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Morning News Brief

NOEL KING, HOST:

In just the last few hours, the Taliban have taken control of Kandahar and Herat, the second- and third-largest cities in Afghanistan.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

They now control about one in three provincial capital cities, and the number keeps growing. They've also cut off a key highway between Kabul and the southern provinces. Things are moving so fast the U.S. is sending 3,000 troops back into Afghanistan to help evacuate U.S. diplomats and some civilians.

KING: NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is following this one.

Good morning, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: This is developing literally by the minute. What is happening now as we speak?

MYRE: So the latest is that the Taliban fighters continue to move at tremendous speed - much, much faster than anyone had predicted. Kandahar, as you mentioned, is a major prize. It's really loaded with symbolism. This was home to a major U.S. base before the recent American pullout. It's also the place where the Taliban were founded in the 1990s. And while there are reports of some heavy fighting in various places, we are hearing more and more reports of Afghan troops deserting, which is allowing the Taliban to take control with really little or no resistance.

KING: OK. And as Deb said, the U.S. is sending 3,000 American troops back in. What are they going there to do?

MYRE: These 3,000 troops are supposed to start arriving in Kabul today or tomorrow, and they'll be based at the Kabul airport. Their mission will be to provide security for U.S. diplomats at the embassy and help them fly out of the country. We should note the U.S. Embassy and the airport in Kabul are just a few miles apart. And a second part of the mission will be to help with the evacuation of Afghan interpreters who've worked with the U.S. military and are applying for visas to come to the U.S.

KING: I'm wondering about the urgency of this, Greg. Are the American diplomats and the Afghan interpreters in immediate danger?

MYRE: Well, as we speak right now, the Afghan government still controls Kabul, and the U.S. was planning to keep a sizeable staff at the embassy to help support the government. And until the past few days, the thinking was it was safe - at least for now - in Kabul. But this Taliban surge has been so rapid that President Biden and the Pentagon decided to act immediately. This is a clear signal that they think Kabul is at risk, and they don't want to wait until it's too late. But of course, this just adds to the sense that the Afghan government and the military is starting to disintegrate, and it fuels the notion that a Taliban takeover is coming.

KING: And so is it conceivable that U.S. forces could be back in combat fighting the Taliban?

MYRE: Well, the Pentagon says these troops will be armed to defend themselves, but the mission is not to fight. Here's Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.

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JOHN KIRBY: I want to stress that these forces are being deployed to support the orderly and safe reduction of civilian personnel. This is a temporary mission with a narrow focus.

MYRE: And this mission is supposed to be completed by the end of the month, which is also the goal for the broader U.S. pullout.

KING: Yes, it is, the end of the month. Does this mean that the U.S. will have entirely left Afghanistan in a little over two weeks?

MYRE: Well, right now the State Department says it will still keep personnel at the embassy. It'll be a small number. The military is also planning to keep about 650 troops to guard the embassy and the Kabul airport. But conditions are changing by the day, even the hour, so these plans may have to be revised.

KING: And Greg, does the U.S. have any other options, whether diplomatic or military?

MYRE: Not many, and they're all bad. The U.S. really lost its leverage with the withdrawal of 2,500 troops over the past couple months. And there's real dangers on the horizon. The Taliban could seek revenge against Afghans who supported Americans. A regional refugee crisis could be upon us. And this is just another huge hit for a very poor country that's been at war for 40 years.

KING: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: All right. The FDA now says some Americans should get a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

ELLIOTT: The idea is to strengthen the body's resistance to the coronavirus, but it's not for everyone. Only people with weakened immune systems will qualify for now.

KING: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is with us.

Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: Why did the FDA make this call?

PALCA: Well, they pointed to a small but growing body of evidence that some people who are immunocompromised, meaning they are more vulnerable to getting sick from viral or bacterial infections, will benefit from a third shot. It's something that several government officials have been talking about. For example, here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky speaking at a briefing yesterday.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: ...Certain people who are immune compromised, such as people who have had organ transplant and some cancer patients, may not have had an adequate immune response to just two doses of the COVID vaccine.

KING: And can people who fit those criteria just go down to the pharmacy and ask for a third shot?

PALCA: Well, it's not spelled out in the FDA's announcement how people are supposed to prove to a pharmacist that they are immune compromised. But assuming that is the case, Dorry Segev says it would be a mistake to do that. He's a transplant surgeon and researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. He says managing patients with weakened immune systems can be a tricky business, and only a certain subset of patients are likely to benefit from a third shot. Segev is doing a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that he hopes will clarify who are the best candidates to get a third dose.

DORRY SEGEV: We are planning to give 200 transplant patients booster doses under very careful monitoring to study the immune response to the booster doses and make sure that their transplanted organs are not at risk.

PALCA: In addition to the two booster doses that the FDA's approving now from Pfizer and Moderna, Segev wants to study whether starting with an mRNA vaccine like those two or - and then switching to something different like a Johnson & Johnson might make the protection greater.

KING: So while doctors wait for the results from his study, is there any guidance from the government about what to do?

PALCA: Well, yes. The CDC is going to make guidelines. And there'll be a meeting today of an advisory committee on immunization practices that will vet what the CDC is recommending.

KING: And what about boosters for people who got the vaccine six or eight months ago but are worried that the protection might be wearing off?

PALCA: Well, the president's chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, addressed that question at a White House briefing yesterday.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Apart from the immunocompromised, we do not believe that others who are not immunocompromised need a vaccine right at this moment.

PALCA: And by vaccine, they're - Fauci is talking about a booster vaccine. Now, Fauci says it's a dynamic situation. There's a lot of studies being done about the duration of protection. Some suggest that the lower levels of antibodies might not - the antibodies aren't dropping over time for most people. But some studies suggest that the lower levels might not tell the whole story. Others suggest that there might be a reason to go for a booster. So it's just a question of which one to believe.

KING: NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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KING: The head of Homeland Security says a, quote, "unprecedented number of migrants" tried to cross the southern border last month.

ELLIOTT: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that yesterday during a visit to the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: The situation at the border is one of the toughest challenges we face. It is complicated, changing and involves vulnerable people at a time of a global pandemic.

ELLIOTT: Officials reported more than 212,000 migrant encounters last month along with a record number of unaccompanied children and teenagers - almost 19,000.

KING: Joel Rose covers immigration for NPR, and he's been looking into what's going on at the border.

Good morning, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: When you take a look at these reports from the border, what stands out to you beyond the sheer size of those numbers?

ROSE: Well, first off, the timing - usually we see migration peaking in the spring, and then it declines in the summer as the hotter weather sets in. That's not happening this year. The numbers were high in the spring, and now they're going even higher.

KING: And so how does this compare to the past? Is it completely different?

ROSE: Well, that's complicated. The number of encounters recorded last month is the highest in 21 years. But that number is actually bigger than the number of individual migrants who are crossing because a significant percentage of migrants today are being quickly expelled under a public health order known as Title 42 that has been in place since the pandemic started, and then they're crossing again. Secretary Mayorkas said yesterday that the number of unique individuals crossing the border last month was about 154,000. That is still a very big number, but it's closer to other recent peaks, including 2019.

KING: OK. So you have people trying to get in, being expelled, trying to get back in. The numbers are high. What does it look like at the border right now?

ROSE: In a word, it is a mess, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, where the numbers are the highest. They're so big that they're just overwhelming the resources of everybody involved. That includes the Border Patrol, which has been forced to process migrants under a bridge because its regular facilities are so overcrowded. It also includes the border towns and nonprofits and charities in those towns that help care for migrants who are allowed into the U.S. to pursue asylum claims.

The Biden administration says it is focused on addressing the root causes of this migration, and it's still trying to find a balance between allowing the most vulnerable migrants into the country while telling everybody else, you know, don't come and largely expelling them back to Mexico. So it's not a very popular position with anybody right now.

KING: I would imagine that President Biden is taking a lot of criticism about this.

ROSE: For sure. I mean, his critics on the right are saying, basically, I told you so. They want to hang all of this on Biden and his policies. They say that lifting any of the Trump administration's hard-line immigration policies was a mistake because it has been seen as encouraging migrants from all around the world. Here's former acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan on a call with reporters yesterday.

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MARK MORGAN: This is about what our policies are on our borders. And if you apply effective consequences and you're detaining individuals that break into our country against the rule of law, I promise you the flow will go down.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates dispute that. They say, by the way, that it's legal to seek asylum and that these are desperate people who are fleeing from violence and corruption and poverty and that this all has very little to do with our border policies.

KING: NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUPLA'S "ROOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.