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How Does The U.S. Help Afghans Hold On To Gains While Withdrawing Troops?


As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan this summer, they leave behind a country changed. Twenty years ago, when U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban out of power, not a single cellphone worked there, no independent media were operating, and few, if any, girls were in school. Those things are different now. But how does the U.S. help Afghans hold on to those gains?

Steve Inskeep put that question to the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Ambassador Ross Wilson came on the line from the U.S. Embassy last week. And we talked of the people who make up Afghanistan's government and its more open society. They are the very people now being targeted by Taliban insurgents. So I asked the ambassador, can the U.S. help to get them out? Wilson answered that he hopes they don't have to go. All the country's progress rests on them.

ROSS WILSON: Afghanistan needs its defense and security forces to defend its population. It needs a vibrant civil society. It needs independent journalists. It needs the generation that has come of age and benefited most directly from the transformation of this country over the last 20 years. We don't want to do somebody else's job by being party to emptying this country of the very people that it needs.

INSKEEP: You - of course, you can't predict the future. And you can hope for the success of the Afghan government. But is your working assumption that people in those categories are likely to face a lot more danger in the coming weeks and months?

WILSON: I think that's not entirely clear. I - clearly, they have faced increasing danger over the course of the last six months, beginning especially with a targeted assassination campaign that began in November - particularly affected journalists, but also judges, civil society leaders, prominent women, a whole large number of other people - very, very painful. The focus of our efforts - of the United States' efforts - is to do everything we can to support the Afghan defense and security forces and their ability to defend the Afghan people, to support the Islamic republic that we had a lot to do with establishing.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, what, as far as you can tell, do the next few weeks look like across Afghanistan as the last U.S. troops prepare to leave?

WILSON: Well, I'm not very good about predicting the future. I think, on current trends, the Talibs are very, very active. Militarily, they are very active, more or less, all around the country. The Afghan security forces remain strong. They're well-equipped. They have good leaders. The longer-term picture is, of course, somewhat harder to see. Our objective at present is to do what we can to support the Islamic Republic.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about once the withdrawal is finished, what U.S. assets remain? Stating the obvious here, but let's state it. The U.S. Embassy remains open. Is that right?

WILSON: The U.S. Embassy intends to remain open. This remains a large and robust embassy. All of the agencies and activities that have been here, that have been part of the United States presence in this country for the last 20 years, except U.S. military forces in the context of the resolute support mission, everything else remains here. We continue to work on the peace process. We have not given up on that. We are working in a variety of ways to support the rights of women and girls and minorities, to promote the rule of law, to help the country deal with corruption, to promote our interests here. And we intend to continue to do that.

INSKEEP: Who will defend the embassy?

WILSON: We have a substantial security force that has been here for some time, and there will be some augmentations to that force that will be arriving here in the coming days.

INSKEEP: Augmentations, meaning U.S. military forces, contractors, someone else?

WILSON: What I will say is increased security personnel to protect this embassy, its facilities and its personnel.

INSKEEP: Is it clear to you, at this point, who will keep the airport open and keep the airport guarded?

WILSON: That's under discussion, in particular with authorities of the Republic of Turkey. Those discussions are ongoing. And I'm not in a position to predict how they will end. Clearly, the airport is very important to us. It's very important to all of the embassies that are here. We can protect ourselves while we are here. But we have to have a dependable way to get in and out. And that would be the secure and dependable operation of the airport.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, finally, I want to ask you, if I may, for a feeling really. You're in Afghanistan. I imagine you get out as much as you safely can. You talk to a lot of people. You get a lot of intelligence. How do you feel about the prospects of this government that the United States has supported for so many years with so many lives?

WILSON: The way I'd answer your question is this. Clearly, there's a strong political opposition in this country to President Ghani. And there are people all around the country that disagree with this or that policy. They are all united in support of the Islamic Republic, in support of the proposition that leaders should be elected and their opposition to the military takeover of their country. That'd be the bedrock piece that I would want to leave you with on that issue.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Ross Wilson, thanks for your time.

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

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