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As Withdrawal Deadline Nears, Kabul Airport Crowds Grow Increasingly Desperate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

These are the final hours of the U.S. military presence inside Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is assessing reports of 10 people from one Afghan family killed during a drone strike over the weekend. That strike targeted an ISIS-K car bomb that U.S. Central Command said posed an imminent threat to Kabul's airport. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said they take the loss of innocent life seriously and acknowledged it was possible civilians were killed. He suggested the lives lost were because of the explosives in the vehicle that was hit. With us to talk about this and the situation in the capital, as the U.S. military aims to meet its deadline for withdrawal tomorrow, is Susannah George. She's the bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan at The Washington Post, and she's on the line from Kabul. Hi, Susannah.

SUSANNAH GEORGE: Hey there.

FADEL: Susannah, let's just start with the situation in the capital today, as the U.S. military prepares to leave after two decades. What's the city like?

GEORGE: Well, the scenes around the airport have only grown more desperate as the deadline approaches. Many Afghans see this as their last window of opportunity.

FADEL: You spoke to family members who say 10 people from their family were killed in Sunday's drone strike. What did they tell you?

GEORGE: Yeah, we went to visit the site of the strike this morning. We saw the charred-out cars in this small garden, and we met with some of the family members. They were hysterical with grief. They wanted to go to the United States. They saw it as a place where they could be safe. And then to lose loved ones to a U.S. drone strike was just horrific for them, especially that so many children were killed in the attack. Seven were under the age of 18, and there were a few infants as well.

FADEL: So we've seen so much loss of life in these final days as the U.S. military is evacuating - the suicide bombing at the airport that killed dozens of Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members. We saw now this loss of life in this drone strike. And then we heard about rocket fire aimed at the airport this morning. What's the situation there?

GEORGE: Yeah, well, when you ask Taliban leaders about these security incidents over the past few days, they say that this is all because of the continued presence of foreign forces. They say once the withdrawal is complete, that they'll be able to provide better security to the Afghan capital, that the destabilizing factor in Afghanistan is largely the U.S. presence.

FADEL: Now, the Taliban is talking about destabilization that's coming from foreign forces, but many want to escape their rule despite this kinder face that they're putting on for the world. What's the status of evacuations?

GEORGE: We're at the tail end of evacuations. They're almost complete. This is the time period that the U.S. will need to then evacuate all the people who are facilitating those evacuations. So it's likely that almost all the civilians who were able to get into the airport have been evacuated out of the country.

FADEL: So at this point, for people who feel in danger or facilitated or helped the U.S., they would not be able to be evacuated.

GEORGE: No. And I've spoken to a lot of those people today, and they are in incredible distress. A lot of them have had to flee their family's homes. They see this end of the U.S. evacuations as the closing of a door that could have potentially gotten them to safety. The Taliban say that once these evacuations are complete, that the airport will go back to functioning as normal. And any Afghan who has a passport or a valid visa for traveling abroad will be allowed to do so. But a lot of the people who I speak to, you know, these are women's rights activists, civil liberties activists, people who have spoken out against the Taliban in public. They don't trust those statements. And they feel like as soon as the U.S. military withdraws, we're going to see a switch in the behavior of the Taliban and their lives are going to be in incredible danger.

FADEL: That's Susannah George, bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan at The Washington Post. She joined us from Kabul. Thank you so much for your reporting.

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

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.