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A look back at Afghanistan's last year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At the start of this year, people knew that President Biden had promised to end the war in Afghanistan. They did not know how it would conclude.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history.

SHAPIRO: When Biden made those remarks on August 31, there had been two weeks of chaos at the Kabul airport.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stay there. Stay there.

SHAPIRO: Desperate people scrambled to get out of the country as the Taliban swept back into power. To help us put the events of this past year in perspective, we're joined by NPR's Michele Kelemen and Greg Myre - good to have you both here.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Greg, what exactly was Biden's promise about Afghanistan his first year in office?

MYRE: So in April, the president gave a speech from the White House, and he said the U.S. was going to pull out all its troops from Afghanistan by September. And that put it on a very tight timeframe. And the limited number of troops that were there, about 2,500, meant that the U.S. didn't have a lot of troops to move around. And that number got very, very small. But he did meet that timeline when the last troops came out in August, but by that time, they had the chaotic evacuation from the airport. And they actually had to send more troops back in.

SHAPIRO: There had been years of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban leading up to this. So, Michele, how did American diplomats prepare for this exit?

KELEMEN: Well, they inherited a deal from the Trump administration that was basically a U.S. withdrawal plan in exchange for the Taliban opening peace talks with the Afghan government. But clearly, this was a diplomatic failure. I mean, the U.S. wanted to leave Afghanistan with some kind of power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and that didn't happen. President Ashraf Ghani fled. The military, trained by the U.S., melted away. Many allies felt that the U.S. didn't really consult with them. They were just informed of the decision to withdraw and the timetable for the U.S. withdrawal, and Biden stuck to it. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan acknowledges that it was tough to see some of the images that we did in August, but he says that the president had to make hard choices to end America's longest war.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: Standing here in December, that strategic decision remains the right decision. For the first time in 20 years, there are no U.S. troops in harm's way in Afghanistan this holiday season.

KELEMEN: And clearly the administration is hoping that is what Americans are going to remember.

SHAPIRO: The Taliban has now been in power since August. And, Greg, you've been covering Afghanistan since the '90s, the last time they were in control - any signs the Taliban will govern differently this time around?

MYRE: The short answer is no, not really. The top Taliban leadership is more aware when addressing an international audience - how they sound, what sorts of things are going to set people off. But we really haven't seen any fundamental changes from what they were like when they last ruled from 1996 to 2001. When the key moment came in August, they took over. They wanted to rule alone. They had made no real effort to have an inclusive government or addressing some of the international concerns, like allowing girls to go to school freely. And as a result, they really face many of the exact same problems they did 20 years ago.

SHAPIRO: Michele mentioned that the Afghan military just melted away. Greg, why did they give up without a fight?

MYRE: Yeah. That's a long, complicated question. I think we could say in the first decade or so, U.S. troops - they were really eager to track down bin Laden and al-Qaida and fight the Taliban. There was really very little interest or a major push to train an Afghan military. So we did see more of that in the later years. But the problems were really clear. There was lots of corruption, and there was no real cohesive military.

We should note the Afghan soldiers did fight and die in large numbers, but they weren't really making progress as an organized unit. They still relied pretty heavily on U.S. support, U.S. air power. And when this final Taliban offensive came in August, there have been very strong anecdotal evidence, certainly, that this old Afghan tradition took hold where the Taliban attackers or any attackers can bribe or warn fighters not to fight or to accept money and just sort of melt away. And we saw this as the Afghan military really collapsed in less than two weeks.

SHAPIRO: And what's the humanitarian situation on the ground now, Michele?

KELEMEN: Pretty dire. I'm hearing from a lot of aid workers that U.S. and other sanctions are really making their job tough. Afghanistan was almost entirely dependent on international donors for everything from keeping hospitals and schools running to other basic functions of government. And at the moment, as Greg mentioned, the Taliban don't have access to funds that are frozen in the U.S. The Treasury Department has been trying to work out arrangements so that the U.N. and private aid groups can get money flowing. But so far, it hasn't been happening in a way that's big enough to make a difference.

And you have a country that's, you know, facing COVID, drought, conflict and this cash crisis. And just to give you a sense of the scale of the problems, Vicki Aken, who's with the International Rescue Committee and is based in Kabul, says that when she first arrived in Afghanistan in 2017, the poverty rate was about 50%. Now, she says, it's 97%, which is just huge.

SHAPIRO: What about the Afghan refugees who left the country? Tens of thousands of people arrived on military bases all over the world with little notice and then came to the U.S. How are they doing? Are they all on American soil now?

KELEMEN: Not yet. There are still thousands of Afghans waiting for their visas in those third countries, what the administration calls these lily pads. You know, visa processing, security vetting - all of that takes some time. And the Biden administration did inherit a broken refugee system because the Trump administration cut the number of refugees to very low numbers.

One of the toughest areas, Ari, has been the special immigrant visas. These are for Afghans who served with the U.S. military, people like translators. And the administration was really slow to get that process back moving again. The COVID-19 pandemic made it tough. Many of these Afghans didn't make it out in August, and the State Department still has to figure out ways to help them. And they are, you know, still processing many thousands who did get out during that big airlift operation.

SHAPIRO: I know the U.S. is concerned that extremist groups like al-Qaida or ISIS could grow in Afghanistan. Greg, is that happening?

MYRE: It seems to be, at least on a limited basis right now. General Frank McKenzie, who's in charge of the region for the U.S. military, says they are seeing signs of that, but it's very hard to tell precisely because the U.S. is no longer there. And it's important to understand that what this U.S. and NATO military pullout means - it means U.S. and Western embassies have closed. It means intelligence organizations like the CIA and the NSA have lost their presence. It means the Afghans who were working with the Americans are no longer providing information and intelligence.

So the U.S. strategy now is - they've described it as over the horizon, trying to keep track and perhaps, if necessary, carry out airstrikes from abroad. But a lot of cynics are saying this isn't over the horizon. They're calling it over the rainbow. Afghanistan is again becoming, in many ways, a blind spot, as it was in the 1990s when the Taliban were created and hosted al-Qaida.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Myre and Michele Kelemen. Thank you both.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MYRE: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEX'S "GET IN YR SQUADS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.