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The White House Briefed Congress On The Afghanistan Pullout. Here's What Was Said

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

August 31 is one week from today. That's long been the date for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan once and for all. Now even as the U.S. races to evacuate thousands of citizens and vulnerable Afghans each day, President Biden says he is sticking to that date. The administration briefed members of Congress on the withdrawal earlier today. Congressman Adam Smith was there. The Washington Democrat is chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and he joins us now.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADAM SMITH: Thank you, Ari. I appreciate the chance.

SHAPIRO: You've said you think the timeline of an August 31 withdrawal is realistic and responsible. Several members of Congress, including members of your own party, disagree and say the mission cannot be accomplished in seven days. Why do you believe they're wrong?

SMITH: Yeah. No, I don't believe I said that. I said it is distinctly possible that by August 31, we can complete the mission. In fact, the question I asked during the briefing today was, you know, do you have a contingency plan if you have to go back past August 31? So, yeah, a lot of statements go out. I think it is distinctly possible that we can achieve the mission by August 31. But I think we need to have contingency plans in place to make sure every American, every SIV holder, all third-party nationals are out, not by an artificial deadline.

SHAPIRO: Tell me what you learned about those contingency plans.

SMITH: I think, you know, the biggest confidence I have in that is twofold. One is, you know, the response, you know, once the Taliban took over, the ability to come in and get control of the airport in Kabul and to begin to get people out - you know, the estimates are we got, you know, roughly 20,000 people out in the last 24 hours. The Department of Defense worked very quickly to get that done. So they seem to have planned for that. I think they planned for - I know they planned for, you know, contingencies past August 31. And then also, the other big variable in this is the Taliban. It's really not in the Taliban's interests to have a fight as we're headed out. And if it takes another day or two or even a week to accomplish that peacefully, they have strong interests in doing that.

SHAPIRO: So you think the U.S. might be willing to call their bluff, even though they say August 31 is a hard and fast deadline. You think it might not be as hard and fast as the Taliban says.

SMITH: I think they will. I think - I know our administration will have discussions with the Taliban about that if it needs to go past that. Now, of course, as you well know, the wild card here is ISIS-K, which is a threat to both us and the Taliban. And I think part of the reason - look. I don't begrudge President Biden trying to get this done in a quick time frame. We have a lot of people right now who are vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks from ISIS. So if we can get this done by August 31, we should. But, again, it was very clearly stated today at the briefing, you know, getting all Americans, all SIVs out and as many Afghans as we can - that is the priority. If that's not done by August 31, then we'll take the time we need to get it done.

SHAPIRO: I want to drill down more into what you mean by completing the mission and getting it done. Right now the Taliban is saying they will not allow Afghans to get to the Kabul airport. And of course, there are people in Kandahar and other cities who can't even get to Kabul. How do you get every person you're talking about out of the country given those limitations?

SMITH: Yeah. What I'm talking about is getting all Americans out and getting all third-party nationals out who want to get out. And that's going to be very...

SHAPIRO: Even those outside of Kabul, even those in other parts of the country that are under Taliban control.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, I'm getting there. Now, that is going to be very - frankly, that would be difficult if we had another month or two, depending on how far spread people are out. Now, the bulk of them are in the immediate Kabul area. But I don't think anyone's going to tell you that, you know, every last American is going to be gotten out of Afghanistan. So it's quite likely, in fact, that there are many Americans who don't want to get out. But they are going to do their level best to find every American they can and give them the option of getting out. That's the mission, and that's what they're trying to accomplish.

SHAPIRO: Many U.S. allies have expressed concern about withdrawing in just seven days. And President Biden met with members of the G-7 this morning. Is there a risk here to the perception of the U.S., to U.S. credibility when the president appears to be more in line with the Taliban saying August 31 is a hard and fast deadline than he is with U.S. allies saying there has to be an extension?

SMITH: Yeah. No, there - well, first of all, the statement the president made - and you previewed this, you know, on broadcast - is that, you know, August 31 is the goal. We believe we can achieve it, but there are contingencies to go beyond that. So I don't think the president is trying to line up with the Taliban. I think it's his belief that this is when we can accomplish the mission. Now, it's not irrelevant what the Taliban want because if they start shooting, it becomes a very dangerous situation. And we should work to try and prevent that.

But the president is trying - look. This is an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances. The United States, you know, put 20 years, a couple trillion dollars and several thousand lives into this. And at the end of the day, we didn't have an Afghan government that the people of Afghanistan believed in enough to support over the Taliban. So as I've said many times, this is - it was never going to be easy. But if we stayed another year, another five, another 10, you know, I'm not sure it would have been different. And I think the president made the right decision even if I don't agree with all the choices that he's made in terms of he's executed it.

SHAPIRO: Just in a sentence or two, as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, do you expect to hold hearings into why this happened and how it went so badly?

SMITH: Yes. We have a briefing tomorrow, as a matter of fact, classified briefing. And this - we'll hold a public hearing. But also, you know, it did not go as well as anyone would have liked, but there was no easy way to do this.

SHAPIRO: All right. I'm afraid we'll have to leave it there. That is Washington Democratic Congressman Adam Smith. He chairs the House Armed Services Committee. And we appreciate your speaking with us today.

Thank you.

SMITH: Thanks for the chance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.