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Former U.S. Ambassador To Afghanistan Discusses U.S. Withdrawal

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Americans prepared to celebrate the July 4 weekend, American troops packed up, turned off the electricity and quietly vacated the biggest air base in Afghanistan. This was overnight, last Thursday. U.S. Central Command announced today that the military withdrawal from Afghanistan is now more than 90% complete. Meanwhile, ever since the U.S. announced that withdrawal, the Taliban has been taking district after district in northeastern Afghanistan, often without a fight.

Well, we're joined now by Ryan Crocker. He was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He spent decades as a diplomat in the Middle East and Asia.

Ambassador, welcome back.

RYAN CROCKER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So there's a lot to start through here, but let's - to sort through here - but let's start with the closure of Bagram and the airbase there. There are conflicting accounts of who may have told who what and when as the U.S. hit the exits. But how does this happen? The U.S. has had 20 years to plan its departure from Afghanistan, and this ends with Bagram being ransacked?

CROCKER: I'm not sure how much ransacking was done. I did see some video clips of Afghan national security forces on the facility and seemingly in charge.

KELLY: Yeah. We saw video of people going through deserted tents and supply hangers - that type thing. But go on.

CROCKER: Well, that I would not consider a major signal one way or the other. We have other air facilities around the country. So, clearly, with the decision to hand over Bagram earlier than expected, in the view of the commanders on the ground, isn't going to affect the rest of the redeployment schedule. But...

KELLY: So this doesn't don't worry you that this - I mean, it clearly could've gone more smoothly.

CROCKER: Well, look. I think it is an amazing logistical achievement that it has gone as smoothly as it has when you're moving that number of people and equipment in a very short time frame. So I don't really see this as a hugely important change of the withdrawal procedures. But, that said, it's - Bagram is a symbol.

KELLY: Yeah.

CROCKER: That's where I landed in January 2002, when I reopened the embassy because Kabul was closed down. So it is a powerful symbol that we are not there anymore.

KELLY: You mentioned the embassy, so let me ask you about that. As the guy who used to run it, how confident are you that it will be secure, that the people who work there will be safe, after U.S. troops finish pulling out?

CROCKER: It's been announced, of course, by the administration that a significant U.S. force - in the hundreds - will remain to secure the embassy, so I don't see the likelihood of anything dire happening, at least in the short term. The real question is will they be able to do business? And doing diplomatic business means getting out beyond your own wire to meet with people, talk to them, see them. That's crucial.

And here, I'm afraid, we've backed ourselves into a corner through the Benghazi Committee hearings to make any loss of diplomatic life literally a criminal offense. And I'm afraid we may be looking at a lockdown, in which you've got the people there, but they're not able to do their work.

KELLY: You're referring to the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and the death and security challenges, to put it mildly, there.

In Afghanistan, you have seen the same reporting I have - U.S. intelligence estimates saying the Afghan government could fall in as soon as six months to two years after U.S. troops are fully out. If that happens, what responsibility does the U.S. bear?

CROCKER: I think it will bear a huge responsibility. I'm not sure that it's likely the government will fall in six months. But, right now, it's the Taliban who has agency here. We gave ours up. We decided we were tired, and we were going home. So it's up to them whether they're going to pursue an all-out offensive or whether they'll take a more moderate tack, but leaving it up to the Taliban is not a good place to be right now.

KELLY: We do have just a few seconds left, but you see a possibility that that doesn't happen at all, that the government could hold?

CROCKER: I think that it's entirely possible that the government can hold if the Taliban decides not to pursue an all-out offensive. And that's what I meant here - that it isn't the government that's going to be making that decision. It isn't us. It's the Taliban. We are going to have to wait and see what they do.

KELLY: It's an interesting place to be, waiting on the decision-making from the Taliban.

That is Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Ambassador, good to speak with you, as always.

CROCKER: Thank you for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.