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Top U.S. commander in Afghanistan warns the country could descend into civil war

The U.S. is on the verge of completing a unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan nearly 20 years after it invaded, and the outgoing U.S. military commander has delivered a new stark warning about the future of the country: the prospect of civil war. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. is on the verge of completing a unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after it invaded.

    And the outgoing U.S. military commander has delivered a new stark warning about the future of the country.

    Nick Schifrin is back right now. And he joins me.

    Nick, good to have you with us to talk about this as well.

    What are the military leaders saying they're going to — they believe could happen?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this is perhaps as blunt and pessimistic a statement as the military has ever made about Afghanistan. It's also the first time that the Biden administration or the military has publicly acknowledged the ultimate risk of this withdrawal.

    This is General Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Kabul, telling journalists: "Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it's on right now. That should be a concern to the world, and it's certainly a concern to the region for creating an environment where there's even more violence than there is today."

    So what's behind this warning? The first thing, Taliban strength. Since the U.S. announced its withdrawal, the Taliban have seized some 50 districts across the country, some of them not so important, but others critical, and could cut off Kabul from the other parts of the country.

    Second, Afghan army weakness. Across the country, we are seeing examples of the Afghan army surrendering to the Taliban. That's what you're seeing right there, surrendering to the Taliban, instead of the fighting. The speed with which they have given up territory has surprised the U.S. and Afghan governments.

    And, third, ethnic and government divisions. These are civilians recreating local militaries. And that hearkens back to a time in Afghanistan where the country was ruled or not ruled because there were so many local militias overseen by warlords. So it's pretty grim.

    Judy,there's an intelligence community assessment that Kabul could fall within six months, but there are also assessments that Kabul could hold on even if it loses other parts of the country.

    But the bottom line, the U.S. will not be there to save the Afghan military or the Afghan government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pretty ominous.

    And, Nick, given this, is that affecting the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a short answer, no.

    The Afghan government asked the U.S. to delay the withdrawal, but the withdraw, other than the airport and the embassy, is imminent. Take a look at this video from Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul. These are hundreds of service members leaving Bagram. This was really the heart of the U.S. effort in Central Afghanistan. This is the symbol of the withdrawal imminently moving over to the Afghans.

    But there are details outstanding of the withdraw. Firstly, contractors who service Afghan helicopters right now are also leaving. So the administration is trying to figure out where to do that servicing outside of Afghanistan.

    The airport. Turkey is agreeing to protect the airport, you see right there. But Turkey is asking for U.S. service members to stay there and also asking for NATO reimbursement. So those discussions are ongoing.

    And, lastly, the embassy. Hundreds of service members will stay to guard the giant embassy compound in the heart of Kabul. You see it there. This is critical. The U.S. says it needs U.S. troops to secure that embassy and needs an embassy to continue to support Afghanistan in the future.

    But the Taliban reject that. The Taliban have never said that they would allow U.S. troops to stay there. And so a senior military official tells me today, if the Taliban attack the embassy, they will have to evaluate whether they can keep it open. Other officials admit to me they do not know whether the embassy is sustainable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, and just quickly, Nick, a lot of concern about the interpreters and other Afghan citizens who have been helping the U.S. over the last 20 years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, 17,000 interpreters, tens of thousands of their family members have applied for special immigrant visas.

    For some of them, this is life and death. Some 300 of them have been killed since 2014. The plan is to evacuate them to a U.S. territory, not to a third country. The administration is still working out specifics, but the military says they're ready and able to do that at any point, so long as the U.S. and Turkey can figure out how to secure that airport.

    And so, at this point, the administration emphasizes the billions of dollars of continuing support, the ongoing training, and highlights that there are no U.S. casualties right now, and won't be. But the senior Afghan officials I talk to say that their country's being abandoned, and they are very, very worried about the future of Afghanistan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And no wonder.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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