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U.S. Embassy Staff Relocate To Kabul Airport Where Security Worsens

DON GONYEA, HOST:

The Taliban are at the presidential palace in Kabul. The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan is shuttered. A small group of U.S. diplomats are now working out of a makeshift office at Kabul's airport. And even there, the security situation is dicey. We're joined now by NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen and national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Michele, let's start with you. Are all the diplomats out of the embassy?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah. As far as we know, they've all left. They've shredded documents and got rid of sensitive equipment and even took down the flag before they headed out to the Kabul airport. And just as a reminder, it used to be a huge embassy, one of the largest in the world.

GONYEA: So we've heard some of the diplomats are trying to do their work at the airport. What can you tell us about that?

KELEMEN: So the State Department says there's a core group, including the ambassador, working out at the airport. And they're there to provide, sort of, basic consular services for American citizens and helping Afghans who worked with the U.S. government get out of the country.

But, you know, we're really seeing chaotic scenes out there at the airport. Many Afghans are trying to flee. There were reports of gunfire there. And the embassy issued a statement urging Americans, spouses and children of Americans to shelter in place and fill out an online form if they want to help - if they want help to get out of Afghanistan. And that, of course, is a tough message for a lot of desperate people.

GONYEA: Greg Myre, now to you. What's the security situation at the airport?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, in a word, fluid. As Michele just mentioned, there were reports of gunfire in the area at one point on Sunday. As we understand it now, the airport is closed or mostly closed to any civilian air traffic. But military planes are still flying in and out.

Now, it seems the U.S. is flying into the night. There's reports of people hearing a lot of air traffic, even though it's the middle of the night right now in Kabul. And the Taliban have said they - that they have no intention of stopping this.

And it certainly is in their interest to let the Americans and other foreigners and Afghans leave. This number is likely to be in the tens of thousands. So it, presumably, is going to take a couple of days to get everybody out.

GONYEA: So tens of thousands of people leaving. Do we know how many troops are there to help out at this point?

MYRE: Well, it keeps rising by the day, Don. Just recently, the Pentagon said it's going to send another 1,000 troops. This would bring the total to 6,000. As recently as Thursday, the U.S. had about 1,000 troops already in country that were supposed to help with this security operation, just taking the diplomats and some Afghans between the embassy a few miles to the airport. But every day now they keep adding more troops. It reflects this very, very uncertain security situation.

GONYEA: Michele, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the city earlier today. Do we know where he is and what he's been saying?

KELEMEN: Well, he's believed to be in a neighboring Central Asian country. He did not mention his whereabouts in his Facebook post. But he did explain why he left. He says he wanted to avoid - and these were his words - a bleeding flood in Kabul. He says the Taliban are now responsible for protecting the Afghan people's honor, wealth and self-esteem. And he called it a new historical test.

Now, it's really amazing what we've seen in recent days. Afghan forces have basically just given up. And they're not really fighting at all.

It certainly took the Biden administration off guard. Others seem more prepared. The Russians, for instance, negotiated safeguards in order to keep the Russian Embassy in Kabul open. And the Chinese also have been reaching out to the Taliban recently.

GONYEA: So, Greg, the Taliban entered the city with - sounds like no resistance. Do we know any more about what they're actually doing now that they're inside Kabul?

MYRE: Well, we've seen some footage on Al Jazeera, where they were sort of milling about the presidential palace, speaking to the Al Jazeera journalists, very much making themselves at home. We're getting reports that they're going to some police stations. They want to make sure that there's law and order there in their version of it. As I noted, it is the middle of the night. So tomorrow, Monday morning, in a few hours Kabul time, will be a big day to get a sense of how the Taliban want to present themselves in the capital and, of course, how the residents will react to their presence.

GONYEA: That was NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre and NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks to both you guys.

MYRE: Thanks, Don.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.