3000 Troops Return To Afghanistan To Evacuate Americans : The NPR Politics Podcast The unexpected announcement from the Pentagon comes as the Taliban is rapidly increasing their control over the country. And new census data out this week shows that the share of Americans who identify as multiracial is up nearly 300 percent since 2010.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and national correspondent Hansi Lo Wang.

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3000 Troops Return To Afghanistan To Evacuate Americans

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RALIO: Hey. This is your Ralio (ph). I'm 6 years old, and my mommy just picked me up from the first day of summer camp, where I saw a rattlesnake while hiking. You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:03 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, August 13.

RALIO: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I don't know if that is, like, so cute or absolutely so scary 'cause my kids right now are at camp, and I'm a little bit nervous, you know, where they're walking (laughter).

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: He sounded a lot cooler about seeing a rattlesnake than I would have been if I was out (laughter).

KHALID: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And as of Friday morning, the Taliban now have control of at least a dozen provincial capitals in Afghanistan, effectively putting them in control of two-thirds of the country. In other words, the very power the U.S. ousted some 20 years ago when it invaded Afghanistan is now on the brink of taking over the country again. This comes alongside news that the U.S. will be sending back about 3,000 troops to help evacuate the embassy. So, Franco, let's start with President Biden and his White House. How are they all defending what is going on in Afghanistan, I mean, frankly, under their watch?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, no question that this has put President Biden and the White House in a very difficult situation. There have been a lot of late-night meetings between Biden and his national security adviser and his secretary of state and his, you know, Pentagon secretary, his defense secretary about what is the right course of action. You know, the speed that the Taliban has taken over so much of the country, you know, frankly, took the White House a bit by surprise.

But also, they're saying it won't change their strategy. The White House feels this situation, frankly, in a way proves their decision to leave, you know, that another year, another two was not really going to make a difference. Biden said last month that this war in Afghanistan was never intended to be a multigenerational undertaking. But they're having to defend themselves now, claiming with this, you know, return of troops that they are not abandoning Kabul.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think they're beginning to realize they've got to come together politically at the top. And - but we're going to continue to keep our commitment. But I do not regret my decision.

DAVIS: I think it's important context to remember, though, that this foreign policy decision was set in motion by the previous administration. Former President Donald Trump actually was the one that said he would withdraw the troops. It was a decision that President Biden had to decide whether to carry through or not. I think it speaks to the fact that the decision to bring the troops home from Afghanistan was actually quite a popular decision, both under Trump and under Biden, certainly at least with the public. I mean, you've seen huge amounts of public approval of ending this war. But you've also seen a lot of criticism about it from Capitol Hill. I think the same voices that were very critical of Donald Trump when he said he would do this, people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been equally and ongoingly (ph) critical of President Biden for this decision.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The administration's decision appears to have rested on wishful thinking and not much else.

DAVIS: It's a mess, and it's the now-president's problem to solve. But there is a through line through very different political administrations and political views that it was time to end this war.

KHALID: And in some ways, I mean, there's a through line, too, of this America-first ideology, right? Like, I mean, Biden may not use those words, perhaps, but there is this decision to bring U.S. troops home regardless of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan because, you know, from Democrats' foreign policy perspectives at the moment, they don't feel like it is worth any more American lives potentially lost there in the country. And it does feel like it is a conscious decision to then choose to focus more on domestic agenda items.

ORDOÑEZ: Oh, it's - I think it's more than a conscious decision. In his remarks in April when he was describing or explaining the decision to withdraw troops, he very, very clearly said that they are issues at home that need to be focused on and referring specifically to the pandemic. But obviously, it is - you know, it is falling apart. And it's crumbling in a way that they did not anticipate or at least not at the speed that they anticipated.

KHALID: You know, Franco, to that point about the speed and the way that this withdrawal has happened, I mean, I remember being at a press conference that the president gave in July where someone asked him about the comparisons to Vietnam.

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BIDEN: The Taliban is not the South - the North Vietnamese army. They're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance for you to see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in - of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, the - you know, hearing that really just going to - you know, hits me in a way because really, it's hard not to feel a bit of that as, you know, thousands of new troops or returning troops go back into Afghanistan to evacuate embassy staff. But the administration does not seem to be backing away still, you know, even as conditions were worsening. I mean, Biden was asked just this week, and he said he did not regret his decision.

DAVIS: To me, this does seem to be a bit of a black eye for Joe Biden, though, because when I think of the strengths that he boasts about himself and what he would bring to the Oval Office, his foreign policy know-how was the thing that he described always as this asset, that he was the guy that saw around these corners, that he was this guy with these global relationships, that he understood diplomacy, that he could foresee the problems around the globe. And frankly, this just looks like they screwed up. It looks like they made a decision that they weren't prepared for. Things are happening on the ground that they can't control. There's reports from our colleagues at NPR about embassy employees being not only withdrawn but being directed to destroy any kind of paperwork...

KHALID: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Or machines there. I mean, it sounds like not just that things are happening beyond their control but things on the ground have been lost in terms of not only the military mission but now the diplomatic one, which is what it was supposed to be shifted to. When you're evacuating your embassies and burning your computers, that doesn't seem to me a good sign of the ability for the Afghani government and the Taliban to actually reach any kind of peace deal that might head this off.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, yeah, I think there's no doubt that it's a black eye. I mean, Biden promised as well that this would not be a, quote, "hasty exit" and that it would be responsible and it would be coordinated. And the fact that they're sending in thousands of U.S. troops to help evacuate Americans now show that this is kind of not - you know, not the responsible and coordinated plan that they anticipated because if that - if they were just handing it over to Afghan security forces, they wouldn't need to send thousands of U.S. troops back in.

KHALID: You know, Sue, you were saying that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan - it was largely seen as a popular decision by American voters. But I am left wondering if the withdrawal is conducted in this way where - you know, if it's seen to be chaotic and you're essentially handing over power perhaps not to a stable government but to Taliban that you went in to oust 20 years ago, like, are there not going to be political consequences, you think, for the Democrats at all?

DAVIS: I will frankly say I'm a skeptic in that the situation on the ground could have a big domestic political impact here for the Democratic Party in the short term, certainly in the 2022 midterms. I think that a lot of times, American sentiment about these wars is driven by our own troops and whether our troops are being put into harm's way.

When the public really turned on George Bush, for instance, during the Iraq War in the 2006 midterms, it was the perception that we were losing and that our troops were dying needlessly. And if our troops are not on the ground in Afghanistan, I think it might be a little bit of a different equation for how passionate the American voter feels about this, especially in a context where we're talking still about pandemic recoveries and domestic aid and - that still seem to be driving a lot of the electorate right now.

But it's really soon to say. I do think that these kind of foreign policy decisions or failures do matter for presidents. I think it's more of a question of what happens on the ground there in the years coming and how that could affect Joe Biden if he were to run for reelection in 2024. I think Americans broadly like their presidents to seem competent on the world stage. And I think that this, at least in its current form, sort of questions Biden's competency on this - on the Afghanistan question.

KHALID: I mean, there also seems to be an assumption from Democrats that there is no longer any national security threat to Americans or to the United States emanating from Afghanistan. And already I've begun to see some, you know, Republican possible presidential hopefuls - someone like Nikki Haley, who referred to the decision as allowing, quote, "terrorists" to, you know, take over Afghanistan. And so I am curious also by the kind of, like, intelligence threat assessment that the United States is making that this is not going to happen. But already we are seeing Republicans use some of that language to suggest that this could potentially have national security consequences for the United States.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, absolutely. And the case that is being made is that the reason that the United States went into Afghanistan was to neutralize any type of dangers to the United States, meaning to kind of take out al-Qaida, take out the Islamic State and to prevent those who are actively trying to hurt the United States. What the White House, the administration says now is that those forces have been neutralized. Yes, the Islamic State is still operating. Al-Qaida is still operating. But they are operating in different parts of the world, not necessarily in Afghanistan.

Now, a lot of things have changed, though, in the last few weeks, in the last, you know, few - in the last 24 hours. Is the conditions ripe for that? That's - you know, I think that's certainly a possible. And some of the former ambassadors to Afghanistan have definitely said, like, that is a real concern.

KHALID: All right. Well, Franco, we are going to let you take a break for a few. We'll talk to you in a bit for Can't Let It Go.

ORDOÑEZ: Talk to you soon.

KHALID: And we'll be back in a minute to talk about the census and redistricting.

And we're back. And we're joined now by a very special guest, Hansi Lo Wang, who is NPR's census expert. Thanks, Hansi, for coming on the show.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Thank you for having me back.

KHALID: So, Hansi, you cover all things census. And yesterday, at long last, the Census Bureau released new information about the race and ethnicity of people living in the United States. What did we learn?

WANG: Over the past decade, we're seeing more racial and ethnic diversity across the country, especially among children. And there's been a notable increase in the number of people who - when they answer the questions about race and ethnicity on the census forms, they're checking off boxes for more than one group. Now, important to keep in mind the largest racial or ethnic group in the United States is still the white population, according to the 2010 census results. But there are some interesting changes within that population.

Compared to 2010, the last census before last year, the Census Bureau says the share of people who checked off only the white box on census forms dropped by about 9%. But the share of people who checked off white and one or more other racial groups increased by more than 300%. So if you want to understand how the white population in the United States has changed over the past 10 years, according to the census results, it really depends on your definition of white.

Of course, we're talking about all these numbers about race and ethnicity because this is a kind of demographic information that will be used to redraw voting districts at every level of government. We're talking about Congress. We're talking about statehouses. We're talking about the local level, maybe even your local school district. So we already had the numbers for this - new state population numbers that will be used to determine the new number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, as well as the Electoral College. But this gives us a little bit more detail about the demographics of communities across the country.

KHALID: And I guess from a political perspective, that's interesting to both political parties because they tend to see demographics perhaps as destiny, whether or not that's always accurate. But so we hear a lot about gerrymandering and congressional maps and all of these things. And it does feel like it's really hard to overstate how big of a deal these district lines are, especially for some of the incumbents who will go up for reelection in those 2022 midterms.

DAVIS: Sure. I think in particularly going into the next election, there's so much interest on redistricting because the House majority is so narrow. Republicans only need to net gain five seats to take control of the House. And because that party controls more of the process in more districts, they could probably get there just through redistricting alone and how they reach all those lines. I think...

KHALID: Sue, can I just pause you for a sec? When you're saying, like, they control more of the process...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KHALID: Can you spell that out? I mean, is it because they control more statehouses? Like, who determines this process?

DAVIS: It's really complicated because every state - like, the way they determine their own elections determines how they redraw their lines.

KHALID: Oh, OK.

DAVIS: Some states have deferred this and outsourced it to nonpartisan commissions. In a lot of states, it's still done partisan in that whoever controls the legislature and the governorship will really have the power in those equations. I don't remember the exact numbers off the top of my head, but I know that Republicans control about twice as many districts in terms of who will get to draw the lines than Democrats do, especially when you look at the states that gained and lost seats. Just as a reminder, states that will add to their congressional powerhouses are Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Oregon and Montana. You look at a state like Texas that's fully Republican-controlled, they're going to have a lot more sway there to decide how the lines are drawn. And states that lost, Democrats have a lot of power there to redraw lines. But again, they're losing seats in places like California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia.

KHALID: You know, Hansi, beyond just the politics of redrawing lines, I'm curious if you could kind of help us understand some of the mechanics of the census itself because you reported - it felt like all throughout last year, I heard a lot of your really good reporting about all these delays and controversies around the census. Do we have a sense of how some of those delays impacted the count itself and, perhaps, maybe the accuracy of these results?

WANG: Well, it's possible that the chaos from the pandemic, as well as interference from former President Donald Trump's administration by trying to get a citizenship question onto census forms - that did not happen, but the Trump administration ended up ending counting early. All that chaos really could have contributed to what's expected to be an undercount of Black people, Latinos, Native Americans, all groups that the Census Bureau estimates were undercounted in the 2010 census. We will know for sure once the Census Bureau releases overcounting and undercounting rates next year, early next year - 2022. We do know right now that there was a high rate of households not answering the race and what's called the Hispanic origin question on the 2020 census forms.

But, you know, the bottom line is that it looks like we're going to have to live with these numbers in many ways because, again, the release of this redistricting data was delayed for months. And as a result, many states are facing looming deadlines, legal deadlines to use this data to redraw voting districts to prepare for the next 10 years of elections, including next year's.

KHALID: Yeah, I was going to say - and we have midterms coming up very soon. So what is the timeline from here in terms of redrawing those district lines?

WANG: It really depends. The exact timeline depends on your state. For some states, this process will go into 2022, and, certainly, they have to get the congressional districts drawn before the midterm elections. But there's a lot of pressure right now on states with early legal deadlines for finishing draft voting maps as part of the approval process. Colorado and Oregon have less than seven weeks before their first deadline in the approval process. And Ohio's redistricting commission has less than three weeks.

DAVIS: And for people like me, this is very frustrating because we're trying to get a sense of what the House landscape is going to look like, what the targeted districts are going to be, how they're going to reshape places, especially in the suburbs, where a lot of this growth has been. And frankly, we just can't really talk about what House races are going to look like in 2022 yet because none of the lines are drawn. Remember. It's not just the states that gain or lose seats that redraw district lines. Every state that has more than one congressional district will be faced with this question to redraw lines to reflect where the population changes and growth have been in their state. So the whole House map is kind of a question mark right now. And because of these delays, we could be well into the election cycle before we could have a really clear picture of what the entirety of the election is going to look like.

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap on all things census for now. Hansi, thanks so much for coming back on the show.

WANG: You're very welcome.

KHALID: We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, it's time for Can't Let It Go.

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KHALID: And we're back. And it is time to end the show like we do every week with Can't Let It Go. Franco, first of all, I should just say thanks for coming back because we left you there for a bit. So welcome back to the show.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks for having me back.

KHALID: So this is the part of the show where we talk about the things from the week that we just cannot stop thinking about - politics or otherwise. Sue, why don't you start us off?

DAVIS: The thing I can't let go this week is politics-related. It is about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy embracing being a moron. I don't know if you all caught this a couple of weeks ago, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked - they reinstated some mask mandates on the Hill. And a reporter asked Pelosi what she thought about McCarthy because he came out opposed to them. And she was walking away from the reporter, but she was caught on tape. And she said, he's such a moron. And it became this sort of viral moment because it was caught on tape. And she doesn't normally talk like that. But McCarthy has, in turn, embraced this attack. And his fundraising arm this week has been soliciting donations for which you would get in return a shirt on it that says, really big moron. But underneath it, it says a term coined by Nancy Pelosi referring to freedom-loving Americans who oppose mask mandates.

Now, the reason why I can't let this go is if you actually see the T-shirt, moron is really big, like a headline. And the words explaining it underneath it are very small. So I feel like anyone who had purchased this T-shirt from anyone standing more than 5 to 10 feet away from them looks like they're just wearing a shirt that says moron.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: The other part about it that I think is funny is it says, a term coined by Nancy Pelosi. But I'm like, that's not a term that was coined by Nancy Pelosi. Moron's just a word. It's just an insult. She didn't make it up. But I feel like he's trying to do the...

KHALID: Like the deplorables, right?

DAVIS: ...Kind of the deplorable thing. Yeah, like take the insult and make it like a badge of honor. I just can't let it go because I'm not sure that that's going to work with moron.

KHALID: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I'm not feeling it. Some people, like, do that, like, on their Twitter handles in their little descriptions. And this one doesn't seem to be as effective as it possibly could be maybe.

DAVIS: Yeah. He's trying to make something work. We'll see if it catches fire or not, But I'm skeptical.

KHALID: I'm not sure that one's going to work, but - all right. Well, why don't I go next? You know, we were talking earlier about the census results. And we were talking obviously about how this pertains to redistricting and redrawing congressional lines, maps, et cetera. But one other news nugget that came out of the Census Bureau numbers is the stats of how much growth different cities have seen. And I feel like every year I hear these stories about how New York City is dying and that it's on life support and everyone is leaving cities, especially New York City. And it's going to be over for the Big Apple.

And lo and behold, apparently New York City actually gained, like, over - I think it was 600,000 people in the last decade. And it's seen like 7% growth. So long story short, New York City isn't dying. For those of you who want to move there, I'm pretty sure the rent is still going to be too damn high for most people to live there. But, like, 600,000 people is huge. I was reading that it's basically like New York added the population of Miami inside of itself in the last decade.

DAVIS: I thought you were going to say that there was big growth in Indiana. I thought I was...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIS: Indiana's coming back kind of, Asma - population growth.

KHALID: That I'm not so sure about.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's amazing. I lived in New York a long time ago. And I remember kind of like the cost of rents. And now to be thinking about - to be fighting even harder for places to live, I mean, it's just insane.

KHALID: So anyhow, Franco, what can't you let go of?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, what I can't let go - And I'm surprised neither of you guys brought it up first - but is the drama surrounding "Jeopardy!" Now, I will admit, I don't watch the show very often - actually, very rarely. But I am absolutely fascinated with stories and all the drama around the show. And this, you know, this race for who was going to replace Alex Trebek, who obviously hosted the show for almost four decades before he died of pancreatic cancer, you know, there was this big race, all these, you know, guest hosts. And in the end, they picked the show's executive producer, Mike Richards, and then there was another hoopla and controversy about it.

KHALID: So can we just be clear, though? Was that like him pulling a Dick Cheney? That's like instantly what I thought of.

DAVIS: Totally Dick Cheneyed (ph) himself into the job.

ORDOÑEZ: Certainly, you know, I think that argument is very, very viable. And that's what's so fascinating about it. I mean, like, if it was a Dick Cheney, now they will argue that he was one of the more popular hosts ratings wise.

KHALID: Was he part of the search committee, though? Was he actually, like, leading the search committee?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, he was the show's executive producer, so he was in the thick of it.

DAVIS: He's like, I found the right man for the job.

ORDOÑEZ: It's such a huge issue. I was I was at the White House earlier in the week. And we - in the briefing room, we were talking about this. And, you know, people are still sad about LeVar Burton, you know, who was the host of "Reading Rainbow" and basically everybody's childhood.

DAVIS: I was Team LeVar.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, so many of us were Team LeVar. And, you know, I just - I'm just - I just can't let it go that, after all of that, after all that excitement of all these people coming in, that they end up picking the executive producer of the show. Now, I will say they did also say they are going to have Mayim Bialik, who was the, you know, who had a lot of roles in sitcoms like "The Big Bang Theory" and "Blossom." She's going to be, you know, a special host for primetime specials, whatever that really means. I'm not really sure. But it's fascinating to me.

DAVIS: She's also super smart. So I think she's more than just an actress. She has like a Ph.D. in some kind of sciences. So...

KHALID: Yeah, I heard that, some type of science?

ORDOÑEZ: Neuroscientist or a neurologist.

DAVIS: Yeah. She's got some "Jeopardy!" street cred as someone who's actually, like, far more intelligent than a lot of people that go on "Jeopardy!"

KHALID: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Elena Moore. Thanks to Lexie Schapitl and Brandon Carter. Our intern is Miacel Spotted Elk.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)"

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