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Biden Meets With Afghanistan Leaders As Sept. 11 U.S. Troop Withdrawal Nears

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. troops are moving out of Afghanistan, the Taliban are making gains, and a U.S. intelligence report warns that the Afghan government could soon fall. That's the backdrop for today's White House meeting, where President Joe Biden tried to reassure Afghan leaders.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The partnership between Afghanistan and the United States is not ending. It's going to be sustained. And, you know, our troops may be leaving, but support for Afghanistan is not ending.

CORNISH: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now to talk more.

And, Michele, obviously, that's a very direct statement, but can you help us read between the lines?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, I mean, what he's trying to say is that the U.S. isn't going to abandon Afghanistan. Biden is pulling troops out. He's ending America's longest war. But he told President Ashraf Ghani today in the Oval Office meeting that, we're going to stick with you and see to it that you have the tools that you need. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been making that same case. He's currently on a trip to Paris. Let's take a listen to what he had to say there today.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: We're working very hard to sustain a strong diplomatic presence, not only our diplomatic presence but with partners as well.

KELEMEN: So, Audie, what U.S. officials are now saying is that 650 U.S. troops will stay to protect the Embassy - which, by the way, is currently on lockdown over a COVID-19 outbreak. The U.S. is also talking to Turkey about having Turkish forces secure the Kabul airport. And the U.S. government is working on plans to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and who now fear for their lives.

CORNISH: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wanted more troops to stay in Afghanistan. Basically, he didn't get that. So what was he hoping to get out of this visit?

KELEMEN: Yeah, well, you know, Biden said the troops would be gone by September 11, but in fact, they're on track to be gone in just a couple of weeks. So Ghani wants to slow down the pace of that withdrawal. He wants U.S. contractors to continue to support Afghan forces. And, you know, it's a message he didn't just bring to the White House; he also went to the Pentagon today. He met with Gold Star Families. He met with the CIA director and with members of Congress. And he's making clear that Afghanistan really needs U.S. help. Just take a listen to how he describes the situation

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PRESIDENT ASHRAF GHANI: We're facing the challenges of COVID-19, the third wave, a drought and displacement because of the brutal attacks of the Taliban.

KELEMEN: The brutal attacks of the Taliban. He was speaking there alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who raised other concerns that many U.S. lawmakers have about what the future holds for Afghan women and girls. She insists that the U.S. is going to stay focused on that, but, you know, these promises could be hard to keep if things go south quickly for this Afghan government.

CORNISH: Not just south. I mean, if there's a threat that the government could collapse, what are U.S. diplomats trying to do to head that off?

KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, Blinken said he's watching it closely, trying to see if the Taliban are at all serious about negotiating with the Afghan government, as they promised they would do. I was talking to a former State Department official who helped Ghani prepare for this trip, and he said Ghani wants more U.S. troops to stay, in part to put pressure on the Taliban to actually negotiate. And he also says that Ghani really wants to just avoid a Vietnam scenario, with the Americans and the thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. fleeing the country.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Thank you for that update.

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