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The Daily 202: Biden faces mounting questions over the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

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with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1961, East German soldiers began construction of what would ultimately become the Berlin Wall.

President Biden shows no sign of second-guessing his decision to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban is racking up speedy battlefield successes over shrinking Afghan forces and seem on track to completely reconquer its former fiefdom.

But even lawmakers supportive of getting out of the war-torn country 20 years after American boots first hit the ground are increasingly (if still mostly quietly) questioning the withdrawal’s planning and execution.

Congressional concerns are now strong enough that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has requested an all-member briefing on the situation when lawmakers return to work, the week of Aug. 23, according to two knowledgeable sources. 

“Mostly people are supportive of the pullout but slightly aghast (to varying degrees, some quite strongly) at the seeming lack of preparation,” one aide to a senior Democratic senator told The Daily 202 on the condition of anonymity.

One source of political concern: the prospects of Taliban atrocities reaching American headlines and screens over the coming weeks and months.

With the fate of the fragile U.S.-backed Kabul government increasingly in doubt, Biden ordered 3,000 troops to Afghanistan — not to coordinate a counteroffensive, but to facilitate the escape of American civilians and some Afghan allies.

As my colleagues Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Ezzatullah Mehrdad and Susannah George noted in their reporting about the deployment:  

“The administration’s decision is a tacit admission that the United States is uncertain how long it can ensure the safety of its staff in a country where conditions are changing on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis.” 

Biden denied in July that there would be any parallels — “none whatsoever” — between the U.S. departure from Kabul and its flight from Saigon in 1975, immortalized with a photo of throngs of people waiting on the U.S. Embassy rooftop for helicopters to take them to safety. 

“There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” he promised. 

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, perhaps anticipating renewed enthusiasm for the analogy, retweeted a rejoinder:

And State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: “This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not a wholesale withdrawal,” adding the U.S. Embassy would soon be functioning at “core” staff levels. 

As he left for his home state of Delaware, Biden took no questions yesterday about Afghanistan, where the Islamist militia shoved from power by U.S.-led forces in late 2001 has retaken major cities and could soon threaten the capital. 

But he was scheduled to travel Friday to Camp David, a presidential retreat large enough to host his Cabinet and equipped with lavish videoconferencing facilities that have been used for virtual meetings with foreign leaders and their advisers.

Apart from a few Democrats who have long criticized the withdrawal plan — Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) has been a skeptic — the president appears to have kept his party on board so far with his policy.

Some of the questions about preparation center on why there was not more warning that Afghan security forces, thought to number around 300,000, would be no match for an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Taliban. 

Given the speed of the Taliban advance, the upcoming briefing for Congress might be more “What happened?” than “What’s happening?” 

What happened is that Biden wanted to avoid a new shooting war with the Taliban after a stretch without American combat casualties, according to people who have spoken to the president.

That’s one of three driving national security concerns. Another is avoiding a deadly Benghazi-style debacle resulting in the deaths of U.S. troops or diplomats. A third, which will gain even more prominence after the withdrawal is complete, is ensuring Afghanistan never again becomes a springboard for terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies. 

The internal argument for the withdrawal goes something like this: The Taliban, stronger than it had been in years, made clear it would launch a military campaign if the United States did not keep a May 1 deadline for withdrawal.  

U.S. force levels — about 2,500 at the time — were insufficient to deter or withstand that assault, meaning Biden was choosing not between staying and going, but between going and sending more troops. 

And there was no way Biden, who voted for the war in 2001 but soured on it shortly before becoming vice president, was going to send more Americans on a mission he concluded had strayed beyond its core national security objectives. 

Here’s Klain again, borrowing a former congressman’s tweet:

For now, Biden’s team has opened a new front against the news media, focusing on what it describes as a sense of “inevitability” Kabul will soon fall. 

“No potential outcome has to be inevitable, including the fall of Kabul, which everybody seems to be reporting about. It doesn't have to be that way,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters this week, one of four times he used a form of the word.  

We are closely watching the deteriorating security conditions in parts of the country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “But no particular outcome, in our view, is inevitable.”

What’s happening now

Afghanistan war veterans are horrified by the Taliban gains. “After enlisting in the U.S. military against his family’s wishes, Chicago native Tom Amenta said he found himself in ‘middle of nowhere,’ Afghanistan, in 2002 as an Army ranger in a remote area some 15 minutes from the border with Pakistan. He was fighting the initial battles of a war that few knew would stretch on for 20 years. Now 40 and retired from the military, he felt anger foam inside as he watched the evening news on Thursday while on a work trip to Pennsylvania,” Andrew Jeong and Jennifer Hassan report. “Friends who had been killed there came to mind, including NFL star Pat Tillman. Fond memories of former Afghan colleagues, such as interpreters, who remained in the country and whose fates he didn’t know, also resurfaced. ‘It makes me angry, really angry,’ Amenta said of the U.S. withdrawal.”  

Quote of the day

“I mean, why did my friend get blown up? For what?” said former Army ranger and Afghanistan veteran Tom Amenta, who has recently spoken to nearly six dozen veterans from the post-9/11 wars to write a book that’s to be released next month.

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Divided Supreme Court sides with landlords, lifts part of New York eviction moratorium,” by Robert Barnes: “The Supreme Court on Thursday night lifted New York’s pandemic-related ban on residential evictions, siding with a group of landlords who said their rights were being violated. The short emergency order was opposed by the court’s three liberal justices, who noted the moratorium was scheduled to expire at the end of the month... But the practical effect of the court’s order is unclear. The New York moratorium is separate from a federal eviction moratorium that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued and which recently has been extended.”

… and beyond

  • The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was supposed to help small businesses. How did a huge airport concessions conglomerate get a piece of the pie?” by the Counter’s Jessica Fu: “Per data released by the Small Business Administration (SBA) last month, a company called OTG DCA Venture II LLC received $10 million from the relief program, making it one of just 66 restaurant companies that were able to obtain the maximum grant possible. (For comparison, about 100,000 restaurants received any amount of relief, and over 270,000 applicants got turned away empty-handed.) You might not be familiar with this company by name, but if you’ve ever transited through a major hub, chances are you’ve come across its restaurants. ... [The company boasts] more than 350 restaurant locations across the U.S. and Canada.”

The Biden agenda

Nine moderate House Democrats are demanding that the infrastructure bill passes ahead of any budget resolution
  • “A group of nine moderate House Democrats have told Pelosi (D-Calif.) that they will not vote for a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint until a Senate-approved infrastructure bill passes the House, a posture that underscores divisions among Democrats that threaten President Biden’s sweeping agenda,” John Wagner and Tony Romm report. “If the nine House Democrats hold firm to their pledge, it would upend Pelosi’s plan to return her chamber to Washington at the end of August and adopt the budget resolution first, a course demanded by liberals who view the infrastructure bill as too timid.”
  • “Biden is seeking passage of the two bills in tandem as he tries to strike a balance between both wings of his party at a time when Democrats hold very narrow advantages in both chambers.”
  • “[The letter] is signed by Reps. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), Carolyn Bourdeaux (Ga.), Filemon Vela(Texas), Jared Golden (Maine), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Vicente Gonzalez (Texas), Ed Case (Hawaii), Jim Costa (Calif.) and Kurt Schrader (Ore.). Because of the thin Democratic majority in her chamber, Pelosi can only afford to lose three votes from her party and still pass the budget resolution.”
Biden wants to rebuild quickly, but the infrastructure bill may bulldoze underprivileged voices. 
  • “For months, Biden vowed to put combating environmental racism at the core of his plan to fight climate change. Cleaning up the air and water in poor and minority communities that often bear the brunt of pollution represents ‘a real chance to root out systemic racism,’ he said in his first address to Congress. Now on the cusp of his first major legislative victory, a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan plan to rebuild the nation’s aging public works, some are warning that the bill as written may undermine Biden’s promise to African Americans and other groups who helped him reach the White House,” Dino Grandoni and Darryl Fears report.
  • “The bill would curtail the way the public can weigh in on how projects building roads, laying pipelines, cutting timber and mining for hard-rock minerals are done. That rush to rebuild American infrastructure, advocates say, threatens to bulldoze over concerns from communities of color when federal officials analyze environmental effects."
Biden, after accusing drugmakers of “jacking up prices,” called for action. 
  • “Biden stepped up his battle over drug costs on Thursday, calling on Congress to pass legislation that would let Medicare negotiate directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers and penalize drugmakers that increase prices faster than inflation,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Amy Goldstein report. “Biden’s initiative comes at a delicate time, as drugmakers have earned some of their best headlines in years for the lightning-fast development of coronavirus vaccines.”
  • “Citing those inoculations, Biden said, ‘We can make a distinction between developing these breakthroughs and jacking up prices on a range of medications for a range of everyday diseases and conditions.’ ... In a reflection of the turbulent political climate on health matters, Biden began his comments by excoriating those, including Republican governors, who are politicizing coronavirus mask requirements, citing a recent incident in Tennessee where doctors and nurses were threatened after testifying before a school board.”
July was the busiest month for illegal border crossings in 21 years. 
  • “The number of migrants detained along the Mexico border crossed a new threshold last month, exceeding 200,000 for the first time in 21 years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforcement data released Thursday,” Nick Miroff reports. “Among the 212,672 migrants taken into U.S. custody in July were 82,966 family members and 18,962 unaccompanied teenagers and children — an all-time high. The unaccompanied minors’ custody requirements have once more overwhelmed the Biden administration as it struggles to care for them safely in the middle of the pandemic.”

The pandemic

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) backpedaled on his threat to withhold the salaries of school officials who resist his anti-mask rule. 
  • “The move by the governor’s office represents a tacit acknowledgement that it legally can’t take away the salaries of school board members and others despite previously threatening to. DeSantis could levy hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against school districts for disobeying his mask orders, but it would be up for the board leaders themselves to cut their own pay,” Politico’s Andrew Atterbury reports.
  • Four educators in that same district, Broward County, passed away from covid-19 in 24 hours. “Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said, ‘Within a 24-hour span, we had an assistant teacher pass away, a teacher at her school pass away, an elementary teacher pass away and another teacher at a high school,’” CBS Miami reports. “Despite the dangers, the governor is sticking to his guns. ‘We believe the parents rather than the government should be making this decision,’ said DeSantis. Fusco is relieved the board chose its own move when it comes to masks... Fusco said three of the teachers who died were unvaccinated. It is not clear if the fourth teacher had been vaccinated.”
Clashes over school mask mandates are escalating elsewhere in the Sun Belt as pediatric cases rise. 
  • “Education groups in Arizona sued the state Thursday evening over a ban on mask mandates in schools — a prohibition that the state legislature had passed as part of a budget,” Bryan Pietsch and Adela Suliman report. “In Texas, Harris County defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates Thursday by demanding that most schools require face coverings. Local officials in Texas have also sued the Republican governor.”
  • A high school in Mississippi quarantined 40 percent of its students in their first week back, the Mississippi Free Press’s Ashton Pittman reports. The school district will now go back to online teaching due to the increase in cases. “Despite an all-time high of 4,412 new COVID-19 cases reported statewide today, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) insisted in a tweet today that ‘there will be no lockdowns and there will be no statewide (mask) mandates’—despite warning from hospital leaders that the health care system is on the brink of ‘failure.’"
Twenty-seven people tested positive for the coronavirus on a Carnival Cruise Line ship that left from Galveston, Tex.  
  • “The outbreak is among the highest number of publicly reported cases on a ship sailing from the United States since cruises restarted this summer,” Hannah Sampson reports. “According to the statement from Belize tourism officials, 26 of the infected people are crew members and one is a guest. All are vaccinated, and most have either mild or no symptoms. The ship is continuing to sail and arrived in Cozumel on Thursday.”
  • “In an email, Carnival spokesman Chris Chiames said the crew members ‘remain in quarantine and/or isolation on board.’ He said the line has made multiple announcements to guests on the ship and had already disclosed that there were positive cases last week. Following that disclosure, the company put new mask rules into place for some indoor areas of all its ships effective last weekend.”

The 2020 Census is here

Here are some takeaways. 
  • “The first race and ethnicity breakdowns from the 2020 Census, released Thursday, show a more diverse population than ever in the nation’s history,” Tara Bahrampour and Ted Mellnik report. “The report marks the first time the absolute number of people who identify as White alone has shrunk since a census started being taken in 1790. The number of people identifying as non-Hispanic White and no other race dropped by 5.1 million people, to 191.7 million, a decrease of 2.6 percent.”
  • Booming Latino populations are helping the GOP gain new congressional seats in states like Texas. “The 2020 Census, which determines the once-a-decade reapportionment of U.S. House seats, will give Texas an additional two districts for the next 10 years. Official census data released Thursday shows 50 percent of the state’s population gain came from Latinos, with many living in and around major metropolitan areas such as Houston and Dallas,” Colby Itkowitz and Harry Stevens report.
  • “States that voted for former president Donald Trump are adding five seats in the House and losing two, while those that voted for President Biden are losing five and gaining two — a reshuffling that could determine control of Congress at a time when Democrats hold a slim majority.” 
  • A Colorado county offers a glimpse of America’s future. “Nearly a quarter century ago, when Maria de Lourdes Zavala moved here from Michoacán, Mexico, Commerce City was a hub for mostly White agricultural and oil refinery workers. ‘There weren’t any Mexicans, almost nobody spoke Spanish,’ said Zavala, 65, reflecting on a time when the surrounding county was more than two-thirds White. ‘Now it’s all different,’” Silvia Foster-Frau reports. “The changes Zavala has witnessed are reflected in a momentous shift in the 2020 Census figures released Thursday: For the first time in its history, the majority of Adams County, Colo., residents are people of color. In fact, the Census figures confirm, the entire American West has flipped to majority-minority — the first major geographical region in the United States to do so. The South is not far behind. And by the 2040s, the entire nation is expected to follow.”
  • Maryland is now the East Coast’s most diverse state. D.C. is now Whiter. “Maryland, one of the two states in the country to flip from majority White to majority non-White over the last decade, is now the most diverse state on the East Coast," Marissa Lang and Ted Mellnik report. "Meanwhile, the District continued to lose Black residents — an exodus that has accelerated over the last 10 years."
  • New York City added 629,000 people, defying predictions of its decline, the Times’s Annie Correal points out.
  • Although California lost a congressional seat for the first time in its history because it did not grow as fast as other states, the state did grow by nearly 2.3 million residents over the last decade, the Los Angeles Times’s Seema Mehta writes.
  • You can check out how the racial composition of your neighborhood has changed since 1990 with this tool from our colleagues.  

Hot on the left

“Biden resoundingly endorsed Gov. Gavin Newsom against a looming recall vote on Thursday, telegraphing that the White House could come to Newsom's aid in the race's critical final weeks,” Politico’s Jeremy White reports. “The Biden administration had already gone on the record opposing the vote to oust Newsom. But Biden's statement was on a different order of magnitude and came as the White House considers deploying Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris — or both — on Newsom's behalf.”

Hot on the right

For Fox News, Florida’s DeSantis is “the future of the party.” And he’s enjoying the high demand from the network. "Since Trump’s defeat, DeSantis is a Fox regular once more. In the first six months of 2021, DeSantis had scheduled as many appearances with top Fox hosts Hannity (8 times), Tucker Carlson (6) and Laura Ingraham (7) as he had meetings with his lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez (7), according to his public calendar,” the Tampa Bay Times’s Steve Contorno reports.

Inflation, visualized

In June 2021, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost an average of $3.15. Can you guess how much it cost in June 2019? Does everything really cost more? Find out with our inflation quiz.

Today in Washington

Biden will head to Camp David at 1 p.m. 

In closing

Rudy Giuliani is on Cameo now, an app where you can buy personalized video messages, and Stephen Colbert reviewed his performance: