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Threats Persist As The U.S. Plans To Continue Evacuations From Kabul


Now let's talk through the military situation with the former head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, General Joseph Votel. General, welcome to the program.

JOSEPH VOTEL: Good to be with you, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: President Biden, among other officials, indicated yesterday that they had been prepared all along - this was part of the plan - prepared to continue evacuations even if the airport came under attack. Does it look like that's the way that they planned this and that they were able to keep going?

VOTEL: Well, it looks like with, you know, resumption of flights this morning and taking care of people that are on the airfield, that does appear to be the case. The concern, of course, will be how we continue to allow people to enter into the airfield so they can queue up for flights and we can complete our mission to get the remainder of American citizens out - and then, of course, those Afghans who have qualified for the Special Immigrant Visas or meet the other criteria that we've established for evacuation. So I think that's the biggest thing that they would be focusing on right now, how we get people safely into the airfield.

INSKEEP: What adjustments would you make, if any, if you were still in command, General?

VOTEL: Well, as you point out, I'm not in command.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Indeed.

VOTEL: But, you know, I think this is a difficult situation. You know, what we've learned over time with these types of situations is that space and deliberate processing of people are the way that you try to keep our own soldiers, our own security personnel very, very safe in this. So I think what you have to do is you have to look at how you separate people, how you try to isolate them as they come into this, that you have an opportunity to confirm that they don't have contraband or other, you know, illicit materials on them that could harm our soldiers. The use of technology, of course, has been something that we've used in the past. Being kind of an emergency situation, that's probably a little bit more difficult to put in place. But essentially, creating some space, creating time, creating opportunity to observe and watch people as they come into this, I think, are very, very important as we continue to allow people to come on to the airfield.

INSKEEP: Your successor as CENTCOM commander, General Kenneth McKenzie, said that the two suicide bombers had to pass through a Taliban checkpoint in order to get to the Americans. Are the Taliban reliable in your view?

INSKEEP: Well, I think it's concerning that we're relying on the Taliban for our security. Again, I think General McKenzie, who I have the absolute highest regard for - I think he and all of his troops are doing the very best situation that they can in the circumstances. And the circumstances they find themselves in is they're operating from an airfield that is surrounded by a large urban area that is controlled by the Taliban. And so I do think, properly, they have tried to make contact with them and communicate what it is that we are trying to accomplish there - and while maybe not necessary coordinating activities, certainly trying to deconflict and in past communications that allow us to conduct our operations safely and get American citizens and, of course, those Afghans that we're evacuating out. So I think there has to be a necessary part of communication with this, but I don't think we can put our full security - risk of our security in the hands of the Taliban. We have to communicate to them, but we also have to make sure we're doing all the proper things ourselves to secure ourselves. Ultimately, we're responsible for our own security and protection.

INSKEEP: Let me briefly ask about the endgame here. The president wants to get out by August 31. The Taliban wants the U.S. out by August 31. A lot of U.S. citizens are out, but there may be a few whose status is unknown. There are certainly many, many, many thousands of Afghans who'll still want to get out. The president said yesterday they would find the means to get people out. Are there other means once U.S. troops have left the airport to search for Americans or others in Afghanistan and extract them?

VOTEL: Well, perhaps there are ways to help people move over land and get to crossings into surrounding countries here so that they can be evacuated through that way. I mean, they're - you know, conceivably, you could go in and pick people up at the locations and kind of spirit them out. So there certainly are some ways to do this. And there are lots of groups and lots of people that are willing to help with this. So there certainly are. Of course, the most - the best, the most effective way is an organized evacuation where people can be called to the airfield, can be processed, can be secured, can be prepared for departure and then depart in a very, very safe and effective manner to a staging base or directly to the United States. So, you know, I think there are a variety of options here. They're getting more difficult, I think, as the Taliban consolidates and as people get more desperate. But there certainly are things that can be done.

INSKEEP: Are we heading toward a dangerous moment, General, the moment when the U.S. is leaving the airport, the last troops guarding the perimeter are getting on the last plane, and nobody's guarding the perimeter anymore? Is that a hazardous moment? And how do you get through it?

VOTEL: Well, it certainly is. It always is. And, you know, again, I think the United States has the ability with air cover and other, you know, resources that we may be able to bring in to help cover our withdrawal. You know, one of the operations that in my career we always practiced a lot was air - you know, seizing airfields and then getting people out of airfields. And it's precarious. You have to pay attention to the security involved with all of that. But this is not something that we have not practiced and that we don't have the capabilities for. We do. This will require very skillful application. And I certainly think that the commanders we have on the ground are very capable of this.

INSKEEP: General Votel, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.

VOTEL: Thanks, Steve. Great to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: General Joseph Votel served as the commander of CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command, until 2018 and is also a distinguished senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.