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News Brief: Panjshir Province, Pakistan's View Of Taliban Takeover, Jobless Benefits

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Taliban say they've taken control of a province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan. It's the Panjshir Valley. A resistance group there denies those claims. And that is just some of the news out of Afghanistan today. At the same time, at least four planes were chartered to evacuate hundreds of people from Afghanistan but have been unable to take off for days.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Joining us now, Susannah George. She is the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for The Washington Post. She's in Kabul. Susannah, thanks for being with us this morning. Let's start with that news out of the Panjshir Province. This is a storied province, long-held stronghold of resistance to the Taliban. Just explain what it means that this province has now fallen to to the Taliban.

SUSANNAH GEORGE: Yeah, well, this is a very significant development. And it's just as you say. It's because this was one of the few places that the Taliban never managed to control back in the 1990s when the group had control most of the country. And so clearing this valley now, it really clearly displays how much more of a formative fighting force the Taliban is today than it was 20 years ago. They have much more training. They've been fighting against one of the most powerful militaries in the world for the last two decades. And they're also a much better-equipped force. And this is largely thanks to desertions and surrender deals with Afghan government forces in the lead-up to the fall of Kabul.

MARTIN: So now the Taliban controls the entirety of the country. We are waiting for them to announce the official formation of their government. And meanwhile, there are still so many Afghans who are trying to get out. You have been reporting that Kabul airport is now open again for domestic travel. What does that mean, Susannah? What does that look like?

GEORGE: Yeah, well, it's still a bit of a mess in Kabul Airport. The only reason that some domestic flights have resumed is because this temporary radio communication has been set up by Qatari engineers between pilots and air traffic controllers. But there's no other navigation system set up at the airport. They were all damaged during the chaos of the evacuation, which means that all pilots, when they're taking off and landing - they need to do it by sight. And this means that any commercial airline who wants to come in and out of Kabul airport is just not going to be able to for insurance reasons and because of international aviation guidelines.

MARTIN: And Steve mentioned earlier these four planes that were supposed to evacuate. People have been unable to do so. What's going on?

GEORGE: Yeah. So what I've heard from some of the people who are organizing this evacuation effort and some of the people who are waiting to be evacuated is that they've been waiting for days now. And it's because the Taliban is not giving these planes permission to take off. Most of the people who are waiting - and it's hundreds of people who are waiting to be evacuated from Mazar - these are people who didn't make it onto planes in Kabul. So they are seeing this as their, like, last chance to get out of the country. But the Taliban - if it's true that the Taliban is not giving these planes permission to leave the country, it means that they are going back on a promise that they gave that Afghans would have freedom of movement after they took control.

MARTIN: And we should note there are U.S. visa holders among that group trying to get out, right?

GEORGE: That is true.

MARTIN: And we should just say that the U.S. government has not confirmed the status of these planes. I want to talk about women, Susannah, because there have been these photos circulating online of these protests, Afghan women out in the streets in Kabul demanding their rights. And these protests, these rallies have turned violent. What can you tell us?

GEORGE: Yeah, these women have shown incredible courage coming out onto the streets. I pressed Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid about this at the press conference that I just returned from. He said it was bad people who carried out this violence. He did condemn the violence when asked about it directly, but he said the Taliban are asking all people, men and women, not to protest until security is better restored in the country.

MARTIN: Susannah George of The Washington Post reporting from Kabul. Thank you.

GEORGE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So this week marks 20 years since the 9/11 attacks. These attacks obviously provoked America's 20-year war in Afghanistan. The effects of the war depend on where you are. 9/11 means one thing in New York, and it means something different in Kabul. It has other meanings in the homes of American troops that were killed or for detainees of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Steve is looking at the war this week from another critical vantage point. He's reporting from Pakistan, which shares a 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan and has always had an outsized influence over what happens in that country. Steve, so from where you sit, what do people there in Pakistan think of what is happening just over the border in Afghanistan?

INSKEEP: Well, first, they're thinking about a lot. This is a country that was called upon to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, which it did. It was the scene of a lot of spillover violence. Many thousands of people were killed. But this is a country that was also used as a safe haven by Taliban fighters and where Osama bin Laden hid for years until the U.S. killed him in 2011. Now, of course, the Taliban are back in power, as you've been discussing. So we spoke about that with Hamid Mir, who's a leading journalist here.

HAMID MIR: The legacy of Osama bin Laden is sitting in the presidential palace in Kabul now. Who is ruling Afghanistan now? Taliban. Who are Taliban? The biggest allies of Osama bin Laden. And the America signed Doha Agreement with them. The recapture of Kabul by the Taliban and the establishment of a new government of Taliban in Kabul is the vindication of Osama bin Laden.

INSKEEP: Signed a peace agreement with the Taliban. Now, Rachel, you'll recall that peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020 said the Taliban would cut ties with al-Qaida. Nobody thinks they have. The United Nations, among others, says they didn't and that al-Qaida is still there - one of the problems and complexities for the neighbor next door.

MARTIN: Right. So just explain Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban over the years. I realize it's a big question.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah. Well, U.S. officials have considered Pakistan far too close to the Taliban over the years, especially a group called the Haqqani Network, which a top U.S. military official once called a veritable arm of the ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence. That's Pakistani military intelligence. Pakistani officials have denied that, but they admit they, of course, talk to the Taliban. They just say they don't control them. Taliban in this situation did not do exactly what Pakistan wanted. They wanted a negotiated situation. Instead, it's a complete takeover. There certainly was some glee and celebration here in Pakistan but also questions about how this is supposed to work, concerned about side effects. And the ISI chief himself became the first senior Pakistani official to visit Kabul over the weekend.

MARTIN: So the U.S. used to say a lot - and it was true - that Pakistan was a safe haven for fighters who went into Afghanistan. Could the reverse happen now?

INSKEEP: That is one possibility. Pakistan, as you know, Rachel, has its own version of the Taliban, which has attacked the government and many targets here. And it's conceivable that they could get safe haven in Afghanistan. And that's something that Pakistani officials want to guard against. The Pakistani Taliban, by the way, seem to be growing more active. They claimed responsibility for a bombing in western Pakistan that killed several people in recent days. On the whole, this doesn't feel like the most dangerous time in Pakistan, but there's an awareness that it could change quickly.

MARTIN: All right. We appreciate your reporting today and this week, Steve. Thanks.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. It is officially Labor Day today, but millions of Americans have no labor to celebrate.

INSKEEP: Two government protections that were rolled out last year are also gone. The $300 weekly unemployment boost stops today. Nearly 9 million people had been collecting that. And a federal eviction moratorium has already expired.

MARTIN: We've got Kristin Myers with us. She's the editor-in-chief of The Balance. Kristin, thanks for being here.

KRISTIN MYERS: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Can you explain what more we know about the people who've been relying on these benefits?

MYERS: Absolutely. So as you just mentioned, one of those programs that is expiring is the pandemic unemployment assistance. Now, that's for those gig and contract workers, those part-time workers that typically aren't eligible for unemployment. So those folks are not going to be seeing any of those benefits. So first and foremost, that's a huge group of folks that is now going to be impacted after this day, after these benefits expire. And then we also have to consider some of the workers that have been most disproportionately impacted throughout this entire crisis. And frankly, Rachel, right now, that's those low-income workers and primarily black and Hispanic workers that have really struggled throughout this pandemic. Remember, in the recent jobs report, we saw Black unemployment actually tick upward, even as, nationally, that unemployment rate did come down.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what is the upshot of all of this? I mean, there have been a lot of businesses who have claimed, hey, we don't have staff. We don't have employees because they're they're getting all these benefits, and they're just sitting out of the workforce. The data hasn't borne that out. But will ending these benefits mean people automatically go back to work?

MYERS: You know, that's a really good point. And I think the reasoning has been, you know, as you're saying, look. The - right now there are so many jobs, and there's so many employers that say that they cannot find workers, and we have millions of people out of work. So naturally, if we make it, frankly, a little bit easier for them to get back into the workforce by taking away some of those unemployment benefits, we should start to see that labor force really strengthen. But frankly, the data has suggested that that isn't actually true. We saw several states throughout the summer ending some of those unemployment benefits. They actually ended them early. And in those states that did that, we did not see that unemployment rate tick down - so meaning taking away people's unemployment benefits did not force them back into the workforce. And so the benefits that we saw from some of those gains in employment did not offset some of those losses of benefits.

MARTIN: What does the end of these benefits - what does it mean for the broader economy - if you can kind of, you know, get back, give us the bigger picture here - and consumer spending in particular?

MYERS: Right. So what this means, taking away some of these benefits, these are benefits that help people pay their rent. It's benefits that help them go out and buy groceries, go out and go shopping. That's money that is injected directly back into the state economy. And now with folks essentially having those benefits taken away, they're going to have to start doing some belt tightening again. And that means that that's money that is not going to go back into those local economies in some of those states.

MARTIN: Kristin Myers reporting with us this morning, but she's the editor of The Balance. Kristen, we appreciate all your context on this. Thank you.

MYERS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.