Can the U.S. safely evacuate Afghanistan by the Aug. 31 deadline? Two experts weigh in

For a broader look at the looming deadline to evacuate Afghanistan, Amna Nawaz speaks to Matt Zeller, co-founder of "No One Left Behind," a nonprofit dedicated to getting interpreters and their families out of Afghanistan. He also served in the army, authored "Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan." They are joined by John Sifton, the Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We step back now for a broader look at that looming U.S. deadline to evacuate with Matt Zeller. He's co-founder of No One Left Behind. It's a nonprofit dedicated to getting interpreters, their families and others who worked with the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

    He's an Army veteran, a former CIA analyst. And he wrote a book about his experience called "Watches Without Time: An American Soldier in Afghanistan." And we are also joined by John Sifton. He is the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both. And thank you for making the time.

    Matt, I want to start with you.

    Just to put this in context, 82,000 people evacuated in a matter of days, it is no small feat. It's an enormous undertaking. They absolutely get credit for that, the administration. But how does what has been done so far compare to the existing need on the ground?

  • Matt Zeller:

    It was done at the 11th hour.

    And for those of us who were advocating that this be done months earlier, it will haunt us for the rest of our lives. The number I keep telling people that the Biden administration will be judged on is not the number of people who we have saved, which, let's be clear, that is a heroic and valiant effort — every single air crew, State Department official, Department of Defense official, veteran, diplomat, aid worker who are home online trying right now to still help Afghans get to the airport, they're heroes.

    But we could have gotten every single person out. And so we now need to be clear we're going to be leaving a lot of people behind. The Association of Wartime Allies has been spending the better part of the last week working with about 100 data scientists at the American University here in Washington, D.C.

    The New York Times is going to be publishing a story within the next day or two on this. Our estimation is that we're leaving behind somewhere between 175,000 people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John Sifton, that number is just stunning.

    Is there any chance — I mean, the U.S. is evacuating tens of thousands of people a day now. Is there any chance everyone gets out by that deadline?

  • John Sifton:

    Well, I think one of the things to recognize is that it's not just interpreters and people who worked for the U.S. military.

    The United States and its NATO partners have lists of people who will be granted entry into their countries because of their work for media companies, for U.S. organizations, for human rights groups, and for other reasons.

    And so, when we talk about who's there, who's outside the airport waiting to get access, it's not just U.S. citizens. It's not just the interpreters who helped the U.S. military. It's human rights defenders. It's lawyers and advocates and academics and their families and many other people who are going to be targeted by the Taliban because of the work that they did.

    And when we say we need more time, when we say that President Biden needs to focus on the political issues here, not the technical issues of meeting a deadline, but on the political issues of going back to the Taliban, and saying, we need to work out a few more days to get people out, we're talking about people on a list.

    We're not talking about an unlimited number of Afghans who are going to need to seek refuge. Make no mistake, there will be many, many thousands, hundreds of thousands of Afghans who will seek refuge for other reasons in the coming years.

    But we're talking about people who have already been authorized or pre-authorized for access to the United States and NATO partners whose names are on lists at the Kabul Airport. Just get those people there, if we can get them there. We're still going to have many people left behind, but at least that.

    And that demands an extension of the deadline, which requires further negotiation with the Taliban.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What kind of extension are we talking about, John? What would you like to see?

  • John Sifton:

    Can't put a number on it.

    And the Taliban is ultimately going to decide. But the point is, the Taliban has already agreed to allow what's going on right now. And that should tell us everything we need to know. The Taliban is not going to attack when they know what will happen if that occurs.

    They know that the United States is leaving. It's just a question of working out the particulars. And the other issue is access to the airport. Even if people are — even if there's an extension given, the Taliban and the United States have to work out the differences about how people are getting to the airport.

    Secretary Blinken suggested today that they have told the Taliban how that can happen. But the reality on the ground, we're hearing every hour and every day, up until 20 minutes before just this interview, is that people can't get to the airport, because they're not able to make through — make it through checkpoints.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Matt, we…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • John Sifton:

    They're not able to…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I apologize for interrupting.

    Matt, I want to ask you about that deadline, because we have to remind people that was set by the Biden administration. So do you think that they should abide with it — by it? What sort of extension are you suggesting and do you think it would take to get that many people out?

    And don't they risk provoking the Taliban, getting into a firefight on the ground if they stay past the deadline?

  • Matt Zeller:

    So, we're talking about an additional five days. That's what the math is. That's the devil's arithmetic.

    The Association of Wartime Allies has a daily tracker that we have been putting out since May, when we were trying to convince the Biden administration to do the evacuation even back then.

    And what we have shown is that, at the current clip, at the current pace, we could get every single person that we're seeking to take out, every one of these people on these lists out by the 5th of September. We need an additional five days.

    I completely agree with the other panelist. We should be negotiating this one thing. If we — I also agree with his analysis. I think the Taliban have made the calculus that we are going to leave, and that they can push us around, and that if we were to get forceful and say back to them, no, we're staying until it's mission complete, and if you want to take your shot at us, it's going to risk a shooting war, they will probably stand down.

    That's — that — I think they — look, they know they won. They got the country. They don't want to fight us for these people.

    So, the choice to leave on the 31st really, truly is a choice to abandon and betray them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Matt, is the U.S. in a position to bargain at all in these last days, when it's on its way out?

  • Matt Zeller:

    Yes.

    We're still the most powerful military on the planet cloaked in more power than any of our nearest allies combined. If you take the other 10 leading nations in NATO, their militaries alone don't even combine up to ours.

    We absolutely have the means to do this. Unfortunately, this entire time, we have lacked the will.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    John, what are you thinking about when you think about what we could potentially leave behind?

  • John Sifton:

    Well, obviously, this situation is going to be a catastrophe.

    And there are other issues about whether the international community will recognize the Taliban in some capacity and allow some of the humanitarian assistance that is vitally needed right now to Afghanistan.

    You just asked about leverage. That's it. The Taliban are not stupid. They recognize that they cannot survive without some level, some level of international recognition that allows them to get access to, not just emergency humanitarian aid, but also developmental assistance and even recognition that the U.N. will allow them to begin to have a monetary policy and have access to the IMF.

    There are huge bargaining chips on the table. And the United States can't just act like, because they have lost the war, they don't have any cards to play. That's not the case.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Matt Zeller, less than a minute left, but if the administration does not extend that deadline, what do you worry about?

  • Matt Zeller:

    The profound death that's coming.

    We have already started to see it. We know that the Taliban are going door to door throughout Afghanistan, now inside Kabul, that they're disappearing our wartime allies in the middle of the night, never to be seen again by their families.

    There's video on social media of them shooting dead an interpreter today as he attempted to get to the airport. He's saying in the video: "They have beaten. They have beaten. I'm an interpreter. I was an interpreter."

    And then he grabs his wife to try to pull him away and they shoot him.

    I have been warning, our whole coalition, every single one of us has been warning that this is what's going to happen, that we could have saved these people. And we still can. There's still time. They're not dead yet. But they're going to be. They will be quite soon. And when that happens, we have to know that we played a part in that death. We chose to abandon them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We are now just days before that looming deadline now on August 31.

    Matt Zeller and John Sifton, thank you both very much for joining us tonight.

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