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U.S. Diplomats Scramble To Evacuate Now-Shuttered Embassy In Kabul

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Where things stand in a nutshell - the Taliban have taken over Kabul, including the presidential palace. Afghanistan's president has fled. Many Afghans are trying to flee to including Afghans who worked with the United States. NPR's Michele Kelemen is here to talk about this day in the Afghan capital, including the closure of the U.S. Embassy. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: With the closure of the U.S. Embassy, this is something the U.S. swore would not happen. What is the latest? Are diplomats out - trying to get out?

KELEMEN: Yeah, they've left the embassy. They disposed of sensitive equipment and documents and packed up the flag and basically shuttering what was in recent years one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world.

KELLY: And we've heard some of those diplomats are now at the airport trying to - what? - hunker down, get some work done. What's happening?

KELEMEN: Right. So there's this core group, including the ambassador, that are there to do some basic embassy functions like providing consular services for American citizens. And they also need to help Afghans who worked with the U.S. government get out of the country. But the scenes out there at the airport tonight are really chaotic with a lot of Afghans fleeing. There's also reports of gunfire earlier in the day. So the embassy has basically been telling Americans, spouses of children - spouses and children of Americans who are trying to get out to shelter in place and fill out an online form if they want help to evacuate.

KELLY: I want to ask, Michele, about the comparisons that are inevitably being made to Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Today, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken rejected that analogy. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: This is not Saigon. We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11. And we have succeeded in that mission.

KELLY: He was speaking there on CNN. But I suspect a lot of people might be skeptical if they're comparing these photos of helicopters swooping low over the roof of the embassy in Kabul and comparing them to pictures of helicopters sweeping low over the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon decades ago. Did Blinken elaborate on what he meant?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, he argues that the U.S. really had no choice but to leave Afghanistan, given the agreement that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban. But he's facing a lot of tough questions there on CNN, but also on all the other talk shows that he was on today about how chaotic this pullout has been. And he did admit that he and others were really surprised with how quickly Afghan forces folded. They really didn't fight at all, certainly not in Kabul. Other countries seemed a little more prepared. The Russians, for instance, negotiated safeguards in order to keep the Russian Embassy in Kabul open. The Chinese have also been reaching out to the Taliban recently.

KELLY: And meanwhile, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president - I guess still, I'm not sure what tense we're using here - he fled the city. Do we know where he is?

KELEMEN: He's believed to be in a neighboring Central Asian country. He did not mention his whereabouts in his Facebook post, but he did talk a little bit about why he decided to leave. It was basically to avoid bloodshed in the Afghan capital. Taliban fighters have been posing for pictures in the presidential palace now. And the U.N. is raising concerns about the prospects for a humanitarian crisis even more severe than what we are seeing already in Afghanistan. That's the topic of a meeting tomorrow at the U.N. Security Council.

KELLY: At the security council. OK. NPR's Michele Kelemen reporting there. Thank you, Michele.

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