Aug 13, 2021

Axios AM

It's Friday the 13th. It's the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords.

  • Smart Brevity™ count: 1,193 words ... 4½ minutes. Edited by Zachary Basu.

Situational awareness: The FDA last night expanded the emergency use authorization for Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines to allow a third dose for some immunocompromised people. Go deeper.

1 big thing — Behind the scenes: Embassy endangered
Taliban fighters stand guard today along a roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Many in the U.S. military see the race out of Afghanistan as a dishonorable withdrawal, and some State Department officials fear the U.S. may have to close the embassy in Kabul.

  • Those were some of the dire soundings Axios' Jonathan Swan took in Washington yesterday, as the Pentagon made the shocking announcement that 3,000 U.S. troops will head into Afghanistan to help evacuate Americans.

It got worse overnight: The Taliban overran the capital of Helmand province after years of blood spilled by American, British and NATO forces.

  • The Taliban has also captured the country's second and third-largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, in a lightning advance that's encircling the government in the capital, Kabul, AP reports.

How we got here: It wasn't crazy for President Biden and his national security team, including the Pentagon, to have imagined that the Afghan forces — with superior technology and manpower — could have done a much better job holding the Taliban at bay.

  • But senior U.S. officials are privately acknowledging that the Afghans appear psychologically defeated — and there was insufficient accounting for the psychological consequences of the long war.
  • The fact that U.S. officials are drawing down so soon to a skeleton staff suggests they harbor grave doubts about the embassy's viability.

Senior Pentagon officials expressed deep distress:

  • One source said we shouldn't underestimate the effect it has on the U.S. military's morale to carry out a mission — withdrawal and evacuation — that many view as dishonorable.

The U.S. is playing it extremely safe with the evacuation.

  • "All of the top people in the Biden administration lived through the pain of Benghazi," said the Atlantic Council's William Wechsler, a Pentagon counterterrorism official in the Obama administration.

Part 2 below.

2. What Biden is thinking

In Kabul yesterday, Farzia, 28, who lost her husband a week ago to Taliban fighting, sits with her children — Subhan, 5, and Ismael, 2 — in a tent in a makeshift camp. Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

President Biden's senior national security team briefed him Wednesday night on the deteriorating battlefield situation in Afghanistan — and plans to dispatch forces to evacuate American personnel, Afghan translators and others who helped with the war effort.

  • At 7:30 yesterday morning, Biden's top national security advisers met to review the president's questions from the previous night, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports.

There was unanimous agreement on the order that Biden later gave Defense Secretary Austin: Thousands of Marines are being dispatched to Kabul and surrounding areas.

  • At the same time, Biden's diplomatic team in Doha, Qatar, was trying to talk sense into the Taliban. But events on the ground have made a mockery of the peace process.

Biden's key aides aren't second-guessing his decision to withdraw:

  • They derive comfort from the fact that the American public is behind them — an overwhelming majority support withdrawal from Afghanistan — and they bet they won't be punished politically for executing a withdrawal.

West Wing officials reject the notion that they could keep Afghanistan stable indefinitely with a small force of around 3,000 that they inherited from Trump.

  • The Biden team's line is that the only reason the Taliban weren't killing Americans last year was because Trump had agreed to leave on May 1 this year. When that deadline passed, they contend, there would be no way to guarantee peace and stability with such a small force.

Republicans, led by hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are zeroing in on the larger consequences of a chaotic and dangerous withdrawal.

  • Graham sent a letter to Biden's Pentagon leaders on Tuesday asking whether they wanted to review their June assessment to Congress that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would bring a medium risk of terrorist organizations re-emerging to threaten our homeland within two years.

"The ripple effect of what's going on in Afghanistan is devastating," Graham told Axios in a phone interview. "To lose in one place hurts you in every place."

3. Our short climate attention span
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Data: NewsWhip. Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The shock factor needed to jolt people into demanding climate action is wearing off on social media, Axios' Neal Rothschild writes from exclusive NewsWhip data.

4. Pic du jour: National mood
Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Sunbathing on the National Mall yesterday, as Dulles reached 100°F.

5. Borders are back

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Delta variant has killed hopes that international travel will return to anything like its pre-pandemic trajectory, Axios' Felix Salmon reports.

  • Why it matters: In the decade to 2019, the number of international arrivals rose by 42%, to 2.3 billion, in a trend that seemed steady and unstoppable. Now, international borders seem set to be most countries' first line of defense against COVID for the foreseeable future.

What's happening: The fastest-growing country in pre-pandemic international tourism was China, which has kept the virus in check by means of strict controls on travel. There's now little chance of those controls being lifted any time soon.

  • Australia, which used to be a tourist magnet, now has one of the hardest borders in the world. It's extremely hard for non-citizens to enter, and even harder for citizens to leave.
  • Vietnam isn't allowing inbound tourism. When it starts, the country will insist on at least seven days of centralized quarantine — enough to dissuade all but the most avid travelers.

The bottom line: Look for strict border controls for many years to come.

6. Mapped: Where U.S. grew, shrank

Blue counties grew, orange counties shrank between the 2010 and 2020 censuses.

Go deeper with our Big Thing from Axios PM: Axios' Stef Kight, "Census reveals a more diverse, urbanized America."

7. Vaccine mandates exacerbate class divide

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Corporate America's patchwork approach to vaccine requirements is deepening the pandemic's class divides, Axios' Hope King reports.

  • Why it matters: The new surge has upended return-to-work plans for some sectors, while others can't afford to change course.

Businesses that can and have operated remotely, like those in tech and financial services, are requiring vaccines for returning workers, while service and retail economy companies have stopped short of full workforce mandates.

  • So workers are continuing to experience the pandemic unevenly.

Keep reading.

8. ⚾ "Hey, Dad, you wanna have a catch?"

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

The beloved 1989 movie "Field of Dreams" came to life last night with a temporary stadium in a cornfield at the film site in Dyersville, Iowa — the first Major League Baseball game ever held in Iowa.

  • The Chicago White Sox outslugged the Yankees 9-8 for ... a walk-off ending.
Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Kevin Costner, who starred in the film as Ray Kinsella, strolled through the outfield corn and onto the field before the first pitch.

  • Costner said at a press conference that even 32 years after its release, he still feels the film's tug in his gut: "Somewhere along the line, if you have some unfinished business, that movie starts to take over." (Des Moines Register)

🎥 Watch a video of Costner's entrance.

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge watches a home run fly into the corn.

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