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America Marks Beginning Of Withdrawal Of Troops From Afghanistan

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today marks the beginning of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It comes nearly 20 years after U.S. troops toppled the Taliban government because it harbored al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who plotted the 9/11 attacks. On Wednesday, President Biden told Congress it's past time for U.S. troops to come home.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have service members in Afghanistan who were not yet born on 9/11. The war in Afghanistan, as we remember the debates here, were never meant to be multigenerational undertakings of nation-building.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Bowman has spent many years as a reporter in Afghanistan, often embedded with U.S. forces. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: Of course, May 1 was the day that all U.S. and NATO troops were supposed to be out under the agreement that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban last year. What happened?

BOWMAN: Well, there was a debate within the government for weeks about whether to keep the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in the country to push the Taliban to have serious negotiations with the Afghan government about the country's future and also to get the Taliban to break with al-Qaida. Negotiations have been on and off, of course, and the Taliban have not broken with al-Qaida. Now, American military leaders wanted the troops to stay with no explicit timeline. Biden, as we just heard, said, no, enough is enough.

SIMON: Tom, are defense officials worried about the safety of U.S. troops as they leave and the risk of attacks by the Taliban?

BOWMAN: You know, there's a lot of worry, and that's why an aircraft carrier, the Eisenhower, and B-52 bombers were sent to the region. It'll take a few months to get all the troops out. And the Taliban are increasing attacks on Afghan forces but have not attacked U.S. or NATO troops. But, you know, that could change with some Taliban commanders maybe eager to kick the foreign troops out the door. The U.S. military has said if the Taliban attacks, they'll be hit very hard.

Now, Scott, another worry is some Afghan troops could turn their weapons on U.S. and NATO troops. Already, the so-called insider attacks have risen dramatically. A U.S. government report found the Afghan troops or police killing their own was up 82% from January through March compared to last year - 115 killed, 39 wounded.

SIMON: Tom, what do people at the Pentagon say about the fate of the Afghan military and Afghanistan itself as U.S. and NATO forces depart?

BOWMAN: Well, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Besides foreign troops leaving, thousands of civilian contractors will leave as well. And they're doing most, if not all, of the maintenance on Afghan military vehicles and aircraft. Some are saying as a result, the Afghan Air Force could be grounded in just a few months, although Pentagon officials say, listen; we're trying to come up with some sort of innovative ways to help with the maintenance. The big concern overall - a possible civil war as the Taliban gain ground and try to threaten cities such as Kabul.

SIMON: As we noted, Tom, you've spent many years reporting this story from Afghanistan. What do you hear from soldiers and officials about the administration's decision to get out?

BOWMAN: Well, Scott, there are mixed views. Some say it's time to leave. It is for the Afghans to sort things out. Others I've spoken with over the years say it was a big mistake early on not to talk with the Taliban. Still, others say the U.S. tried to do too much, rebuild a nation in the image of the U.S. Scott, six years ago, I asked an American Army colonel in Kabul what he would've done differently if he had to do it all over. And he paused for a while, looked at the floor and simply said, plant trees and go home.

SIMON: NPR correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

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