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Sen. Shaheen Calls For Extension On Withdrawal From Afghanistan

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The Biden administration is racing towards a deadline of Aug. 31 to fully withdraw from Afghanistan. Some Democrats have been calling for an extension to allow adequate time to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans. One of those lawmakers is New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with her about how she thinks the withdrawal could’ve been handled differently. They also talked about how the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package passed by the House this week could affect New Hampshire.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Editor's note: We spoke to Sen. Shaheen before the news of the explosions outside Kabul's airport. At least 6 people are dead. Find the latest reporting on this developing story from NPR here.

Rick Ganley: You've been helping with the effort to evacuate both Americans and Afghans from the country. Can you tell us about what you've been hearing from people who are on the ground in Afghanistan right now?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, initially, as we saw on so much of the footage that was taken of the airport in Afghanistan, there was a great deal of confusion of security at the airport. I think some of that has gotten better. There still seem to be mixed messages, and there's still concern that the Taliban are not letting through people that they had agreed to let through -- American citizens and others to help the United States. So I'm very worried, given the numbers that we still are seeing, that we won't have everyone evacuated by Aug. 31. I do appreciate the president's concern that we are vulnerable to terrorist attacks the way the situation has unfolded. So that is a concern.

But I'm particularly interested in seeing that we get out everybody who we committed to help save from the Taliban. All of those who helped us, our men and women in the military, the folks who worked for our NGOs, who helped with humanitarian efforts and human rights efforts, and that we get out all American citizens.

Rick Ganley: Do you feel like an extension would do that? How much time do you think you would need to get everyone out?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: I don't know the answer to that, Rick. Obviously, that's got to be decided by those on the ground who have the expertise.

Rick Ganley: Do you know, Senator, how many New Hampshire residents or people with connections to the Granite State remain in Afghanistan?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: We are working on a number of cases. Some of those have made the news and some of them haven't. We sent over a list to the State Department weeks ago of about 1,000 people, both people who had connections to New Hampshire, but also people we had been working with for years who are special immigrant visa applicants who had worked with our men and women in the military.

We had carried a caseload of over 300 going into this drawdown in April, and that number has increased. So I want to do everything I can to make sure that those people are able to get out of Afghanistan because their lives are in danger.

Rick Ganley: There's been a lot of criticism about how the Biden administration has been handling the withdrawal. You've expressed your disappointment with the president's timing. How do you believe it could have been executed better?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, I think it would have been helpful to have better coordination and planning going into the decision about withdrawal. You know, obviously, it was a very tough decision. The president was handed a very bad hand from the Trump administration because they gave the Biden administration a peace deal that really did not accomplish what was intended going in. I was very critical of that peace agreement from the very beginning of the failure to include women and girls at the negotiating table and to ensure that their rights would be preserved, of the failure to require the Taliban break ties with al-Qaida, which they have not done.

We've seen that and other terrorist groups. They have brought in the Haqqani Network, a terrorist group, a well-known terrorist group from Pakistan to help in Kabul. According to the Taliban, they claim they're there to help with security. Well, that's not my idea of who I want to maintain security. So we know that those terrorist ties still exist. The Taliban haven't broken those and we never should have signed that peace agreement.

Rick Ganley: Well, members of both parties, Senator, have expressed concern about national security going forward now that the U.S. will not have as much surveillance on terrorist activity in the region. What do you think, given your experience serving on both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, that the risks are going forward? What are you most worried about?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, I think that's a valid concern. And the Department of Defense and our intelligence agencies have been very open about that, about saying that we will no longer have boots on the ground in Afghanistan, so we will not have the same ability to connect with sources that we've had over the last 20 years. We will be operating from someplace over the horizon, is the term that's been used for counterterrorism activities and for other intelligence gathering. So it is a concern.

Rick Ganley: What do you do to mitigate that? What can we do about it?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, I think we need to be as vigilant as possible. And again, one of the things we need to do is to ensure that American citizens and that those people who are our friends in Afghanistan are able to get out of the country, because they will continue to maintain ties with people there and can be helpful to us going forward.

Rick Ganley: I want to turn to the infrastructure package, if we could. The House approved the roughly $3.5 trillion package this week. You were in the North Country yesterday (Wednesday) visiting Berlin to talk about how this funding could help improve that city's water infrastructure, for example. What should Granite Staters expect to see in their own communities because of this bill, assuming it passes?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, I think it's very good news for us in New Hampshire. It includes $55 billion for water projects. That's new money. And that's for not just going into the state's drinking water and wastewater revolving funds, but also to help with elimination of PFAS and to help with removing lead pipes. One of the president's major priorities was having funding to help remove lead pipes. And I heard a little bit in Berlin about some of the challenges they have up there.

But it also includes funding for broadband. One of the things that the mayor and I talked about yesterday in Berlin was just what a game-changer having access to high-speed Internet would be for everyone in the North Country. And there are $65 billion to help connect people to high-speed Internet, which will be really important. There's also additional funding for roads and bridges. We know that New Hampshire does not register as well as we would like. When we look at infrastructure numbers, we were in the bottom 10 in terms of states because of our infrastructure. So making sure that there's additional funding for roads and bridges for mass transit. The biggest investment in mass transit since Amtrak, big investment in bridges, again, something that New Hampshire is behind on. I'm going to be up in the Laconia area today visiting a bridge that needs to be replaced. So a lot of help for the state in so many areas around infrastructure.

Rick Ganley: Well, Congress is also working on a massive budget deal. There is significant disagreement within your own party about the scope of the spending plan there. Progressives pushing for a much bigger expansion of the social safety net, moderates saying we need to put some limits in there. How ambitious financially do you think the country can afford to be with that plan?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, I think it depends on what we invest in. We know that, for example, this infrastructure package will produce significant economic activity and that will be important. We have the same opportunity as we look at investing in our human infrastructure, as we look at how do we support health care for people, which we know is one of the big challenges that families face in terms of potential for bankruptcy and other costs. How do we support early childhood education? One of the biggest impediments to women getting back into the workforce now, post-COVID, is the loss of child care. So I think the debate is going to be not so much about the total amount of the package as it is going to be around what are we actually going to put spending towards?