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Former Department Assistant Secretary Of State Discusses Future Diplomacy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to turn now to Annie Pforzheimer. She was the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan up until March of 2019. Before that, she was the deputy chief of mission in Kabul. She speaks to us now from New York. Are you watching television right now? Are you looking at the images of the embassy? What's your reaction?

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER: My reaction is of real horror and sadness. It's not Saigon. It's Trzebnica. We're leaving people in harm's way. And I wish our embassy, my colleagues well, but everything else that we could be doing for Afghans at risk, we should be doing it now.

CORNISH: What are some of those things?

PFORZHEIMER: Well, there are lists that are going around of people who not only worked for the U.S. military or directly for the embassy but who worked for our implementors - people who were the face of the ideals of, you know, free speech or women's rights. And those lists have been compiled, but there's seemingly no plan to be able to get people out, to use the Department of Defense forces that are there to help embassy people - use those to help keep the airport open in order to allow both commercial flights and special charter evacuations to occur.

CORNISH: Was there any way that the U.S. could've processed the number of special visas they were talking about anyway?

PFORZHEIMER: We should've been faster about them for the last couple of years, of course. And there was no way, with this timeline of the Taliban takeover, that we could have followed all of the 14 or 17 steps of a special immigrant visa the way it was originally designed, which means the design should have been changed to meet the needs of the moment.

CORNISH: How do diplomats go about doing their work as a transfer of power from President Ghani to the Taliban is being negotiated? I understand there was at least supposed to be consular support at the airport.

PFORZHEIMER: I think that what they're talking about right now - what I read in the press is the core team remaining at the embassy where other embassy assets are at the airport. And I would just say the remaining core team means that they could go back up in size. That isn't leaving the embassy behind. It's a small enough group that they can be easily evacuated, but they could also ramp themselves up. And if the airport remains open, other help could come in.

CORNISH: What levers are left, meaning whether it's Doha, whether it's the U.N.? The Taliban appear to have momentum behind them - right? - and not much to lose.

PFORZHEIMER: I think the U.S. had options that it didn't take. I would strenuously disagree that it was all or nothing, that it was either, you know, to stay in a combat role or to leave with this kind of abrupt timeline. We still have a few options left - very few. They do involve the U.N. and the reimposition of more sanctions against the Taliban, putting some teeth into this supposed international consensus that the Taliban should not take power by force.

CORNISH: Can I just put something to you that we're hearing this morning? Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska with some very serious criticism, saying that this is the predictable outcome of the Trump-Biden doctrine of weakness and implying that the two most recent administrations, quote, "deliberately decided to lose in Afghanistan." As someone who's worked in the State Department and was there for these last few years, how do you hear that?

PFORZHEIMER: I am saddened that that interpretation can have adherents because I am sure that the people involved did not intend for this outcome. But there were predictions by very serious people - people who had, you know, no actual, you know, reason to lie about it from the intelligence community, from the U.S. Institute of Peace that said this was the most likely outcome. So I do believe that people deliberately - in power deliberately did not take the recommendations that were given them.

CORNISH: Can you underscore that? You believe that they deliberately did not what?

PFORZHEIMER: Take the options or recommendations that were given to them.

CORNISH: I understand you've been hearing some concerns from women in Afghanistan about what happens next under a country that is under Taliban control. What are they saying to you?

PFORZHEIMER: I think what they're saying is that things are already manifest in areas of the country that are under Taliban de facto control which would only grow more serious and more widespread if they go and take the government over. And that includes women not having freedom of movement. There are some horrific reports - somewhat credible allegations of forced marriages. These are things women are quite panicked about - and revenge killings, such as assassinations.

CORNISH: That was Annie Pforzheimer, who was the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan - that was up until March of 2019 - and was also a leader of the mission in Kabul. Thank you so much for your reactions today.

PFORZHEIMER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.