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U.S. aims to restore modes of transportation out of Afghanistan, Tom West says


The Taliban is cracking down on anyone who is trying to leave the country. Any flight out of Afghanistan has to be pre-approved by the Taliban government, which makes it very difficult for Afghans who've been trying to escape since the fall of the government there six months ago. That includes Afghans who worked alongside U.S. troops over two decades of war. According to the State Department, there are roughly 60,000 Afghans who face retribution from the Taliban for their past work with the U.S. One of them is a man we've been calling Khan for his own safety. For four years, Khan translated for U.S. combat forces. His visa application was approved but never finalized before the U.S. left Afghanistan, and all his emails to the State Department have gone unanswered.

KHAN: I feel I did something wrong, and that's why maybe I'm left behind. Why did I help the U.S. Army? Why was I risking my whole life being in a job as interpreter? I feel I shouldn't have done this.

MARTIN: How do you respond to that?

TOM WEST: It's heartbreaking, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is Tom West. He's the Special Representative for Afghanistan, and he was one of the last American diplomats to leave the country before the Taliban took over.

WEST: We're hearing this kind of message from a lot of Afghans who do feel in fear for their lives and want to leave. I personally served alongside many Afghans in Kunar, some of whom have made it out and others who've decided to stay behind or haven't yet found a way out. I'll tell you that on a practical level, we are working day in and day out to try to identify practical solutions that will get modes of transportation out of Afghanistan resurrected.

MARTIN: Is this part of your negotiations right now with the Taliban?

WEST: Without going into too much detail, it has certainly been a subject of conversation. It's not an easy one to satisfy across the board, I have to tell you. We saw a very concerning statement from the Taliban spokesperson noting that Afghans will not be permitted to depart any longer. We haven't gotten an official communication in this regard, but it's a very worrying statement.

MARTIN: How would you characterize the situation there right now?

WEST: Well, I think for a lot of Afghans, it's a horrific situation. It's just an undeniable humanitarian catastrophe. You know, over half the population is experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity. They don't know where they're getting their next meal. It is also, in some ways, a more secure situation than it was. And this is a hard reality, I think, for a lot of Americans to grapple with. But there's been an almost - over 90% diminution in security incidents, meaning fights, clashes, deaths of civilians, year on year, from now to last year. That is because the war is over.

MARTIN: Does the United States recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan?

WEST: No, we do not.

MARTIN: How has that affected the Biden administration's effort to get humanitarian aid into the country?

WEST: So I would say that it's been a collective international effort to press the Taliban to allow humanitarian aid workers access across the country. And this is one area of our dialogue that has proved fruitful. And, look, it's in the Taliban's interest to allow aid workers to do their work. But the fact is that humanitarian aid workers are accessing parts of the country that have been inaccessible for over a decade. So on humanitarian aid and humanitarian access, it's a pretty solid story.

MARTIN: Although weren't there aid workers that were just kidnapped there, including British citizen Peter Jouvenal?

WEST: That is right. And I was deeply, deeply, deeply concerned to learn about that. And I was just about to say, that doesn't mean that there haven't been really, really worrying pieces that argue against that story. And so it's not a complete - completely positive picture across the board.

MARTIN: The U.S. has given Afghanistan $780 million in humanitarian assistance since August. Where has that money gone?

WEST: Largely through U.N. and humanitarian relief organizations. So a big part of our effort has been about supporting the efforts of humanitarian aid implementers to scale up, to hire locally, to procure, to have the cash on hand that they need to do their work.

MARTIN: So how is that money being traced? Because I don't have to tell you, over 20 years of war, there were billions of dollars that were diverted and not - the aid money was not spent as it was intended when there was a huge footprint of international organizations on the ground when the U.S. was there. And now there's a scant U.N. footprint, and the U.S. has gone.

WEST: It's a fair concern. I would say that, you know, one of the things that we did as a government is we backed private sector actors in Europe as they have shipped several hundred million dollars - and physical, hard dollars - into Afghanistan. And so far, the Taliban has not sought to intervene in or seize any of those shipments. So on that front, I think they understand that if there were any intervention, then those shipments would stop and that they are a lifeline for the humanitarian effort.

MARTIN: What is the Biden administration's operating doctrine for Afghanistan right now? What is the goal?

WEST: I think the humanitarian and economic crises, I think, are our biggest drivers. So overall, we want to see the emergence of a stable and peaceful state via peaceful means. At the moment, we are not supporting armed opposition in Afghanistan. We would discourage other countries from doing so, as well. But I worry that the Taliban do not have a sense of urgency around this question of forming a fundamentally more representative government and respecting the rights of all Afghans.

MARTIN: Ambassador Tom West, Special Representative for Afghanistan, we appreciate your time. Thanks so much for talking with us.

WEST: Thank you, Rachel.


Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.