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News Brief: Taliban Takeover, U.S. Exit Criticized, COVID-19 Boosters

NOEL KING, HOST:

What do the Taliban want in Afghanistan?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's not an answer that's entirely easy to pin down. The group is often secretive. They don't spend a lot of time giving press conferences. And they have a ugly history in Afghanistan in which they banned women and girls from participating in civic life. And yet today they control Afghanistan. In Kabul, fighters are patrolling and setting up checkpoints. At the international airport, Afghans and Americans are being evacuated.

KING: CNN's Clarissa Ward is one of the few Western journalists still in Kabul. Hi, Clarissa.

CLARISSA WARD: Hi, Noel.

KING: You talked to members of the Taliban. What did you ask, and what did they tell you about what they want?

WARD: I asked them whether they're willing to guarantee people's safety. So many people I speak to here are petrified that they would face reprisal attacks for working with the U.S. government, for working with Afghan forces. And the Taliban says - and it's not clear whether you can take them at their word - but they say there is a blanket amnesty. For anyone who puts down their weapons, there will be no punishment; there will be no retaliation. A lot of people have trouble believing that, but that's their story. And they say that they're here to bring law and order on the streets to ensure that there isn't too much criminality during this sort of vacuum period.

KING: Do they want a diplomatic relationship or any type of relationship with the United States?

WARD: I asked them about this, and they wouldn't be drawn on the United States specifically because obviously it's such a sore spot for them. But they did make clear to me that they want to be part of the international community. They want to have relations - their words - with every country. They understand what a mess it was in the late '90s and early 2000s when they were an international pariah and how difficult that made their lives, how difficult it made access to funding. They want to get it right this time, they say. They want to do things differently. They want to show that they're more politically mature.

KING: It was a mess in part because of their treatment of Afghan women and girls, who were basically barred from doing anything. When you ask them what is next for women, what did they tell you?

WARD: The Taliban says that they've learned from the lessons of the past, that they will allow women to be educated, that they can go to university, that they can have careers. But when you sort of try to drill down on the logistics, that's where it all gets a little bit murky because they also say that once women reach puberty, they can no longer be in the same place as any men who are not part of their direct family. So they can't go to a school where there are boys, which means they would need to build new girls school. Or they can't work in an office where there are men. They would need to work in an office where there are only women.

I asked, for example, about female TV journalists. There are so many amazing Afghan female television presenters doing incredible work. And one Taliban commander said, yes, they can continue to do this, but they'll have to wear the full Islamic niqab. That is the full face covering. He also said that they'd even have to wear gloves. So clearly, while the Taliban says that women will continue to have all these rights and could continue to be educated and work, in practice it's going to be much more difficult. And that's why so many women across the country right now are desperately fearful that they are on the precipice of losing so much that they've worked so hard for.

KING: What was their demeanor like? Are they happy to have taken over? It sounds like they are looking at governing as an enormous task.

WARD: They are. They understand that this is their moment, that the world is watching. And they want to get it right. They want to show that they're not just a fighting force, that they can be a political force, that they can govern. And so they understand that they need to show that they can bring law and order, that they're not going to impose this draconian Sharia law too quickly. As I said, though, very few people on the streets have any real faith that that's going to happen. And that's why you're seeing those chaotic, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching scenes at the airport, Noel.

KING: Yeah. What is happening? Let me ask you lastly, what is happening at the airport in Kabul today?

WARD: There's continued scenes of mayhem, essentially, with this crush of humanity desperately trying to get in. You have this absurd situation where the Taliban is basically guarding the outer perimeter of the airport, trying to hold people back from pushing in and creating even further chaos. And then at the next perimeter, you have U.S. forces who are essentially trying to bring some semblance of order to the runway and the airfield so that they can continue to carry out these evacuations in as expedited a manner as possible.

KING: CNN's Clarissa Ward in Kabul. Thank you for your time, Clarissa.

WARD: Thank you.

KING: President Biden is trying to deflect criticism, even from members of his own party, over the chaos in Afghanistan.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Yesterday, he returned to the White House from Camp David to defend his decision to withdraw U.S. troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The events we're seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan.

MARTINEZ: And he says he's maintaining what he called a laser focus on possible terrorist threats that could emerge.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is following this story. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Noel.

KING: Did the president have any explanation for why the Taliban takeover unfolded like this, so quickly?

DETROW: Well, first, let's remember that a month ago, Biden was saying the Afghan army had the tools it needed, and he was pretty dismissive of a rapid Taliban takeover or the idea of a scramble to evacuate the U.S. Embassy. And obviously, things have played out very, very differently. And Biden did acknowledge the pace of all of this was a lot quicker than what U.S. officials envisioned. But even with these scenes of chaos in Kabul, Biden did not admit any mistakes in planning or execution, and he said he's sticking to his decision.

Now, the White House is insisting they were prepared and had gamed out all possible scenarios, you know, even if rushing thousands of troops back into Afghanistan and these scenes of Afghans clinging to taxiing cargo planes really does suggest otherwise. Biden did call that gut-wrenching, but he kept his focus on the blunt and unsentimental, really, idea that leaving is the right thing to do for the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops, who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades, deserve.

KING: And so what's been the reaction to that speech?

DETROW: Biden was getting a lot of criticism, and this really did not stop any of it. Even though the Trump administration laid the groundwork for this withdrawal, many Republicans stressed that it is not about the decision to leave; it's about how the withdrawal has been carried out. One quote from Senator Mitt Romney said that contrary to Biden's argument, quote, "Our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat and staying forever." It's also important to note many Democrats have criticized this, as well. And after the speech, several of those voices stressed the importance of making sure military allies, like translators, are safely evacuated.

KING: How does that speech yesterday fit into the bigger themes of Joe Biden's presidency so far?

DETROW: I'd say there were two big themes that we've seen a lot over the past few years. First is the strategic view from Biden and his top advisers that Americans do want more of a focus on America's needs first from the government. And that's why so many have looked to populism and Trumpism over the past few years. And that's why you heard him defending this move and saying this is not worth spending American lives on anymore.

The second thing is an insistence on not overreacting to outside events. And his campaign really viewed that as a reason why he became president, even if it's often criticized. You know, that's why he's not changing course. And it's also why he took so long to speak in the first place, waiting until Monday. And then despite all the criticism that Biden wasn't at the White House, he immediately turned around, got right back on a helicopter and went right back to Camp David.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The Biden administration is going to recommend that Americans who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines get booster shots after eight months.

MARTINEZ: And if you're thinking that, well, this sounds like a change, well, you're right, because last month, the CDC and the FDA said fully vaccinated Americans did not need booster shots. Then last week, they recommended a third shot for Americans with weakened immune systems. And now federal health officials are close to recommending them for some - what? - 150 million of us.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is with us. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Morning, Noel.

KING: What all happened here, and what is this new guidance going to look like?

PALCA: Well, this is all very sketchy at this point. This news was first reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Apparently, a meeting of federal health officials over the weekend coalesced around the idea that a booster shot eight months after the second dose would be a good idea. This all probably still requires FDA approval. The interesting thing is that if a decision has already been made, it's a change in the way administrations have been dealing with this - these big decisions about vaccines. I mean, up till now, the government has held an open meeting where outside advisers come and talk about what the plan is and do they agree and there's a chance for the public to weigh in. And if this is already a done deal, it's a little bit of a change in the way business is being conducted

KING: And so why now? Is it maybe that it really is just that urgent?

PALCA: Well, I don't think you could argue that something, you know, changed from last week to this week that changed the urgency to such a great extent. But the administration has been looking at this for a while. Even though they did say people didn't need a booster a month ago, they still have been planning for that possibility. For example, here's the president's adviser Anthony Fauci speaking about giving people boosters at a White House news conference last Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ANTHONY FAUCI: So if the data shows us that, in fact, we do need to do that, we'll be very ready to do it and do it expeditiously.

PALCA: So there are basically two lines of evidence that are suggesting they might need a booster. One is laboratory data that says, OK, we're looking at the blood samples from people who've been vaccinated, and the ability of that blood to have antibodies to block the virus in the laboratory is going down. Their antibody levels are going down. So there's that line of evidence. And then the second line of evidence is that there are real-world data coming from countries like Israel, which have had the vaccination program out for a while, and they're showing that the efficacy for the vaccine is dropping over time.

KING: OK. Look. Eight months could mean September and October for millions of people. Do you think there will be a lot of demand?

PALCA: Ha. Well, that's an interesting question, too. My guess - and, you know, this is an educated guess, but I don't know for certain. As with the first round, there'll be one group of people lining up to get boosters. And the CDC says there's already a million people who've wanted to figure out and have figured out a way to get a booster. And there'll be another group that might do it. And then there'll be another group of people who say, no way.

KING: NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

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