Helicopters are removing U.S. staff from the embassy as the Taliban circle Kabul.



U.S. embassy staff are being evacuated from Kabul as Taliban fighters surround the Afghan capital. It is all unfolding much quicker than the Biden administration anticipated. Joining us now to talk about this is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Hi, Michele.


KEITH: President Biden sent several thousand troops back in this weekend to help with the evacuation. What do we know about it?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the - this is an embassy that used to be one of the largest in the world, but there was a drawdown earlier this year. And now they're expected to take pretty much everybody out except for what they're calling the core mission. That would be, you know, like, the ambassador and a few top aides. And for now, they're going to be based at the airport so that they can make a quick escape. And before leaving the embassy, staffers had to get rid of, you know, classified documents, computer equipment. So it was sort of a mad rush this week.

KEITH: The flag is still on the U.S. embassy for now?

KELEMEN: I'm not sure about that. I haven't seen pictures yet, but what they normally do is they take it down and hide it away for safekeeping. There are stories about the last time they had to do this in Kabul. And when the U.S. troops moved back in after 9/11, they found the same flag with a note from a previous Marine who had been based there.

KEITH: Wow. What will the embassy staff who remain sort of holed up at the airport - what part of the mission will they be able to do?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, frankly, not much. The line from the State Department all week is that, you know, they're there to support the Afghan government and to help with the evacuation of Afghans who worked with the U.S. I mean, it's not clear what the Afghan government's going to be in, you know, a couple of days from now. And, you know, while they're - they've taken out about 1,200 of these Afghans and their families to date. There are tens of thousands more who want to leave and want to be evacuated. The military had been offering to do this and said they could do it, but now it looks very late.

You know, there was kind of a fear in Washington of a Saigon-like image, you know, when the embassy was evacuated from Vietnam at the end of the war in - on helicopters, and that's sort of what we're seeing today. The Biden administration is playing down that. They, you know, say that they're going to do what they can to help these Afghans. But this has really moved a lot faster. And - you know, and it's not just Afghans who worked for the military. There's also Afghans who worked with aid groups. And U.S. - the U.S. Agency for International Development has been telling, you know, its programs out in Afghanistan to erase records, social media posts so that Afghans who worked with them won't be targeted by the Taliban.

KEITH: What about Secretary of State Antony Blinken? He looks like he is making the rounds on television this morning. Do you have any sense of how he's explaining where things stand?

KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, he was already just on CNN. And, you know, his line is that the - you know, the U.S. had no other choice but to leave because of the deal that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban, that if they had kept troops in, they would be the targets of the Taliban. But he's having a hard time explaining why it looks like such a mess. He says that it's not a Saigon moment. He says the U.S. accomplished what it wanted to do in Afghanistan, which was dealing with the terrorist threat, and that the U.S. is going to keep in place some sort of capacity to deal with any future terrorist threat in Afghanistan. But there are lots of questions about why they're, you know, really scrambling right now.

KEITH: Michele Kelemen, NPR's diplomatic correspondent, thank you so much.

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