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News Brief: Taliban Challenges, Cuban Demonstrations, Assassination Probe

Jul 12, 2021
Originally published on July 12, 2021 8:22 am
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A map made by a news site called the Long War Journal offers a picture of the aftermath of America's longest war.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The map shows Afghanistan as U.S. troops withdraw. Taliban insurgents had taken advantage of this moment to advance. And the color-coded map shows the Taliban controlling huge parts of the country, including nearly all the borders. The U.S.-backed government is mainly strong in the region around Kabul. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox the U.S. left the Afghan military equipped to fight back.

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JOHN KIRBY: We know that they know how to defend their country. This is a time for them to step up and to do exactly that.

INSKEEP: So let's talk this through with Ayesha Tanzeem, who covers Afghanistan for the Voice of America. She joins us from Islamabad, Pakistan. Welcome.

AYESHA TANZEEM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How much has the situation changed in the last couple of months?

TANZEEM: Well, the Taliban have made sweeping gains over the last two years, and they now control roughly a bit more than half the country, including some key border crossings like the one with Iran that is a trade route, and the Afghan government earns $20 million a month from it. But the Taliban still haven't been able to take over any of the cities yet. And the cities is where most Afghans live.

INSKEEP: Well, we heard the Pentagon spokesman there say the Afghan military knows what to do now. Are they trying to do it?

TANZEEM: Well, I think they've decided that they're going to focus on key areas rather than trying to defend every district in every far-flung area. They've got the special operations forces that have a good track record against the Taliban. They have the air force. If they get their act together, they can really push the Taliban and hold those areas. And that will be the key in changing the narrative from the Taliban are winning over to likely a stalemate.

INSKEEP: You know, it's interesting you say a stalemate. You don't say defeating the Taliban. I'm thinking back over some 40 years of war now in Afghanistan. There's never been a time - has there? - when any government has controlled 100% of the country. Is that correct?

TANZEEM: No, and that's what President Joe Biden said in his recent address. So I think if the government can get to a stalemate, the best-case scenario would be that that convinces the Taliban that they cannot militarily win over and they do actual meaningful negotiations with the government, which they are not doing right now.

INSKEEP: Now, we should note that you're in Pakistan, which has long been a destination for Afghan refugees. When things get worse in Afghanistan, some people come across the border. Are people fleeing to Pakistan now?

TANZEEM: They haven't started yet, but the government in Pakistan is expecting up to 700,000 refugees at their borders. They have made it very clear that they don't have the financial capacity to deal with them. They're also worried about terrorism in Pakistan because there is a Pakistani Taliban, some of whom are based in Afghanistan. So they're worried about them coming over. And therefore they've said they don't want to let people in. And if there are going to be refugee camps, they're asking the international community to make those camps on the other side of the border.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises another question. Pakistan, as some people know, has long been suspected of covert ties to the Taliban, sometimes not even so covert. But do Pakistani officials actually think it would be good for them if the Taliban were to win?

TANZEEM: They don't think so. They do have ties with the Taliban, and they want the Taliban to be in the government, but they don't want the Taliban to control Afghanistan because that would make huge problems for Pakistan as well because it would give extremist elements in Pakistan an impetus. And that's not what they really want.

INSKEEP: Ayesha Tanzeem, Voice of America's bureau chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan, thanks for your insights.

TANZEEM: Thank you for having me.

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INSKEEP: OK. As the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan, the U.S. government considers how much more to grow involved in Haiti.

PFEIFFER: The assassination of Haiti's president is the latest convulsion in a Caribbean country where U.S. troops have sporadically intervened for more than a century. The U.S. has so far ignored calls to send in troops again but has sent investigators. Haitian authorities say they've arrested another suspect in connection with the assassination.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam is covering this story. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's the suspect?

NORTHAM: Well, the Haitian national police chief yesterday held a press conference, and they said they have arrested a Haitian-born doctor who's normally based in Florida. The police chief said the man arrived in Haiti on a private plane in June and had arranged to hire some of those who were involved in the president's killing. You know, there was almost two dozen assailants for that killing. And the police chief said there's - you know, this was all part of a broader plot for this doctor, this Florida doctor, to become president. But, Steve, this is one of the things that's likely - the U.S. team that's down there right now is going to look into.

INSKEEP: Because the United States has sent FBI investigators and others to try to look into this evidence. So this plot, as best it's known, is still unfolding. What U.S. officials are in Haiti and what are they doing?

NORTHAM: Well, as you say, they're FBI agents and Department of Homeland Security. And they arrived yesterday on Sunday, and they're there to assess how the U.S. can help the Haitians with the investigation. You know, this was not some random shooting. It was a well orchestrated operation and still not known who was behind it or who bankrolled it. This team, when they return to the U.S., will brief President Biden. And a senior administration official said the president will then, quote, "make decisions about the way forward."

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one of those decisions, whether to send U.S. troops. The interim prime minister surprised a lot of people when he asked for military intervention. How is the U.S. responding to that?

NORTHAM: Well, so far, administration officials say there are no plans for that at all. And you don't get the sense that there's any enthusiasm for sending in troops. You know, the administration is in the midst of shifting its resources worldwide, pulling out of Afghanistan, focusing more on Russia and China. I spoke with Kevin Edmonds, who's a Haiti specialist at the University of Toronto, and he compared - you know, he doesn't think that the U.S. become embroiled because it's - you know, he compared to the situation when the U.S. was - intervened in Somalia in the 1990s.

KEVIN EDMONDS: It's a no-win situation for them because it's kind of like Somalia where people would say, why are we there? And if there was to be any loss of life from the U.S., it would reflect badly on Biden.

NORTHAM: And, Steve, Edmonds says Biden will have to make a calculation about what is possible to help with the situation in Haiti, you know, short of sending in troops.

INSKEEP: Although part of the calculation has to be the fact that the United States has been involved in Haiti for better and often for worse for more than a century.

NORTHAM: That's right. And that's, you know, starting in 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson sent in Marines. And most recently, there was the U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1994. So, you know, we've had a long history there.

INSKEEP: What are Haitians saying about the prime minister's request for troops?

NORTHAM: I spoke with one Haitian businessman, Duquesne Fednard, and he says he doesn't think sending in troops will help.

DUQUESNE FEDNARD: I do not think any country, the U.S. or any other country, will be able to come and fix what has happened in Haiti. So we have to be the one to fix it. And the only way I think that can be done by us working together as a people.

NORTHAM: And he says if the - you know, if the U.S. wants to be involved, it should help encourage what he calls a fruitful dialogue.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Thousands of Cubans participated in anti-government protests over the weekend.

PFEIFFER: People there are voicing frustration over food and medicine shortages and rising prices amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases. Demonstrators chanted, we want freedom and we want vaccines as they marched through the capital city of Havana. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel blamed the protests on U.S. efforts to provoke a social uprising.

INSKEEP: Let's discuss this with Nora Gamez Torres, who covers Cuba and U.S.-Latin American policy for the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald and joins us by Skype. Good morning.

NORA GAMEZ TORRES: Good morning. And thank you for the invitation.

INSKEEP: What have these protests been like?

GAMEZ TORRES: Well, I mean, you saw thousands of Cubans taking to the streets to protest. They were indeed asking for food, medicines, vaccines, but their loudest cries were calls to end the dictatorship and shouts of, you know, down with Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba's handpicked president and, yes, call for freedom. You could hear them, you know, many shouting (speaking Spanish) fatherland and life, which is the chorus of a song by several Black artists that has become the slogan against the government. There were images of overturned police cars, people throwing stones at the police, and there has been reports of people injured. I personally saw a video of the police shooting some protesters. I mean, these are really unseen images in the country.

INSKEEP: You seem to be suggesting, or the protesters, anyway, by chanting libertad, liberty, seem to be suggesting that this is not just about material shortages, that they have deeper seated concerns with the communist government.

GAMEZ TORRES: Oh, yes, yes, for sure. I mean, yeah, people were, of course, protesting the situation, the dire economic situation in the country where there's no food and medicines. And now in the summer, there has been, you know, electrical blackouts. And that has added to the - you know, their frustration. And, of course, there's, like, a spike of COVID cases and the health system is almost collapsing right now. But, you know, they were really calling for freedom, for the end of the regime. They used very strong language that I cannot repeat here against the Cuban leader, Diaz-Canel. So this was very much a call for the end of the regime.

INSKEEP: Have U.S. economic sanctions of recent years played any role in these shortages you describe?

GAMEZ TORRES: Yes, sure. I mean, it's a combination of things. It's the dwindling economic aid coming from Venezuela's, you know, Nicolas Maduro regime. It's the tightening of the embargo by the Trump administration. And it's the pandemic. It's a combination of things. They have lost tourism. They have lost remittances coming from the U.S. and they are in debt. So they have no money to buy food and medicines. And, you know, that all has added to this situation.

INSKEEP: Nora Gamez Torres us of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, thank you so much.

GAMEZ TORRES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.