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Diplomats Are Leaving Afghanistan As U.S. Airlift Operations Come To A Close

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, the U.S. effectively declared the end of an era. The Pentagon announced that the last U.S. planes have left Kabul, ending the evacuation airlift and ending two decades of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Now another task begins. Here's Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Now U.S. military flights have ended, and our troops have departed Afghanistan. A new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan has begun. It's one in which we will lead with our diplomacy. The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun.

CORNISH: We're joined by our diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who is at the State Department.

Michele, let's expand on this. What is that diplomatic mission?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, you know, this was one of America's largest embassies in the world, in Kabul, and it is now suspended, so he needs to build a new team. And he's going to build that team and have them work out of Doha, Qatar. That's where the U.S. held talks with the Taliban before. It's been a key transit country for those airlifted out of Kabul. A senior foreign service officer, Ian McCary, who was the deputy chief of mission in Kabul, is going to lead this mission. And what Blinken said is that he'll be coordinating with others to send messages to the Taliban, and he'll oversee consular work and humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. And remember. You know, this is a country that is not just facing the Taliban takeover. There's also a pandemic and a drought, so there is a lot on the plate of diplomats who are working on Afghanistan now.

CORNISH: In the meantime, can he guarantee that Americans who didn't make it to the airport will still be able to get out of the country, not to mention the Afghan allies - right? - who also were trying to leave Afghanistan?

KELEMEN: Right. I mean, he can't make any guarantees. He said that about 6,000 Americans were airlifted out or made it out to safety. But there are, he said, probably close to a hundred Americans who remain in Afghanistan and are still trying to get out and, of course, many thousands of Afghans too. The first focus, he said, is trying to get the Taliban to keep its commitment to allow people to leave and to provide safe passage. The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on that today. Blinken also talked about the need to get that airport reopened for charter flights. There have been discussions between the Taliban and the Turks and the Qataris. Private companies are involved, so that's a very complicated task. And the other possibility is overland routes, but that is very, very dangerous. He's put a top diplomat, John Bass, who had been overseeing the logistics of this air operation, in charge of continuing to work to help all those who didn't get out try to get out.

CORNISH: In the meantime, the U.S., in the end, was working with the Taliban to pull off this evacuation effort. What kind of relationship does the Biden administration see with this group that, essentially, the U.S. was fighting for the last 20 years?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, for the moment, it was contacts out of necessity, as one senior State Department official put it. But going forward, what Blinken argues - and other U.S. officials have made this argument - is that the Taliban want legitimacy, and they're only going to get that legitimacy if they keep their commitments - the commitment to allow people to leave, the commitment to allow aid workers to do their job and, of course, to rein in terrorist groups like ISIS-K, which claimed responsibility for that devastating bombing that killed 13 American servicemen and -women and many, many Afghans. What Blinken said is that if the U.S. can work with the new Afghan government, if it keeps those commitments, it will do it. But it's watching the Taliban's actions and not taking them at their word.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Thanks so much.

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