way he hadn't really done before. Up until now, he's really just focused on the decision, the decision to withdraw.

MARTIN: And the president did take a couple of questions from reporters in the room. He was asked about a CBS poll that said a majority of Americans have lost confidence in him. And he replied that he had two choices, increase forces in Afghanistan or end the war - quoting him now, "and I decided to end the war." What does this say to you about the president's approach to the conflict?

LIASSON: Well, many people would say that's a false choice. Ending the war is one thing, but it begs the question, could he have planned better for the withdrawal of American troops? Could he have made a better plan to evacuate our Afghan allies, translators, women's - female leaders, etcetera?

He definitely presented it as a, kind of, black-and-white choice. I either had to put more forces in or pull everybody out, lock, stock and barrel right now. And there's a big debate about that. I mean, there are experts who say he could have left the 2,500 American troops around Kabul and the Taliban would not have overrun them. He seems to think he only had these two choices - ramp up or pull out.

MARTIN: And the president has brushed aside a lot of the criticism that has been directed at him on this issue. But ultimately - yet, at least at the moment, how - what is your sense of how this whole withdrawal experience has affected him politically? And did the speech address those criticisms?

LIASSON: Well, the speech tried to address the criticisms. But the president has taken a huge hit to his credibility and competence. He ran on credibility and competence in his foreign policy experience. And when presidents are viewed as incompetent by the American people, it's a bad thing for them. I mean, this happened to Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis. It happened to George Bush with Katrina. It happened to Donald Trump with COVID. And I think that this is a big hit for him, not to mention what it does to our credibility with our allies and our enemies. But over time, how will it affect him with American voters, we don't know yet. We know that Afghanistan is not something that's top of people's mind. And they also approve of the basic decision to get out.

MARTIN: Now, I want to bring in NPR's Quil Lawrence in New York. Quil, what did we learn today about the addition of commercial airlines in the effort to help with evacuations?

LAWRENCE: Right. The U.S. military is activating the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which is - was something that was formed in cooperation with commercial airlines. That was formed in the wake of the Berlin airlift after World War II. It's only been used twice since then. This will be the third time. It was used in the - in Desert Storm in '91. It was used in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. And this will allow the military to rely on 18 aircraft from several American airlines.

Now, they won't be flying directly into Kabul Airport, which is in a dangerous little bowl of mountains. It's not even as secure as Bagram Airfield, which the U.S. has recently relinquished. That's north of the city in a much easier area to defend an airfield. But they will be taking pressure off of U.S. military aircraft so they can ferry American citizens and Afghan allies, the people we're - that they're trying to evacuate out to bases in the Middle East. And from there, these American airliners can take over from those third countries and start bringing these people, these tens of thousands of people to Europe and to the United States.

MARTIN: So President Biden said today, as he has said repeatedly throughout the week, that this was going to be a messy withdrawal no matter when it happened. But he has gotten criticism from both his, you know, allies on the left and certainly from his critics on the right that the U.S. was caught flat-footed. What did he say about that?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I mean, he said that it was going to be hard and painful no matter when it started or began. But it kind of ignores this - what people are calling a massive intelligence failure. Sure, the embassy had warned citizens, oh, we think you should leave. But no one anticipated - clearly, no one anticipated how fast the Taliban would reach and take Kabul. And the flip side of that coin is that no one realized how quickly the Afghan government, which has been built over 20 years, and the figures of hundreds of millions of dollars a day that you mentioned and the thousands of American lives and thousands upon thousands of Afghan lives, that that government would disappear into the air so quickly. And that's what I'm hearing from Afghans on the ground as well.

MARTIN: Quil, we have about 50 seconds left, so how many more people still need to be evacuated from Afghanistan as near as you can tell us from your reporting?

LAWRENCE: Well, the president just said that they had managed to step up the pace of evacuation, that they were - managed to get 11,000 in the last 36 hours, which seems like a very cherry-picked figure, honestly. There're supposed to have been up to 15,000 American citizens in Kabul. But then there are all of these others, the SIVs - those are the special immigrant visa holders - those who helped the U.S. military. There are tens of thousands of them who could never even reach Kabul, plus the ones who were in Kabul.

Now, he's also saying that they're opening up - this up to women leaders and journalists, everyone who has worked to help American organizations and NATO ally organizations on the ground. There are tens of thousands of them. They're among the people thronging outside the airport and trying everything they can to get inside there, where they'll be safe.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Quil Lawrence and NPR's Mara Liasson. Quil, Mara, thank you both so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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