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U.S. Diplomats To Come Home From Afghanistan To Prepare For A Troop Withdrawal

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The State Department says it's bringing some of its diplomats home from Afghanistan amid concerns about violence and to prepare for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The Department says it will be a small number, and the embassy will continue to function as normal. But the news comes as peace talks falter and as Afghans worry about the prospects of a stepped-up civil war with the Taliban. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: State Department officials call it re-posturing and insists that the ordered departure from the embassy in Kabul does not reflect a reduction of America's diplomatic engagement in Afghanistan. Officials tell NPR they are bringing home a small number of diplomats who can continue their work from home, and all U.S. embassy offices will continue to operate in Kabul. But Stanford University's Asfandyar Mir sees the drawdown of America's diplomatic presence as another troubling signal to Afghans.

ASFANDYAR MIR: That the U.S. is on its way out; in addition, that the U.S. government does not have a lot of faith in the Afghan government to hold ground.

KELEMEN: He points out that the top U.S. general in charge of the region recently raised concerns that the Afghan military could collapse as the U.S. withdraws. And Mir says all of that is making Afghan government officials extremely nervous.

MIR: I think it induces uncertainty about the continuity of U.S. support and aid. And more significantly, I think there's a big question over whether the U.S. will come to the aid of Afghans in the case of immediate contingencies. Say, you know, a situation in which the Taliban try to press their military advantage, will the U.S. provide air power support?

KELEMEN: Those are concerns that senators on Capitol Hill were raising today with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch, accused the Biden administration of rushing to the exit.

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JIM RISCH: I'm concerned that the administration's decision may result in a Taliban offensive that topples the government. Indeed, it seems that most of the people who work in this space think that that's where this is headed.

KELEMEN: The top Democrat, Bob Menendez, says the U.S. embassy should be ready to help Afghans who worked for the U.S. if they come under threat from the Taliban. He worries that the U.S. has little leverage to help shape Afghanistan's future now that the Biden administration has set an unconditional end date to America's troop presence there.

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BOB MENENDEZ: The departure of U.S. troops does not mean the end of U.S. engagement. In fact, it may require even more attention from the State Department, aid workers and U.S. policymakers.

KELEMEN: Zalmay Khalilzad reassured lawmakers at the U.S. embassy will continue to support Afghanistan and advocate for the rights of women. He also said he will do what he can to, quote, "maximize the prospects for peace in Afghanistan."

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ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Afghanistan has been transformed. We want our investments and sacrifices to have been worthwhile. And if we navigate the coming months appropriately, I believe that this can happen.

KELEMEN: Khalilzad played down widespread fears that Afghanistan's government could quickly collapse.

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KHALILZAD: I believe the choice that the Afghans face is between a negotiated political settlement or a long war.

KELEMEN: That, he says, is in no one's interest. But peace talks have stalled, and the Taliban are refusing to engage now that the U.S. has a clear end date to its troop presence. That is September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks that started America's longest war.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "START SHOOTIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.