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In Kabul, Afghans Are Filled With Uncertainty

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was only April when President Biden announced that the U.S. would be pulling all troops out of Afghanistan. It took only May, June, July and the first half of August for the Taliban to retake power throughout the country, leaving many Afghans urgently, even desperately seeking to leave, like Baber Khan Sahel, a correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE. He's hoping the Spanish embassy can help him.

BABER KHAN SAHEL: They told me that they will work with me. I mean, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after tomorrow. If they do not work with me, I have to leave (ph) Afghanistan for neighboring countries, maybe Pakistan, maybe India.

CHANG: After that, he is hoping to be able to return to Afghanistan if it is safe for journalists like him.

SAHEL: If I see that people like me, a journalist like us - they can do their work in Afghanistan. They can say - they can express themselves freely. They can write the facts - then I have no problem. I will return to my country.

CHANG: Today in Kabul, enormous crowds flooded the airport, hoping for a way out. Earlier today, I reached Jane Ferguson of the PBS NewsHour, who is in Kabul. And I asked her what she was seeing.

JANE FERGUSON: It's really very much so a tale of two cities because you've got a city center that's relatively calm, and you have an airport and area surrounding the airport that is absolutely chaotic. And I'm sure you've seen those scenes that have been widely shared on social media of crowds, huge crowds of people swarming the airport, desperately, literally clinging to airplanes. Add to that the fact that you have Taliban fighters and checkpoints all over the roads all around the airport in quite a high intensity. Some Afghan security forces trying to keep order - these are sort of the very last remaining security forces that I've seen anywhere in town. And, of course, thousands of American troops completely surrounded by the Taliban. And all the while, in between all of these armed groups, you have panicked, terrified civilians, simply wondering how they can get out of the country and if it's too late.

CHANG: Let's take each of those pieces one by one. Let's start with the military presence that you're seeing in the city. I'm curious - what proportions are you seeing between Taliban forces, Afghan security forces and U.S. troops out there?

FERGUSON: Oh, the Taliban - other than at the airport, I've seen no presence of any other, like, national security forces.

CHANG: Interesting.

FERGUSON: The last time that I was in the city center, there was no presence that I could see of what we would've once called the ANDSF. It was Taliban there. And there was kind of a hybrid mix outside the airport, at the airport gates last night where you would see some remnants of Afghan commandos but also then Taliban in the streets. So not harassing one another in a bizarre, surreal scene.

CHANG: And as for the airport in Kabul, what is the situation there like at the moment? Have those crowds dissipated? Or the scenes that we are seeing in these images - that still remains the case at the airport?

FERGUSON: Well, I know that only a few hours ago, the situation was just as bad because I was able to access CCTV footage to see inside the actual airport. I'm actually fielding calls from contacts and, you know, former interpreters and people who are saying, should I go to the airport? Maybe we should go to the airport now because, you know, if we don't go, then we'll miss the last flights. So there's almost this attitude that time is running out.

CHANG: And, Jane, I know that your movements are very limited right now, so I don't know the extent to which you've been able to talk to Afghans living in Kabul. But for those who are not able, who do not have any realistic option of leaving the country at the moment, what are you hearing from them?

FERGUSON: You know, I have been hearing from Afghan friends and colleagues and - who have said, you know, we're sheltering in place. The big fear is that the airport could shut. That's what people are afraid of...

CHANG: Right.

FERGUSON: ...That commercial flights have stopped. When would those start again? When could I book a plane if I needed to get out of here and go to Istanbul or Dubai? But, you know, it goes without saying those are middle-class people. You know, the poor, who can't afford to get on a flight, even if there was one - their options are much more limited. If they can't get out of the country - many of them are trying to - they will hunker down at home and try to minimize their social media presence and try to just keep an incredibly low profile. And the depressing reality is that those keeping a low profile are increasingly women.

CHANG: For those people that you have been able to talk to in Kabul or hear from in any way in Kabul as they are looking ahead to Taliban rule in the country, what would you say they are most concerned about at this point?

FERGUSON: I think it's the uncertainty. I mean, I don't think anybody delude themselves into thinking that the Taliban are vastly modernized, different version of the 1990s Taliban that once ruled this country. But there's a lot of women who are looking - young women in particular, who have grown up and built and worked very hard for their lives and their careers that are now looking around and thinking, what are the parameters? We don't know. The Taliban aren't coming out and saying, no women can be TV journalists, and no women can wear trousers, you know, or pants. Like, they're not coming out with hard and fast rules. So there's a sense of real trepidation about, you know, the fact that this could all just come down to the opinions of of one man with a gun in the street or another man with a gun in the street.

CHANG: Jane Ferguson from the PBS NewsHour, joining us from Kabul. Thank you very much, Jane.

FERGUSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.