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Americans Are Are Still Trying To Leave Afghanistan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Pentagon said that roughly 17,000 people have been evacuated out of Kabul over the past week. Twenty-five hundred were American citizens, including 169 who were at a hotel less than a thousand feet from the airport. That's a new and telling detail about conditions on the ground there as thousands of increasingly desperate Afghans and Americans are still trying to leave the country that's now run by the Taliban.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us. Greg, thanks for being with us.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Let's start with something the president said Friday about the airlift, what amounted to a hint that the U.S. military was going, in a sense, off-site, at least a little bit, to get U.S. citizens out of Afghanistan.

Let's listen.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Just yesterday, among the many Americans we evacuated, there were 169 Americans who over - we got over the wall into the airport using military assets.

SIMON: What do we know about this, Greg?

MYRE: Well, the president mentioned this a couple times in his remarks. And it really grabbed everyone's attention. But he didn't give any details. So it was hours later before the Pentagon revealed the fuller version of the story, that these Americans were at a hotel near the airport, just a couple hundred yards away. But there was a large crowd outside. And it didn't appear safe to go to the airport on foot. So a U.S. military commander decided to send three helicopters to pick them up at the hotel, which fortunately had a landing zone. They were taken to the airport and later flown out of Afghanistan.

SIMON: You know, we've been talking about the Taliban for many years. But this is something different, an American president saying that American citizens are relying on what amounts to the goodwill and the understanding of the Taliban to reach the Kabul airport.

MYRE: It really is remarkable. And as he was saying this, I'm thinking, we're about to mark 20 years since 9/11, carried out by al-Qaida, a partner of the Taliban. And here the Taliban are providing airport security checks of U.S. citizens in Kabul, literally checking U.S. passports. So Biden's been facing these calls for the U.S. troops to go out and pick up Americans rather than just wait for them to reach the airport.

Referring to these U.S. citizens, here's how he responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We have no indication that they haven't been able to get in Kabul through the airport. We've made an agreement with the Taliban thus far. They've allowed them to go through. It's in their interest for them to go through. So we know of no circumstance where American citizens are - carrying an American passport are trying to get through to the airport. But we will do whatever needs to be done to see to it they get to the airport.

MYRE: Several thousand Americans are still believed to be in Afghanistan. Now, many of these are dual nationals. But U.S. officials haven't provided numbers or locations or even said how they'll know when all those who want to leave have, in fact, left.

SIMON: And the airlift had to be paused for a while on Friday, right? What do we know about that delay?

MYRE: So many of the evacuees are going to an air base in Qatar. But the U.S. says that base is full. And it's been searching for additional sites. Now, they have announced some European and Middle Eastern countries that will take in the Afghan evacuees, at least temporarily. And that could speed up the tempo.

But as you mentioned, Biden says he remains committed to completing the airlift by the end of August, though he does seem to be leaving himself a little wiggle room, if needed.

SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks so much.

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