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Biden Deploys More Troops Following Taliban Advances In Afghanistan

NOEL KING, HOST:

These rapid advances by the Taliban are forcing President Biden to change plans. Instead of wrapping up a withdrawal, the Pentagon is now sending 3,000 troops back into Afghanistan to evacuate American diplomats and other civilians. NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre is following the story from Washington, D.C. He's with us now. Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: What is the plan, the mission, for these 3,000 troops?

MYRE: So these troops are going to be made up of three infantry battalions, Army and Marines. And they're supposed to start arriving in Kabul today or tomorrow. They'll be based at the airport in the capital. And their job will be to provide security for U.S. diplomats at the embassy, to get them to the airport and help them fly out of the country safely. And we should note, the U.S. embassy and the airport are just a few miles apart in the capital. Now, a second part of this mission will be to help with the evacuation of Afghan interpreters who've worked with the U.S. military over the past two decades and are now applying for visas to come to the U.S.

KING: Greg, are the people being evacuated? The U.S. diplomats and the Afghan interpreters, are they in immediate danger?

MYRE: Not immediate danger. And for the moment, the Afghan government still controls Kabul. And the U.S. was planning to keep a sizeable staff at the embassy to help support the Afghan government. And until the past few days, the thinking was it was safe for now in Kabul. And the U.S. could keep operating in the capital, supporting the government financially and politically. But this Taliban surge has been so rapid, defying all predictions, that President Biden and the Pentagon decided to act immediately. And this is a clear signal they think Kabul is at risk. And, of course, it just adds to the sense that the Afghan government and the military is starting to disintegrate and fueling the notion that a Taliban takeover is all but inevitable.

KING: And so is it conceivable that these U.S. troops will end up fighting against the Taliban?

MYRE: Well, that's not the intention. The Pentagon says these troops will be armed to defend themselves if attacked. But the mission is not to fight. Here's Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: I want to stress that these forces are being deployed to support the orderly and safe reduction of civilian personnel. This is a temporary mission with a narrow focus.

MYRE: But they are making all sorts of contingency plans. In addition to these troops, another 3,500 are going from the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina to Kuwait. So they'll be nearby just in case the situation gets even worse. Now, all of this evacuation mission is supposed to be completed by the end of this month. And that's also the goal for the broader U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.

KING: But the U.S. can't be entirely gone from Afghanistan by the end of this month.

MYRE: That's right, Noel. So the plan for the State Department says is that we'll keep - it will keep the embassy open but with a very small team. And the military is also planning to keep about 650 troops to guard the embassy and the airport in Kabul. But with these conditions literally changing by the day, even the hour, these plans may have to be revised as well.

KING: So at this point, what options - diplomatic or military - does the U.S. really have?

MYRE: Well, not many. And they're certainly not good. The U.S. really lost its leverage when - with the withdrawal of 2,50o over the past couple months. There have been talks this week between the U.S., the Taliban and other countries in Qatar. But the Taliban have no real incentive to negotiate. They have all the momentum right now. And there's no indication that this is going to lead to any kind of breakthrough. And there are real dangers on the horizon here. The Taliban can certainly seek revenge against Afghans who supported the Americans, we're - could be looking at a regional refugee crisis. We're also seeing a lot - already seeing a lot of Afghans displaced internally. And in short, this is just a huge hit for a very poor country that's been at war for more than 40 years.

KING: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

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