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Pentagon Press Secretary On Pulling Troops Out Of Afghanistan

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This precise moment at the Pentagon, it is a weekday, a workday. There's service members in uniform coming and going, civilians like us not in uniform. And we have come here today because inside this building, they are making decisions on how to end 20 years of American war in Afghanistan. The person we have come to meet is involved in that conversation and crucially involved in the messaging and how the Pentagon wants Americans to understand what 20 years of war in Afghanistan has meant. John Kirby is the Pentagon press secretary, and we sat down with him today as word came that the U.S. withdrawal is now 95% complete.

If I asked you for one word to describe the security situation that the U.S. leaves behind in Afghanistan, what would it be?

JOHN KIRBY: Concerning. There's no question that the Taliban continue to make advances around the country, largely at the district level. But we now see that they are continuing to challenge or starting to challenge provincial capitals - not many but a couple.

KELLY: Will the government hold when the U.S. is fully out?

KIRBY: I think it's whatever happens, whatever the outcomes are. I mean, obviously, nobody wants to see them not be able to hold. But whatever the outcomes are, good or bad, I think it's going to be - when we look back, we're going to be able to tell ourselves it came down to leadership - Afghan political leadership, Afghan military leadership. Nobody thinks here at the Pentagon that it's inevitable that the government will fall. It doesn't have to be inevitable. But it's...

KELLY: Tyler, who was the commanding general until yesterday, has warned of the risk of civil war. U.S. intelligence estimates say the government could fall within six months.

KIRBY: Well, without getting into specific intelligence assessments, again, it's not inevitable that that be the case. And the Afghan government and the Afghan government security forces - they have all the advantages. They have an air force. The Taliban does not. They have superior numbers on the ground - 300,000-plus to roughly 70,000 or so Taliban. They have special forces. They have sophisticated weaponry and the training that we have given them over 20 years to use that weaponry. So they have all the advantages. It's really just a matter now of whether they're willing to use those advantages in the field to prevent that sort of outcome from happening.

KELLY: To the nature of the threat, the U.S., as you know, went into Afghanistan because of 9/11, because the Taliban was harboring al-Qaida and the U.S. wanted to make sure that...

KIRBY: Yes.

KELLY: ...No terror attack, anything like that, was ever able to emanate from Afghanistan again. I want to play you something that General Sami Sadat, the commanding general of the Afghan army, told me yesterday. He was speaking from southwestern Afghanistan, where his troops are on the frontlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAMI SADAT: There's a number of al-Qaida fighters coming in to Afghanistan recently. I've never seen so much al-Qaida fighters in my area of responsibility. There has been this resurgence of al-Qaida battle groups coming back to life, creating, like, radio communication centers, creating facilitation nodes to support some of the Taliban fighters.

KELLY: I mean, John Kirby, he's describing an al-Qaida threat that is not defeated, that, from where he sits, looks active and growing. How should we square that with the U.S. military leaving?

KIRBY: Well, I certainly can't speak to the details that the general gave you, but I would tell you a couple of things. One, we know al-Qaida is there and has been there. Two, we are unmindful of the fact that they might try to establish a greater safe haven and more capabilities, which is why the president has put such a premium on us developing over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities in addition to the ones we already have.

So the goal here has not changed. We are still focused on protecting the homeland from terrorist threats that could emanate from Afghanistan. But I would tell you that we still judge that the terrorism threat from Afghanistan to be greatly diminished over what it was in 2001. Yes, they're still there, and we have been honest about that. So is ISIS. And there are other terrorist groups that we believe could be operating in and around Afghanistan.

KELLY: But this is an Afghan general saying, I have never seen so many al-Qaida fighters in my area of responsibility.

KIRBY: Again, I can't speak to what he's saying on that.

KELLY: I hear you. But I think the thing that's hard to get our heads around - and I wonder if you have trouble getting your head around it - is the U.S. went into Afghanistan two decades ago to get bin Laden and to beat al-Qaida. And it sounds like 20 years later, al-Qaida isn't beat.

KIRBY: We have long recognized that they still exist and that they still operate in Afghanistan but at greatly diminished numbers and greatly diminished capabilities. And our goal is to make sure that they can't attack the United States from Afghanistan again. And that's why we're working so hard on these over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

Look. The president is right when he says that the mission that we were sent to Afghanistan to accomplish was accomplished. We have not been attacked on our homeland since 9/11. And there's a lot of reasons for that - some policy reasons, some programmatic reasons. But a lot of big reasons are the 800,000-plus men and women of the U.S. military who have served in Afghanistan for the last 20 years to ensure that that outcome couldn't happen again. And I can promise you - again, notwithstanding the general's comments to you - that we're not going to lose focus on that, and we're not going to allow that threat to emanate from Afghanistan again.

KELLY: Big picture, did the U.S. win this war?

KIRBY: We accomplished the mission for which we were sent to Afghanistan, and that was to deal justice to al-Qaida and to those who attacked us on 9/11 and to prevent that country from ever becoming a safe haven again. And that - to a very real degree, that mission is going to continue. We have long believed that there's not going to be a military solution to this war, that the real solution has got to come through politics, negotiated political settlements that are Afghan-led. And so really, the question of what winning looks like in Afghanistan is really an issue for the Afghans to decide themselves. And that's what we want to do - is support that process.

KELLY: John Kirby, thank you.

KIRBY: My pleasure. Thank you.

KELLY: He is the Pentagon press secretary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.