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News Brief: Latest On Afghanistan, Texas Voting Bill, Alabama's COVID Surge


Having claimed control of Afghanistan, it falls to the Taliban to govern amid signs of resistance to their rule.


Yeah, yesterday was Afghanistan's independence day, and people marched under the colors of the Afghan flag. It is black, red and green. And it is not the white Taliban flag. Taliban fighters violently broke up some demonstrations.

MARTÍNEZ: And that is where we begin our coverage with NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, how widespread are these protests?

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, there have been protests in several cities in the eastern part of Afghanistan this week. And yesterday, hundreds of Afghans turned out to demonstrate in Kabul, the capital city, to mark independence day. You know, it wasn't a huge rally, but it's really dangerous for the Afghans who took part. You know, armed Taliban militants used force to break up the protests earlier this week, and there were reports of deaths and injuries. But, you know, there's also an attempt to form an armed resistance to the Taliban and particularly in the north of the country. There are warlords, and rebel leaders are trying to assemble a militia. But that effort, you know, it's really in its early days, and it's unclear if they can pull together a cohesive fighting force to take on the Taliban.

MARTÍNEZ: Jackie, how are things at the airport right now?

NORTHAM: Well, the U.S. says it has evacuated about 7,000 people since Saturday, you know, Americans and Afghans who worked with the U.S. government and military and that thousands more are cleared to leave. And other countries are also getting their citizens out. But, you know, that 7,000 is just a fraction of the number of people trying to get out. There have been huge bureaucratic delays. And the State Department is bringing in more staff now, consular officers, to help more quickly process paperwork for those trying to get out of the country. But it is still a very dangerous situation at the airport. You have thousands of Afghans just pushing to get into the airport. And the Taliban are trying to control the crowds. And there's - you know, social media is full of images of militants, armed militants, like, pushing and beating and whipping Afghans. There are more than 5,000 U.S. troops at the airport as well. But, you know, crowd control is really difficult with that many people trying to get to the, you know, into the airport and get out. And, you know, there's been sporadic gunfire. So it's a really dicey situation out there still.

MARTÍNEZ: We keep hearing about a terror threat that the Biden administration is keeping its eye on. What's going on with that?

NORTHAM: Well, this is a group called ISIS-K, and it's connected to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It's small, but it's believed to have launched attacks in Afghanistan in the past. And here's what President Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told NBC.


JAKE SULLIVAN: One of the contingencies we are very focused on, laser focused on, is the potential for a terrorist attack by a group like ISIS-K, which, of course, is a sworn enemy of the Taliban. So we will keep working to minimize the risks and maximize the number of people on planes.

NORTHAM: You know, and Sullivan insisted that they will get every American who wants to leave Afghanistan out of the country. He called the entire evacuation process a risky operation. But there are still questions over whether the U.S. was really prepared for this. The Wall Street Journal says an internal State Department cable warned that Kabul could quickly fall after U.S. troops pulled out. And that cable was sent back in mid-July. President Biden is getting another briefing this morning on what's happening in Afghanistan. And he's going to deliver a public address this afternoon. It'll be his second speech this week.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, thanks a lot.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much.


MARTÍNEZ: One of the longest legislative standoffs in Texas history is over.

INSKEEP: Dozens of Democrats fled the state this summer. They denied Republicans a quorum and prevented them from passing new voting restrictions, which ordinarily the Republicans would have plenty of votes to do. The Democrats were gone for 38 days. Most are still out, but three returned to the statehouse on Thursday, which gave Republicans enough people on hand to resume work on a bill that will change voting rules.

MARTÍNEZ: Paul Weber of The Associated Press is covering all of this. He joins us from Austin. Paul, why did these Democrats come back to Texas?

PAUL WEBER: Yeah. Well, when this protest by Democrats started, I think even few of them might have predicted it was going to go on for this long. This was a big group. We're talking more than 50 Democrats who scrammed out of Texas to camp out in Washington. And at that time, there were two objectives. The first was to run out the clock on what amounted to Republicans' second attempt at passing new voting laws in Texas. And the second was to put pressure on Congress to pass voting rights protections at the federal level. By the first week of August, you know, Democrats succeeded in scuttling this bill for a second time in Texas, but then we started to see some cracks among Democrats about what to do next. Some of them started to wonder what the end game was, how long this holdout was going to go on for. And then as we saw yesterday, it basically boiled down to the fact that it became no longer possible to keep all of these 50-plus Democrats on the same page.

MARTÍNEZ: We all saw the pictures of unity when the first Democrats left Texas. So what's been the reaction from the ones that are still holding out?

WEBER: Yeah. So the vast majority of Democrats, they still haven't come back to the state capitol even though they're no longer in Washington. Certainly, there is frustration and disappointment. Those Democrats, they wanted to keep digging in their heels, and that's for a few reasons. One obviously is that this voting bill by Republicans, it hasn't gone anywhere. So as long as Republicans have a quorum in the legislature, this bill is going to pass, and Democrats know that. But a lot of Democrats, they also saw little incentive to come back, particularly right now. Here in Texas, Governor Abbott is under a lot of pressure and criticism over these worsening COVID-19 numbers. His own health department is sounding the alarm. About 50 school districts are defying his orders and imposing mask mandates in the classroom. So there are Democrats who want to keep up this pressure and not give the governor or Republicans an opportunity to shift the conversation back to this election bill or what's happening inside the state capitol.

MARTÍNEZ: And Republicans now have that quorum. So what happens next?

WEBER: Well, by all accounts, they're going to move pretty fast, and given the timeline, they have to. So already, Republicans have scheduled another hearing on this election bill on Saturday. So the expectation is that the legislation will sail through committee by this weekend, and that could put the bill up for, you know, a vote in the House as early as next week and onto the governor's desk not too long after that. Republicans have to get the bill passed by Labor Day weekend or they'll be forced to start over again.

MARTÍNEZ: Paul, really quick, remind us what kind of changes are in this new voting law.

WEBER: Yeah. So two of the changes Texas will see under the law would be a ban on 24-hour polling locations and drive-through voting. And that really seems to take aim at the Houston area where local Democrats put both of those expanded voting options in place during last year's election. You know, Houston is crucial to the future of Texas politics, so Democrats really see that as an effort to limit the options for their voters around Houston, many of whom are people of color. And the bill would also give partisan poll watchers more access. And Democrats are worried that could, you know, invite voter intimidation.

MARTÍNEZ: Associated Press correspondent Paul Weber in Austin. Paul, thanks.

WEBER: Thank you.


MARTÍNEZ: Medical workers in Alabama say they're nearing the breaking point.

INSKEEP: They say the state no longer has enough ICU beds to care for all the COVID patients there. Alabama has some of the lower vaccination rates in this country, and doctors say they are exhausted by a crisis that was preventable. Dr. Cynthia Crowder-Hicks works at Infirmary Health, which is a hospital system in Mobile.

CYNTHIA CROWDER-HICKS: It blows my mind that we have gotten to this point. Nobody feels that they're giving optimal care. We are overworked, and we are frustrated.

MARTÍNEZ: Health and science reporter Mary Scott Hodgin of member station WBHM in Birmingham has been covering this. Mary Scott, what's happening at the hospitals in Alabama right now?

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: So the number of hospitalizations here is nearing the winter peak. So we're almost past our highest point ever. Right now, the major problem is the lack of intensive care beds. I talked with Dr. Don Williamson about this. He leads the state's hospital association. And he says hospitals are rushing to turn other units like emergency rooms into ICU beds. But one of the issues is just how fast the cases are increasing. In the past, they had more time to do this.

DON WILLIAMSON: This peak has occurred much, much more rapidly. And so as a result, we're still in that conversion process.

HODGIN: Now, he says that they'll get there. You know, there's enough space, but staffing is the real problem. Alabama has had a nursing shortage for a while, and it's only gotten worse during the pandemic.

MARTÍNEZ: How are hospital staff holding up through this?

HODGIN: Well, this week, I reached out to doctors across the state and had them send me voice memos. And, you know, they're really tired. They're working weeks straight with no breaks. And they're describing this situation in the hospitals that's just dire. One doctor I talked with is Dr. Cynthia Crowder-Hicks, who we heard from at the top. She's a pulmonologist at Infirmary Health, which is the hospital system in Mobile. And Mobile is really one of the hardest hit regions of the state. And she says this time around, she's seeing younger patients get really sick.

CROWDER-HICKS: You know, I'm tired of my 47-year-olds dying. That was my day to day. It's terrible.

HODGIN: You know, she and other doctors are frustrated because most of their patients are unvaccinated. And they say that this didn't really have to happen if more patients had gotten a COVID shot. Again, less than half of Alabama's population has gotten their first dose. And doctors say some of their patients regret not getting a COVID shot. But there are others who still believe misinformation about the vaccine and don't want to get it.

MARTÍNEZ: How worried are Alabama health officials that this is going to get worse?

HODGIN: Yeah. Officials say that they likely haven't seen the worst of it yet. The state is still recording thousands of new cases every day, which will likely result in more hospitalizations. State health officials are asking for federal aid to help staff hospitals. Alabama's governor and other political leaders remain opposed to mask mandates. Their message is get vaccinated.

MARTÍNEZ: Mary Scott Hodgin from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., thank you very much.

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

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.