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President Biden Defends How He Pulled Troops Out Of Afghanistan In Address To Nation

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In his address to the nation this afternoon, his first since the collapse of the Afghan government, President Biden defended his move to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. No question, though, the Taliban takeover presents the U.S. and the world with new national security challenges. To talk about that, let's bring in NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, you were listening along with me as President Biden was speaking. What was your main takeaway from a national security perspective?

MYRE: President Biden does not think Afghanistan is a core U.S. national security interest, and, therefore, he held to his longstanding position that the U.S. should get out. He had no regrets about that decision, as messy as this process is being. He went on to say that the U.S. just shouldn't be fighting a war that Afghans should be fighting and that the U.S. gave them all the equipment that they needed, and they just couldn't do it.

Now, if you look ahead, he said the U.S. should sort of lead with diplomacy and human rights, which sounds great, but now you've got a Taliban government. What happens if there are massive human rights abuses under a Taliban government or extremist groups reconstitute in Afghanistan? So he didn't have a clear answer about how that would be done. And I think in the back of your mind, you have to think back to Iraq in 2011, when the U.S. pulled out - and Joe Biden was vice president at that time - and then the U.S. sent troops back in a couple of years later as ISIS...

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: ...Surged

KELLY: As a new national security threat emerged there, indeed. Let me focus you on just the latest, what's happening on the ground in Kabul, Greg. I think a lot of us have seen some really disturbing video coming out of the airport, people desperate to get out. What is the latest on the airport evacuation?

MYRE: Right. So all of this chaos and these gut-wrenching scenes we've seen today of crowds on the tarmac and surrounding planes has forced the suspension of flights. It's now middle of the night in Afghanistan, so we'll be checking to see if they start up - when they start up again. We don't know. The U.S. now has 2,500 troops at the airport. That number is going to increase by several thousand, going up to about 6,000.

And when you think about it, just last week, as we started to hear about this, the concern was really that the Taliban would wage an attack, and that may not have been eliminated completely. But really, it's these Afghan civilians just desperately trying to get on a plane. President Biden said the U.S. has warned the Taliban not to attack. We should note the airport's right on the edge of the city there. It's not separated or isolated. It would be vulnerable to an attack from the Taliban.

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: But we've also heard reports that the Taliban are kind of doing traffic control outside the airport, trying to keep people away.

KELLY: And what's the situation in the city? As you said, it's right there next to the airport. How's Kabul? Is it quiet?

MYRE: Pretty much so. It seems to be a lot of a wait-and-see attitude - you know, lines at banks, heavy traffic jams. The Taliban seems to be, pretty much, on its best behavior. It's promising amnesty as long as people don't fight against it. It's telling government employees to go back to work. It's manning checkpoints, apparently collecting some weapons from civilians, but, so far, none of the harsh edicts that we've associated with the Taliban from their previous rule.

KELLY: And have we learned any more about how the Taliban intends to govern, what their intentions are, their plan?

MYRE: You know, they've just made a few statements where they've tried to be reassuring, but they've issued no real policy statement. They urged - they've got the urgent problem of just trying to keep the country running, impose some law and order. The Afghanistan government is heavily dependent on U.S. foreign aid. It's not clear what will happen if this aid gets cut off.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre - thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.