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Refugees Are Still Trying To Flee Afghanistan And Blinken Arrived In Qatar For Talks


Top American officials have crisscrossed the globe, responding to what we've seen unfold in Afghanistan in the last month. That includes the attempts to evacuate more people from that country now that the Taliban has taken over and the U.S. withdrawal is complete. And they're attempting to sort out what the U.S. relationship will be with the country, even as the Taliban have yet to form a government to run it.

We're joined now by two NPR correspondents on these trips. Diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen just set off with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. She joins us now from Doha, Qatar.

Welcome back, Michele.


CORNISH: And Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman just returned from his travels to visit refugee centers with top U.S. military officers.

Welcome to you, Tom.


CORNISH: Tom, I want to start with an update from you on the situation when it comes to those few planeloads of Afghans who are trying to leave the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

BOWMAN: Well, there are at least six planes, Audie, trying to fly out. And these veterans and others - American veterans - are trying to get hundreds of people to escape. And they say there are American citizens, Afghan interpreters, commandos and other high-profile types. And the Taliban, they say, they're not allowing the planes to take off. There's frustration and anger at the U.S. government for leaving on August 31 and allowing so many people to remain.

Now, the veterans are saying these flights may have to wait until the Taliban forms a government, comes up with a way to work with the international community. Meanwhile, one Afghan reached out to me and said that he and his commando brother are hunkered down in Mazar-i-Sharif with their families. He says the Taliban are searching for commandos. If they find us, he told me just yesterday, they will kill all of our family because we are a military family.

CORNISH: Michele Kelemen, what's the State Department's involvement in this?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, organizers of these flights need help negotiating landing rights, and the State Department is taking a lot of heat from members of Congress and from activists who don't think the U.S. is doing enough to help those people who were left behind in the evacuation. But the State Department, Audie, is pointing out that it doesn't control the airport. It doesn't control the airspace. It doesn't have personnel on the ground to check documents. So it really doesn't know who exactly are manifested on these planes. And that is a big security risk. The State Department has been in touch with Americans in Afghanistan who want to get out and, in fact, helped four Americans leave overland today. It didn't say where, but it said that the Taliban knew about those plans and didn't impede with it.

CORNISH: Tom, can you give us some detail there? You saw some of the screening as you were following the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What did you see?

BOWMAN: Well, we went to three military bases with General Mark Milley - Germany, Italy and Spain - where thousands of Afghan refugees are being screened for travel to the U.S. Now, they're all being medically screened, getting COVID vaccines. Many are dehydrated. And 13 women, by the way, gave birth at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. And there's also some sophisticated security screening. They're being fingerprinted. The screeners are doing facial recognition as well as retina screening, and it's being checked against databases the U.S. has been keeping for two decades in Afghanistan. And that has allowed a few dozen people to be flagged and detained. We're told they're heading to a U.S. military base in Kosovo for things like past criminal behavior or even membership in the Islamic State.

CORNISH: Were you able to talk to any Afghan citizens?

BOWMAN: You know, I was. I spoke with several Afghans in Germany. Many said they worked with the U.S. military. One actually served as a translator years ago for General Milley and had a letter from him. And they were their families, some a family of five or six. And there were also dozens of children or young adults by themselves. We talked to Mehari. She's 21, a university student from Kabul, and she talked about how she escaped into Kabul Airport.

MEHARI: So much rush. There were so many people, so many gunfires and these things. But we tried our best. Me and two of my friends, we already - all of them - we tried our best to just enter the airport. But our family, they couldn't make it.

BOWMAN: So her parents were left behind, and she was standing at a picnic table as younger girls, all without parents, were working on a large puzzle. Now, Audie, the question and challenge for the U.S. government will be, well, how do you reconnect these kids with their families who are still in Afghanistan trying to get out? At this point, no one has an answer.

CORNISH: Michele, when it comes to Antony Blinken in Doha, what's his goal?

KELEMEN: Well, refugees is one of the issues. Doha is a key transit point for a lot of these refugees who are heading out. But he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are both here actually on kind of a thank you tour, not only to thank the countries for hosting temporarily these Afghan refugees, but also this is - has become kind of a hub for diplomacy. The U.S. embassy in Kabul has relocated here, as have diplomats from some European countries. And, you know, Blinken is trying to make sure that countries are all on the same page in dealing with the Taliban, insisting that they allow free passage to foreign nationals and Afghans at risk. And also, you know, Qatar, along with Turkey, has been in talks with the Taliban about reopening the airport in Kabul. So it's going to be a key country going forward as well.

CORNISH: But does Blinken plan to meet with the Taliban?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, that's interesting. He has no plans right now to meet with the Taliban, even though they do have an office here in Doha. So far, the Biden administration's dealings with the Taliban have been mostly about practical issues, as with the evacuation. And the secretary doesn't seem ready to kind of elevate that conversation in a way that might give the Taliban more legitimacy. They still haven't formed a government. Blinken is waiting to see what that government looks like and what the Taliban will do before making any decisions like that.

CORNISH: That's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

CORNISH: And covering the Pentagon, NPR's Tom Bowman.

Tom, thank you as well.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.