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Taliban Takeover Raises Questions About The National Security Threat To The U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Taliban takeover has raised a new set of questions about the national security threat to the U.S. The last time it was in power, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida movement. Bin Laden, of course, is gone, but al-Qaida still has a presence inside Afghanistan. So will the Taliban allow other extremist groups to operate there? To find out, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey there.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Let's start with what President Biden had to say about this. He gave this big address at the White House today. What was the takeaway for national security?

MYRE: Well, he defined Afghanistan as something that was simply not a core national security issue for the United States. And this is not new for him. He's long wanted to get out of Afghanistan. He even mentioned in his remarks that when he was President Obama's vice president way back in 2009, he opposed the surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan at that time. Now, he said much less about what comes next with the Taliban in charge. He said the U.S. should lead the world with its diplomacy and human rights positions. But what if the Taliban carries out human rights abuses as it did during its previous rule? So the U.S. troops may be about to leave Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean the U.S. can simply wash its hands of Afghanistan.

KELLY: Yeah. Now, you have been talking with people in the intelligence community, as have I. What are you hearing in terms of views on the argument over whether this - what we've just witnessed in Afghanistan represents a massive intelligence failure?

MYRE: Mary Louise, this is a real sore point with the intelligence community of current and former members. One of those I spoke to was Doug London. He was the CIA's counterterrorism chief for Afghanistan until he retired in 2018.

DOUG LONDON: It's always convenient to attribute failures of policy to the intelligence community. I think it's been pretty clearly pointed out that the intel community has been forecasting scenarios along these lines for several years, back to my time.

MYRE: So he made a couple other points as well. He said that over the years, the CIA and the U.S. military often disagreed. The CIA saw the Afghan military as weak and vulnerable without U.S. help. The U.S. military had a much rosier view of the capabilities of the Afghan forces. But as this Afghan question was being debated in recent years, both the CIA and the military warned about the risks of a pullout. They say this was a Biden policy decision, something he wanted to do even though the national security community was warning him against it.

KELLY: A lot of finger-pointing going around at the moment, Greg. Let me turn you here to the relationship now, what we know of it, between the Taliban and al-Qaida. I mean, this was the whole reason the U.S. went into Afghanistan after 9/11. Do we know how likely the Taliban might be to provide sanctuary again to al-Qaida, to other terror groups?

MYRE: Well, you think they wouldn't be too keen to do that, given that it really cost them power last time. The Taliban even pledged to break ties with al-Qaida. That was part of the agreement with the U.S. last year. And al-Qaida has certainly been weakened over the past two decades, but it still has a presence in Afghanistan. And Doug London thinks this Taliban takeover has created conditions for a potential al-Qaida revival.

LONDON: They're so integrated. They're so interwoven. They've so been together over time that it goes beyond co-fighting and collaboration. They're literally intermarried. Al-Qaida made a deliberate effort to intermarry their fighters with the Taliban.

KELLY: Greg, now that the Taliban have taken Kabul, have taken almost all of the country, what are the prospects for stability? What are the prospects for ongoing instability, I suppose, fueled now by those who oppose the Taliban?

MYRE: Right. We could certainly see more fighting. Afghanistan has been at war non-stop for more than 40 years. This is the fourth time there's been a military takeover in the capital. And in all those previous instances, the new power in Kabul didn't end the war. Other factors just regrouped in the countryside, and the fighting carried on.

KELLY: I want to ask very quickly in the time we have left about weapons and where they are. The U.S. has flooded a lot of weapons into the country over the last 20 years. How much of that are now in Taliban hands?

MYRE: Well, fair amount - the U.S. spent more than $80 billion. The Taliban has vehicles, weapons, ammo, some reports of helicopters. These handovers have a long history. Think of the Bagram Airfield north of Kabul. The U.S. built it in the '50s. The Soviets used it during their occupation in the '80s. The U.S. rebuilt it. And now for the past few days, the Taliban have had it.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre - thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.