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U.S. State Department Is Still Hoping For Diplomatic Talks To Work With The Taliban

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This week's massive gains by the Taliban across Afghanistan now have the Biden administration carrying out emergency preparations at the embassy in Kabul. That's according to a memo obtained by NPR. Nearly 3,000 U.S. troops are being sent in to provide security at the embassy and help evacuate. And U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price says processing the thousands of special immigrant visas to get Afghans out of the country is also a top priority.

NED PRICE: We have been able to bring to their new lives here in the United States 1,200 Afghans to date. We realize that is insufficient given the scale of the number of Afghans who have put themselves, potentially put their families, at risk to help us. And so we are dramatically scaling up that operation.

CORNISH: OK, but what about the future of those who can't leave Afghanistan in the short or long term? I asked Price about that and the formidable security and diplomatic road ahead.

PRICE: What we know and what the international community knows is that there has to be a diplomatic solution to this if we are to achieve some semblance of safety, security, stability for the people of Afghanistan in Afghanistan. That's what we're...

CORNISH: Well, I think people understand that there could be and should be a diplomatic resolution. What the question is is, is the Taliban actually engaging on it? And should the U.S. have withdrawn troops before a political agreement was in place?

PRICE: Two very good questions - let me take them in turn. No. 1, the Taliban is engaging. Obviously, progress has been slow. We would like to see it move faster. But let me take on your second question of the withdrawal because I think there's been some reflexive and really largely ahistorical analysis suggesting that we had options that really were never available to us.

There are two components to this. The first is a question of what we inherited from the last administration. That team signed a deal with the Taliban that required American military forces to be out of the country by May 1. Why not just violate a deal with the Taliban? - because if we were to have violated that deal, if our troops were to be on the ground going forward, they would have once again had a target on their back. They would have once again been in harm's way. The Taliban's application of this agreement has been uneven, but they did fulfill one element of this deal, and that is that they would not attack American or coalition forces. If we stayed beyond May 1, that would change. This president is not about to render our service members as sources of leverage or pawns in a broader effort.

CORNISH: So you're saying out of that peace agreement, of which many things were discussed - right? - a cease-fire, the withdrawal, as you mentioned, but also intra-Afghan negotiations, right?

PRICE: That's right.

CORNISH: The Taliban was to be negotiating with the Afghan government. It sounds like the U.S. is OK if those other things aren't happening, if its own troops can withdraw safely.

PRICE: No, Audie, that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is this president attaches a high priority to the safety and security of our personnel. But here's the other point. There is this erroneous idea that somehow, 2,500 American forces could have stood in the way of what we're seeing now. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have 300,000 fighters at their disposal - 300,000. If a force of that size can't stop, can't blunt the offensive now, it's really not a question about numbers. It's a question of willpower.

CORNISH: But to be clear, you're using the term willpower. So it is the position of the U.S. government right now that the Afghan forces have the wherewithal, the equipment they need, the training they need, the staffing they need, the support and security they need to stand up to the Taliban in this moment.

PRICE: If you look at it on paper, they once again have over 300,000 troops. They have an air force. They have special forces. They have heavy equipment. The Taliban has almost none of this. So...

CORNISH: So you do not believe the Taliban - a Taliban takeover is not inevitable based on what we're seeing on the ground in these last few days?

PRICE: Look. The pace with which the Taliban has taken territory, it's been gravely concerning to us. The atrocities they've committed against their own people, gravely concerning to us. But what we know, what we're confident in is that the Afghan National Security Forces do have a sizeable force. What we need to see now is that put to use in an effective way.

CORNISH: While you're waiting for that to happen, does the Biden administration worry that Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for terrorists if it is not able to hold off Taliban rule or come to some true peace?

PRICE: Of course it's a concern. And it's a concern that has been at the forefront of our planning, even as we have withdrawn our military forces and made plans to do so. To be able to respond swiftly and decisively should we see a terrorist group, be it al-Qaida, be it ISIS, any other terrorist group, seek to regroup there and intend to target the United States, we're confident we'll be able to do that.

CORNISH: What people see from the outside is a rapid movement of the Taliban across the country and a rapid withdrawal of U.S. personnel under troop protection. What message does that send to the Afghan people right now?

PRICE: Well, the message we are sending to the Afghan people is one of enduring partnership. Again, this has been a president...

CORNISH: Ned Price, can I jump in there? I think if you are a young girl or a woman in Afghanistan right now and you see what the U.S. is doing, you may not feel that partnership.

PRICE: Well, look. What is happening is heart-wrenching. It is of grave concern to us. The images are difficult to watch. There is no denying that. What is also true is that over the course of the past two decades and still today, the United States has done more than any other country to support the people of Afghanistan, including the women and girls of Afghanistan, including Afghanistan's minorities.

We are going to continue to do all we can. First and foremost is the diplomacy, the effort that we have to bring peace and stability to provide an Afghanistan in which all Afghans can live with some semblance of safety and security. Second is the humanitarian assistance we are providing. Just this year, we announced new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, bringing our total humanitarian assistance over the years to nearly $4 billion. The United States...

CORNISH: I think nobody has doubted how much the U.S. has spent or how many lives that have been lost. What I hear being questioned at this point is, looking at the situation on the ground, will any of those gains be able to be maintained? Or is the U.S. looking at a country that is controlled by the Taliban, the Taliban that it once ran out of Afghanistan?

PRICE: We are working as hard as we can across every single front to see to it that as many of these gains as possible can be preserved. The United States has done more to get us to this point of these gains. And right now we are doing more than any other country on the face of the Earth to see to it that they are preserved. That's what we'll continue to do.

CORNISH: That's Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.