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French Ambassador Says It's Essential To Keep Working In Afghanistan After U.S. Exit

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When the United States decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, it meant its European allies would have to pull out, too. But they didn't have much say in the matter. One week before the August 31 deadline, European leaders urged the White House to extend the deadline and keep the Kabul airport secure to continue evacuations. The Biden administration didn't agree, and they stuck to the deadline. French President Emmanuel Macron said that the end of the U.S. withdrawal Tuesday created a situation that is, quote, "no longer under control."

We're going to bring in now France's ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Etienne. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being with us.

PHILIPPE ETIENNE: Thank you. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you very much for having me. And allow me to express also my sympathy for people in Louisiana and in New York. I just heard the news on NPR. You know, we have large communities in those two places.

MARTIN: Yes.

ETIENNE: And I thank you for your invitation.

MARTIN: We appreciate that - yes, the aftermath of the storms there. Thank you for that. So I want to start by just asking a direct question. Did France and other European allies have better or different intelligence than the U.S. did about how quickly the Taliban would take over the country?

ETIENNE: We - I will speak only for France because I don't know for the others. But France has been in a different situation. We left, militarily, Afghanistan at the end of 2014. So we have started to evacuate the former collaborators of our army - 800 after 2014. And in April, we asked the French people to leave Afghanistan. But otherwise, we joined the effort. And we had the coordinated action after the 15th of August until the 31st of August - 3,000 people evacuated by our military.

MARTIN: So let's talk about what's behind President Macron's critique that the U.S. withdrawal was too hasty. The situation's no longer under control. I mean, is it France's view that there was a more realistic path to a less chaotic exit that the U.S. just chose not to take?

ETIENNE: You know, it is an American decision, and it is an U.S.-led operation. So once the 31 August deadline was confirmed and the U.S. explained why it wanted to stick to this deadline, of course, we had no other choice, like the other countries, than to wrap up our own operations two days before.

But now and together in close coordination, both with the U.S. and with many, many other countries, our main priority is to make it possible for people who want to leave Afghanistan and who have not yet done so to be able to do so. This is the reason why, as you said, the question of reopening in a secure way - the Kabul airport, for instance - is very, very important. Know we are working actively to make this possible. And it's really now one of our most important priorities.

MARTIN: President Biden assured European allies that the U.S. would earn back its leadership position and restore relationships that had been strained during the Trump years. Has he undermined that promise with the way this exit happened?

ETIENNE: We had his visit to Europe. In particular, I will speak about Europe because we are European. But of course, we're also a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, interested more globally in Europe. President Biden, in June, made very clear that the assurances given by the U.S. to its allies are there. He stands firmly with them.

Now, as far as France is concerned, we work and we will continue to work very closely with the U.S. on, for instance, the fight against terrorism. This is something which is still more important after what happened in Afghanistan. And for instance, for us in Africa in Sahel, we have the support of the U.S. for action against terrorist groups. And I am sure we will continue to get this support.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you, Mr. Ambassador. Has President Macron changed his mind? Does he no longer think that the American exit was too hasty?

ETIENNE: Now the issue - the decision was a decision by the United States, again. The issue - we have to look at the issues which are ahead of us. And we think, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, that there are a certain number of issues which are absolutely essential. The first one, as I said, is to give the possibility for people who want to leave Afghanistan to do so. The second one is the question of human rights, and in particular, the rights of women and girls. And of course, the third issue, which is absolutely fundamental, is counterterrorism. Now we concentrate on this. And they are our priorities, and they are also the criteria for us to look at what will happen in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: In the seconds...

ETIENNE: I think it's the most important.

MARTIN: In just moments remaining, in a speech earlier this week, President Biden said about the exit, quote, "This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It's about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries." How does France read that statement? Does it point to a more isolationist America?

ETIENNE: I think what I take from this statement, which is, indeed, really very important, is also the focus, which was the beginning of the operations in Afghanistan after 9/11, on the fight against the terrorist threat. I mentioned Sahel. President Biden mentioned the fact that terrorism is - continues to remain a very, very high danger also in Iraq, where President Macron was recently, or in Syria. Of course, you do not impose from outside what the democracy, but the rights, human rights. And in particular, in the case of Afghanistan, the rights of women and girls remains also very important. So we - I will take from this speech those two very important points.

MARTIN: The EU high representative for foreign affairs wrote an Op-Ed yesterday in The New York Times about the withdrawal, saying that this should be a wake-up call to Europe, that Europe needs to step up on the world stage because the U.S. has indicated, at least through President Biden, that it is going to retreat - at least, it's not interested in the major nation-building efforts that we've seen in the last decades.

ETIENNE: This is a good point. I think that Europe has a responsibility to be a stronger ally with the United States. Again, example of Sahel is a good example. France has leadership there with the support of the U.S. Europe - the Europeans must be ready to do more for the common security.

MARTIN: Philippe Etienne - he is the French ambassador to the United States. We appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

ETIENNE: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "RIDE WITH YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 3, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier web introduction on this story misspelled Philippe Etienne's first name as Philipe. Corrected on Sept. 2 A headline on a previous version of this story misinterpreted a quote from French President Emmanuel Macron.