STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A map compiled by a news site called The Long War Journal has an update on America's longest war. As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the color-coded map shows the Taliban controlling much of that country, including almost all the borders. The U.S.-backed government mainly controls big cities and a large central area near Kabul, though not even all of that.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox News over the weekend the U.S. left the Afghan military fully equipped to fight back.
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JOHN KIRBY: We know that they know how to defend their country. This is a time for them to step up and to do exactly that.
INSKEEP: Well, what's it like to live in Afghanistan now? Journalist Bilal Sarwary is on the line from Kabul. Welcome to the program.
BILAL SARWARY: It's good to be with you. Good morning.
INSKEEP: How is daily life changing where you are as the U.S. troops leave?
SARWARY: Well, in Kabul, there is fear, and there's uncertainty. If you take the city of Kabul itself, hospital beds are full. Oxygen, usually costing $3, is now $300. So Afghanistan is struggling through many problems. The pandemic is one. Power infrastructures have been blown up just outside of Kabul. So for days, Kabul was without power. People had issues with running water. But it is the war. It's the brutal war that has the Afghan people extremely worried.
So Kabul is a city of at least 6 million people. Most of the people who fled the fighting in the provinces are now here. And the political Kabul, where I am, is extremely divided. The political bickering among the Afghan government officials, politicians, the lack of a united front on the peace process, the lack of support to the Afghan national security forces has caused a massive psychological torture among Afghans, as well as, you know, the political and psychological turbulence that...
SARWARY: ...Continues to haunt the people of Afghanistan.
INSKEEP: I'm wondering how besieged people feel in Kabul. Looking at this map where the Taliban-controlled zones are marked in red, they seem to have cut off the major cities from one another. If you wanted to get into a car and drive from Kabul to, say, the big city of Kandahar, could you safely do that?
SARWARY: Well, the highway between Kabul and Kandahar is one of the most dangerous highways. You know, the road was paved. It really, you know, reduced travel by - you know, by hours. It used to be days. But now it's a front line everywhere. And villages, you know, that lies on the highway that goes through the provinces of Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul are a no-go. So if you are a government official or if you are a businessman, if you are someone slightly more, you know, involved in the last 20 years, it's a no-go for you.
But if you're a driver, if you're a passenger, you are often witnessing fighting. And people have often been caught in the middle of it. Roadside bombs have blown up entire passenger buses, you know? And I think that is the tragedy in Afghanistan, that the new front line is everywhere - within a city like Kabul - a bit in a school, a hospital, a clinic, a highway. I can't think of a single place which would be, you know, a normal place anywhere else in the world. But in Afghanistan, that is, I think the depth of the tragedy.
INSKEEP: Do people have much confidence that the government is, as the Pentagon spokesman was just saying, capable of pushing back and stabilizing the situation?
SARWARY: Well, the U.S. military drawdown takes place at a time when Afghanistan doesn't have a credible and meaningful peace process. There's no permanent cease-fire. This is how the American government sold their negotiations and talks in Doha with the Taliban. It said these were peace talks, that the Afghan government had to release 6,000 Taliban prisoners, which included their fighters and commanders, that that would lead to peace talks as well as a permanent cease-fire. It didn't lead to that. And the Afghan government was never part of those negotiations.
So at this time, I think you will also find a lot of Afghans who've worked with the Americans over the last 20 years. It's a generational relationship. It's closer - you know, personal friendship. So there's a sense of deep betrayal by those who've been, you know, friends with the Americans, from a district police chief to a prosecutor to someone in Kabul. But I think Afghans are equally upset and heartbroken by how their own government has let them down. And I think this is also part of the problem.
At the same time, we know that the American military - when they announced that they were withdrawing, everyone knew that the Afghan national security forces will not have the air support, not just airstrikes but also the logistical support of American Air Forces dropping, you know, sacks of potatoes, bread, water. They were evacuating wounded soldiers from some of the most remote districts and bases across the country. So then you saw mass surrenders, you know, often negotiated by village and tribal elders. And I think...
SARWARY: ...For me, that is more of a local insurance that people are taking at a village district level. They're saying, we have to live among Taliban. Why should we be fighting?
INSKEEP: And so they step away. So let me ask then about people who've benefited from the past 20 years of the United States being there. Women come to mind - or people who are in journalism or in any number of civil society fields. Are people getting ready to leave?
SARWARY: We have to remember, in 2001, Afghanistan was a destroyed society. So when the United States came in, along with the international community, you know, the rebuilding of Afghanistan was a very, very challenging job. And the blood and treasure that was invested has changed Afghanistan. People have benefited. You have the 9/11 generations. You know, media is another area where you have seen a lot of growth. But that's one legacy. The other legacy of the last 20 years, both by the American government, the international community and the Afghan government is the airstrikes against wedding halls, the insecurity, you know, the economic problems.
SARWARY: So quite tragically, Afghanistan today is very, very insecure in the absence of a credible peace process and the absence of a permanent cease-fire.
INSKEEP: But in a sentence or so, do you know a lot of people who are preparing to leave the country?
SARWARY: Quite tragically, most people don't have that choice. You know, some people are trying to leave, but most quite tragically are stuck here. And across many, many provinces, you're talking about thousands of families who are forced to leave their homes. People have lost their livelihoods...
SARWARY: ...Their harvest, their fruit gardens. And I think that is extremely, extremely unbearable for those communities...
SARWARY: ...Destitute communities, for farmers and for people across the country.
INSKEEP: Journalist Bilal Sarwary, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.