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As Taliban Advances In Afghanistan, Key Players Reassess Strategies

DON GONYEA, HOST:

We begin today with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. In recent days, the Taliban have captured huge chunks of territory, including many of the country's largest and most important cities. President Biden issued a statement reaffirming his decision for a U.S. withdrawal and explaining the steps he has taken. But the situation is dire. The U.N. estimates that since May, nearly a quarter of a million people have been forced from their homes due to the conflict. And there are reports of Afghans fleeing to the capital, Kabul, desperate to find a way out of the country. The surge defied all predictions, and it's forcing all the key players to reassess as they try to figure out what could happen next. For a look at the possibilities, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: Can you bring us up to speed on what's happening today?

MYRE: The Taliban claimed another big prize on the battlefield today. They seized the important northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. This was one of the last big cities the government had. The Taliban now control virtually all the northern, southern and western parts of Afghanistan. The Associated Press is reporting the Taliban appear to be within 10 miles of Kabul. President Ashraf Ghani just has the capital and some other parts of eastern Afghanistan. He gave a recorded speech that was televised. He said he would prevent further instability. Hard to imagine that that would reassure anyone. There's no sign that his government is capable of stopping this Taliban surge.

GONYEA: So given that, what options does the government have?

MYRE: They are shrinking by the day. They can rally and put up a fight to defend Kabul. They do have resources, but it's really not clear that they have the will. They could try to negotiate with the Taliban, but power sharing isn't realistic right now. It would be more perhaps about the terms of surrender, which has happened in other cities in recent days. And a third possibility is just a total collapse, that the government and the troops will simply flee.

GONYEA: Reflecting on these fast-moving events, President Biden put out a statement earlier today detailing the steps that he's taking. But what sort of recalculations is he making?

MYRE: Yeah, he summarized a lot of what he's done and talked about working with his national security team to bring this military mission to an end. One thing that really caught our eye, he said that 5,000 troops will be in Afghanistan for an orderly and safe withdrawal.

Now, this number's even higher than the Pentagon has been saying in the past couple of days. And we now understand that the president's talking about 4,000 new troops that are going to go to Kabul as - plus 1,000 that are already there. Some of these new troops have been arriving and should mostly or all be in place by the end of the weekend. They'll be at the Kabul airport to secure the departure of U.S. diplomats and Afghans who have worked with the U.S.

Now, he says this will all be completed by the end of the month, President Biden, that is. But that really feels like a long way off right now, and the U.S. plans have already changed. There was this plan to keep a sizable embassy operation going to support the Afghan government. But NPR obtained an embassy memo yesterday that talked about emergency preparations for leaving. It called for destroying sensitive documents and desktop computers. The Biden administration really needs a plan now for a possible Taliban takeover.

GONYEA: Of course, we all know the long history. The U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001 because of the al-Qaida attacks on 9/11. How realistic is it that al-Qaida or other extremists could regroup in Afghanistan after all this?

MYRE: Well, I spoke about this with author Peter Bergen, who has a long history in that country. He was part of a CNN team that interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan way back in 1997. He thinks the Taliban takeover will inspire extremists around the world.

PETER BERGEN: People are going to get excited about this. And they're going to say, hey, the jihadis won. They defeated the superpower. That's going to be a big rallying cry for people who are interested in this ideology.

MYRE: Now, we know al-Qaida and the Islamic State have been greatly weakened globally, but they still have a limited presence in Afghanistan. And Bergen is concerned that a Taliban victory could recreate what we saw a few years back elsewhere in the Middle East.

BERGEN: When ISIS ran a lot of Iraq and Syria, there were a lot of Westerners who volunteered to go and fight. Well, here, we have the Taliban doing something not dissimilar in Afghanistan. I anticipate a lot of problems for Western states.

GONYEA: OK, Greg. And what about the Taliban? They're clearly on a roll. Are they just going to keep pushing toward Kabul nonstop?

MYRE: Well, they certainly could. They certainly have tremendous momentum right now. But there are some things they may want to think about. As they approach Kabul, they may want to pause until the Americans leave in the coming couple weeks or so. They've been demanding a U.S. departure for 20 years. And now the Americans are leaving on their own. No real point in taking on well-armed U.S. troops and unleashing a bloodbath in Kabul when the U.S. has every intention of leaving. They may also want to then negotiate, perhaps, a surrender of the Afghan government or allow them to leave rather than wage an assault on the capital.

GONYEA: And Afghan civilians - how are they responding?

MYRE: Well, most have simply stayed in place. This Taliban advance came so quickly, they didn't have a chance to move. Many don't have the resources to do that. So they're going to kind of wait and see what happens. But as you noted in the intro, there's a quarter million Afghans that have fled their homes since May. That's when the U.S. withdrawal began. The Taliban began advancing in the countryside. We're seeing thousands of civilians converge in Kabul. Tent cities are popping up in parks. And of particular concern are Afghans who've worked with the U.S., maybe 17,000 or so plus family members. They're supposed to come out with this U.S. airlift. So a lot of panic and uncertainty right now.

GONYEA: All right. We'll leave it there. That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.