STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The world is witnessing an instant diaspora. Typically, it might take years or even generations for citizens of a country to spread around the world in search of opportunities or fleeing danger. In Afghanistan, tens of thousands are leaving in a matter of days - 28,000 people are out, as of yesterday, we're told - U.S. citizens, Afghans, many others. The U.S. is rounding up commercial airliners to carry them to third countries. In a moment, we'll go to the Kabul airport, but we begin with NPR's Quil Lawrence, who once was NPR's Kabul bureau chief and has stayed on this story. Quil, good morning.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: We mentioned 28,000 out as of yesterday. How many remain?
LAWRENCE: It's not clear. There was supposed to have been 10- to 15,000 American citizens in Kabul. There are tens of thousands of people who have special immigrant visas. Those are Afghans who helped American troops, served alongside them - interpreters and such. There are tens of thousands more of women leaders, journalists, civil society - people who fear some sort of reprisal of persecution by the Taliban. The president - President Biden has activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which means that these American airline companies are loaning the military 18 planes to transport people from the region.
INSKEEP: Just an amazing story. An entire layer of society, presumably the more democratically or open-inclined people, are leaving. What are the - how are the planes going to be used to get them out?
LAWRENCE: Those planes are basically just taking pressure off of the military. They're not flying into Kabul airport, which is dangerous. And Kabul airport's in this little bowl of mountains. It's considered hard to defend. They'll be taking pressure off the U.S. military by flying Afghans from third countries. The President Biden was speaking yesterday, and he stressed that all the Afghans coming to the U.S. are going to be vetted and get background checks in a third country. He seemed to be defending against fears that these Afghans could be some sort of threat, which had been raised by some, you know, right-wing talk show hosts. And he also praised how these Afghans served alongside U.S. forces, you know, saving American lives on the battlefield.
INSKEEP: In that news conference yesterday, did the president suggest the evacuation can really be done by the end of the month, as he's wanted to do?
LAWRENCE: He wouldn't commit to that. The numbers have been ramping up, but it's been chaotic. There have been a lot of stops and starts - the airport closing down because of security concerns. He said so far, the Taliban have not been seeking trouble with the U.S. They've been letting U.S. citizens and some others move toward the airport. But it's not clear how the Taliban would respond if he asked for some sort of extension. The Taliban have said that there would be a reaction if that happened. Neither side has made an ultimatum.
INSKEEP: How is the president defending this withdrawal, which was so criticized, especially at the very beginning?
LAWRENCE: Yeah, I mean, he said simply that it was time to end the war; would it make sense if we stayed for another five years or 10 years? He said it was no longer worth Americans risking their lives for what was no longer in this country's vital national interest. But - and he said it would have been untidy no matter when the U.S. decided to leave.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The evacuation of thousands of people from Kabul is going to be hard and painful, no matter when it started or when we began. It would have been true if we had started a month ago or a month from now. There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss, the heartbreaking images you see on television.
LAWRENCE: And, you know, all that might be true, but he was sort of sidestepping the question of how the U.S. could be so unprepared for the rapid arrival of the Taliban in Kabul and the evaporation of this government that the U.S. spent 20 years building.
INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks for your reporting, as always. Appreciate it.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.