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American And Afghan Officials Dispute The Details Of U.S. Pullout From Bagram

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Military officials say the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is now 90% complete. And while U.S. officials say they will continue to support Afghan military, a spat has broken out about how the U.S. forces withdrew from the last big base, Bagram Airfield. To talk about this and the way ahead in Afghanistan is NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So, Tom, what happened at Bagram? There are reports the Americans flew out in the dead of night without telling the Afghan military?

BOWMAN: Right. And that's what the Afghan commander at Bagram is saying. He said he heard rumors the Americans were leaving and woke up in the morning to find them gone. Looters broke in, grabbed some equipment, kind of ransacked the place. Now, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby is saying that senior Afghan and military personnel were informed a couple of days before, and there was even a tour of the facility during that time. Another official told me that tour was for the Afghan Civilian Aviation Authority. So, again, the Pentagon says Afghans were informed but not given the precise timing of U.S. departure for security reasons. Leila, the Americans have not only been concerned about possible Taliban attacks as they leave but also so-called insider attacks from Afghan troops.

FADEL: So with 90% of the withdrawal complete, what's next?

BOWMAN: Well, the next step is some type of ceremony in the next couple of weeks with the U.S. commander, General Scott Miller. He'll turn over authority to the top American officer for the region, General Frank McKenzie, who would then have the power to authorize airstrikes against al-Qaida or the Islamic State targets and possibly strike Taliban targets, although U.S. officials continue to point out that Afghans have their own air force, so they presumably could handle that job. There will still be some 650 U.S. troops remaining as a security force for the embassy, as well as Kabul airport.

FADEL: And, of course, that security force is there because Taliban forces are on the move and could threaten Kabul?

BOWMAN: No, that's absolutely right. The Taliban are capturing more and more territory all over the country - threatening city centers, cutting off major roadways. And top Afghan generals vow to prevent that, but so far, things are only getting worse. Some U.S. officials predict more districts to fall like dominoes. And there is a concern, also, that Kabul itself could fall. And if that begins to happen, Leila, you could see a real rush for the exits. Embassies would either close or drastically reduce staff. Some, of course, have raised the specter of Vietnam in 1975 and the sudden departure there. But, you know, one Capitol Hill staffer said a better analogy is actually Beirut, when that country erupted into warring factions, a civil war, in the 1980s and U.S. Marines and the embassy were attacked.

FADEL: So another big story ahead is evacuating Afghans who worked for the Americans - putting their lives at risk, some of them. Anything new on that?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, we haven't heard much, but the clock clearly is ticking. The State Department is in the lead on that, and the Pentagon is also ready to help if asked. Now, the plan is to move those Afghans, the many thousands of them, to a third country to process them for special U.S. visas - possibly to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan to the north of Afghanistan or maybe to one of the Middle East countries. But again, we keep hearing about planning but no final word on when this will happen. A lot depends, of course, on the security situation, especially in Kabul.

FADEL: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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