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The Morning Dispatch: Afghanistan on the Brink
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The Morning Dispatch: Afghanistan on the Brink

Plus: The state of COVID among unvaccinated migrants detained in ICE facilities.

Happy Wednesday! If all news days were as slow as yesterday, we’d be out of a job. But don’t worry—we still managed to cook up a (pretty great, in our opinion) newsletter for you.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Associated Press projected New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary for Eric Adams on Tuesday after the city’s Board of Elections released an additional round of results showing the former police officer and Brooklyn borough president with a lead of approximately 8,400 votes over NYC Sanitation Department Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. Adams declared victory, but Garcia has yet to formally concede.

  • The Pentagon announced on Tuesday it had canceled the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud computing contract originally awarded to Microsoft in 2019. The Defense Department said it determined that “due to evolving requirements, increased cloud conversancy, and industry advances, the JEDI Cloud contract no longer meets its needs.”

  • More than half (51.7 percent) of the coronavirus cases confirmed in the United States between June 20 and July 3 can be traced back to the more contagious Delta variant, Centers for Disease Control data released Tuesday showed, up from 30.4 percent during the two-week period immediately prior. Israeli data released yesterday showed Pfizer’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine remains highly effective at preventing severe illness and death from the Delta variant, but less so (64 percent) at protecting against infection.

  • Tropical storm Elsa was upgraded to a hurricane last night and is on pace to make landfall in Florida later today.

Afghanistan Crumbling Before Our Eyes

Afghan troops at Bagram Air Base following the departure of U.S. forces. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Biden administration wants a quick end to the United States’ longest war. Last week, in a move seemingly foretold by a satirical Onion headline from July 2011, U.S. forces quickly and quietly vacated Bagram Air Base—the central hub of the Pentagon’s military operations in Afghanistan—after two decades of use. On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command announced that its withdrawal of American personnel and equipment from the country was 90 percent complete.

The Afghan people, meanwhile, sit on the precipice of civil war. The Taliban has made rapid territorial gains nationwide, leaving many Afghan government troops with no good options: Lay down arms, flee to neighboring countries, or retreat to remaining government-controlled areas. In the absence of any real diplomatic efforts by the Taliban, peace negotiations between the two parties in Qatar serve only to legitimize the insurgent group’s swift takeover of Afghanistan.

“There is absolutely zero movement toward peace. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have launched a massive offensive in Afghanistan and they’re planning to take control,” said Thomas Joscelyn, author of The Dispatch’s Vital Interests newsletter. “I think the Taliban is willing to offer a ‘peace plan’ to the government of Afghanistan that looks like this: surrender unconditionally, surrender the provincial capitals and Kabul, and we will allow senior Afghan government officials to flee.”

According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Long War Journal, roughly 20 percent of the country is now in Taliban hands. 10 percent of that territory—38 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts—came under Taliban control over the course of just six days. Alarmingly, many of these areas are in the country’s northern half, far from the Taliban’s traditional southern strongholds.

“The importance of the Taliban’s northern thrust cannot be understated. The Taliban is taking the fight directly to the home of Afghanistan’s elite power brokers and government officials,” FDD’s Bill Roggio explained in an article Monday. “If the Taliban can deny Afghanistan’s government and its backers their base of power, Afghanistan is effectively lost.”

This approach has long been a cornerstone of the Taliban’s military strategy. “What the Taliban and al-Qaeda did was very smart. They launched the offensive in the north, knowing that they’re already strong in the south and the east, and that prevents Afghan officials from having a place to retreat,” Joscelyn said. “Basically, they’re boxing in Kabul.”

The northern province of Badakhshan, which prior to 9/11 served as the main base for the Northern Alliance—a resistance front against the Taliban supported by the U.S., Turkey, and other allies—has fallen almost entirely under Taliban control in recent weeks. More than 1,000 Afghan troops have since fled into Tajikistan, which called up more than 20,000 of its own troops Monday to reinforce the border against insurgent militias.

According to Joscelyn, al-Qaeda played a strategic role in taking swaths of the country’s north by recruiting Tajik, Uzbek, Uyghur, and other central Asian jihadists to fight alongside the Taliban. This partnership is in direct violation of the conditions of the Trump administration’s deal with the group, which required that it “prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.” 

Experts have repeatedly warned of the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s deep diplomatic and social ties. A United Nations monitoring team report confirmed this in June, noting that the two groups “remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.” An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters now reside in Afghanistan, despite their ostensible ban by the Taliban.

Though the Taliban isn’t holding up its end of last year’s bargain, the Biden administration remains steadfastly committed to an unconditional withdrawal before September 11. The hasty U.S. retreat from Bagram Friday—in which troops reportedly left “thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys to start them” and which was reportedly undertaken without notifying the base’s new Afghan commander or Afghan troops guarding its periphery—reflects that determination. 

Asked about the rushed retreat on Friday, President Biden expressed confidence in the capacity of the Afghan government to sustain itself with the help of American “over-the-horizon” support. But he grew visibly frustrated when reporters continued to follow up.

“I want to talk about happy things, man,” he said. “I’m not going to answer any more questions on Afghanistan. Look, it’s the Fourth of July.”

Whether Biden acknowledges it publicly or not, last week’s developments were hugely important. “[Bagram] was the central hub of the American presence in Afghanistan, and the disheveled turnover of the base to the Afghans speaks a lot about the end game here, because even that wasn’t well thought out or well planned or well executed,” Joscelyn said. “It’s symbolic of a lost war.”

COVID at the Border

A new surge in COVID-19 cases is currently sweeping through Southern border facilities, which are operating near their pre-pandemic levels, according to a report in The New York Times.

As of July 2—the last time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) updated its COVID dashboard—27,008 people were detained in immigration facilities. Among those 27,008, there are currently 907 confirmed cases of COVID-19 “under isolation or monitoring.” These numbers do not account for people turned away at the border or deported to Mexico. 

A few weeks ago, our Harvest Prude reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection* agents encountered 180,000 migrants along the Southern border in May alone. The dashboard has not yet been updated with June data, but the trend is expected to continue. “The public eye has shifted away from the crisis at the border, but the crisis is still very much there,” Theresa Cheng—an emergency physician and human rights attorney who is a co-lead of the COVID Behind Bars project’s immigration arm—told The Dispatch.

In March of last year, the Trump administration invoked Title 42 of the Public Health Safety Act, temporarily suspending entry to the United States on the basis of public health. While Customs and Border Patrol agents encountered about 144,000 migrants in May 2019, last year’s figure was a meager 23,237.

“Really the increase in migrants arriving at the border started back in April of last year, but it was a steady increase,” Danilo Zak of the National Immigration Forum told The Dispatch. “It cratered dramatically when the pandemic began, and the implementation of Title 42 at the border … allowed the administration to return anyone arriving without authorization, including asylum seekers, back to Mexico or to their home countries really rapidly.”

Biden has been slow to rescind Trump’s Title 42 action, opting instead to roll it back piecemeal—making an exception for unaccompanied children as soon as he took office in January, and letting in a small number of asylum-seeking families per day beginning in May. The slowness of that process hasn’t prevented migrants from sensing the new opportunity: May 2021 was a 15-year high for monthly encounters along the border. 

Since February 2020, facilities have seen a total of 18,797 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 7,500 of those cases reported since April 2021. Thus far, they’ve reported only nine deaths related to COVID-19. “It appears that the number of deaths reported is an underestimate, because it doesn’t seem to include cases in which someone is transferred to a medical facility and dies after being removed from a detention facility,” Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, told The Dispatch. 

In recent months, ICE has expanded its testing protocols. More testing leads to an increase in confirmed cases, which may be misleading when compared to previous rates of infection. 

Earlier in June, ICE announced voluntary COVID-19 tests for new admissions at Karnes County Family Residential Center in San Antonio. On June 22, it opened voluntary testing up to all detainees in the facility. Karnes currently has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases of all federal border detention centers—117 as of June 25. 

Asked if these cases indicate a rapid spread of COVID-19, Cheng said, “We’re finally testing, to be honest.” As testing is expanded throughout border facilities, we can expect confirmed case numbers to rise. 

Even expanded testing services may not be able to keep up with the dramatic increase in migrants along the Southern border, particularly when unvaccinated or partially vaccinated migrants are kept in close proximity. 

The New York Times reported that after Biden’s inauguration, smugglers in Central America pined “for business, falsely putting out the word that the United States border was open.” When turned away at the border, many alleged Biden had broken his promises. 

With the change of administration, Zak said: “We’ve seen that smugglers, regardless of whether an administration actually significantly changes border policy, big changes like that can be used by smuggling networks to encourage migrants to come. The same thing happened under the Trump administration, where smugglers were able to convince migrants that they had to come before the border closed completely.” 

Those turned away at the border often remain in dangerous border towns. Many used all their savings in order to travel to the border, and cannot return home. In these border towns, “we’ve seen a ton of reports about huge amounts of sexual assault, kidnapping, deaths,” Cheng said

Worth Your Time

  • Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat discusses the excesses of anti-racist education—and how a tendency among progressives to paint all modern institutions as inherently discriminatory may obscure historical truths about racism. “The basic claim that structural racism exists has strong evidence behind it, and the idea that schools should teach about it in some way is probably a winning argument for progressives,” he writes. “What’s really inflaming today’s fights, though, is that the structural-racist diagnosis isn’t being offered on its own. Instead it’s yoked to two sweeping theories about how to fight the problem it describes. First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins. Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism—and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect ‘equity’ may be a form of structural racism itself.”

  • American men are suffering through a friendship recession, Daniel Cox writes in a column for National Review. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in five single men report not having any close friends, and many Americans report feeling lonely or isolated at least once in the past week. “By the time we reach middle age, Americans are devoting only about 30 minutes a day to maintaining their friendships,” Cox warns. “This is simply not enough. We should rededicate time to fostering friendships, at work, in our neighborhoods, and even online. Few investments provide such an immediate and enduring reward while entailing so little risk.”

  • Mitch McConnell has been the leader of the Senate Republican caucus since 2007, and Peter Nicholas profiled him for The Atlantic in advance of the Kentuckian’s 80th birthday. The self-described “Grim Reaper” of the Senate, McConnell’s accomplishments include not just legislation he has voted to pass or judges he has voted to confirm, but the many Democratic priorities he has succeeded in blocking. As Nicholas puts it, “Some senators come to Washington prepared to lose their seats in the defense of their principles. McConnell came to win, whatever the cost, for as long as he possibly can.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Monday’s Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David dive into the Supreme Court’s orders from last Friday—on qualified immunity for university administrators, religious liberty for the Amish, defamation against public figures, and eminent domain. Plus, a ruling from a Minneapolis judge that throws a wrench into “defund the police.”

  • Yesterday’s edition of The Sweep was the first in a series taking a never-too-early look at the 2024 GOP presidential primary. First on the docket: Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Tim Scott.

  • Tuesday’s Remnant veered dangerously close to Advisory Opinions territory, with Ilya Shapiro joining Jonah for a conversation about the Supreme Court’s conservative majority and whether the conservative legal movement should adapt its philosophy in the wake of Bostock v. Clayton County.

  • David’s latest French Press (🔒) takes a look at the case of Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington florist who, as a Christian, decided she could not in good conscience provide floral arrangements for a gay wedding, and whose case the Supreme Court decided not to take up last week. “The tragedy here is not for the law,” David writes. “Not yet. There will be other, similar cases before the court in coming years—perhaps even cases with ‘cleaner’ facts. The tragedy is for Barronelle. A kind, brave woman fought hard against punitive intolerance, and she likely ultimately lost for reasons that have less to do with her actions and more to do with the way that SCOTUS chooses to shepherd and shape constitutional jurisprudence.”

Let Us Know

Has the U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan? 

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Correction, July 7, 2021: An earlier version of this newsletter mislabeled the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.