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News Brief: Kabul After The U.S. Departs, Ida Aftermath, Texas Voting Bill

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

With all American troops and diplomats out of Afghanistan, the Taliban are celebrating victory.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yesterday, President Biden insisted that the best option was to have gotten out.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not extending a forever exit.

KING: Now, in the meantime, the Taliban still have no formal government. They want diplomatic recognition, but Biden says they won't be judged or trusted by what they say alone.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now from Kabul is Ali Mustafa. He's a reporter with TRT World. And we note here that TRT, or Turkish Radio and Television, is funded by the Turkish government.

Ali, you were on the tarmac at the Kabul airport when the last American C-17 lifted off. What is it like there now at what was really the scene of so much frantic activity for really more than two weeks?

ALI MUSTAFA: Thank you for having me. It's quite - it was quite postapocalyptic for the lack of better words. There was garbage strewn all around. There were trucks, pickup trucks and Humvees all over the place. There were Taliban all around as well and destroyed military transport aircraft. There weren't any passenger planes as such - a few Ariana Airways (ph) planes, maybe one Kam Air plane, but out of service. The planes that were left behind were partially destroyed or tampered with. They took out all the sensitive equipment and technology from it and left the planes in a condition that was unusable - and mostly Blackhawks and Russian Mi-17s that the Americans bought for the Afghan air force from the Russians.

MARTINEZ: Any ETA on when flights might resume?

MUSTAFA: Well, it depends. If the Taliban are able to reach an agreement with the Qataris and the Turks for some sort of logistical or operational understanding to run the airport - the Turks have been hesitant because they want their own security. So that's been the sticking point. But before any of that, the Taliban would need to clear the tarmac of rounds, shells, bullet shells all over the place, which could pose a huge hazard for any planes landing or taking off.

MARTINEZ: What's changed in Kabul since the U.S. withdrawal?

MUSTAFA: There is security, but there is also unease because - not just because of the American withdrawal, but the pace at which the former dispensation evaporated almost within hours. It took 20 years to build, first by Hamid Karzai, then by Ashraf Ghani, and then it just disappeared. And with it went technical staff and know-how and knowledge - bankers, professionals. Anyone with any skill set that was working in the government just left. And Taliban walked into a vacuum after a 20-year insurgency not necessarily knowing what to do. So it's taken about two to three weeks for them to figure or start figuring things out with a meeting also in Kandahar between the top leadership where their spiritual leader, Mullah Akhundzada, also appeared after two years of being in the shadows.

MARTINEZ: One more thing, Ali - what's expected from the new government that is going to be run by the Taliban?

MUSTAFA: The Taliban tell us they have two priorities. The first priority is to ensure security. The second priority is to ensure economic growth here. There are people starving in Kabul right now. The price of everyday commodities have skyrocketed. So to control these things will be the top priority of any Taliban government or backed (ph) government that takes hold.

MARTINEZ: Ali Mustafa with TRT World, thank you very much.

MUSTAFA: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: Three days after Hurricane Ida roared onshore, the full picture of what's ahead for Louisiana is just coming into view now.

KING: The view is clearer, but that said, responders cannot even reach some of the worst-hit places because of downed trees, roads that are washed out or covered with debris.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. She joins us now. Debbie, give us a lay the land there. What do we know about the impact of Hurricane Ida so far?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, certainly for the places that were hardest hit, there's just catastrophic destruction. Let's talk about Grand Isle, the barrier island. It's buried in 3 feet of sand and is uninhabitable by all measures. Jefferson Parish officials say they have been able to survey the area by helicopter. They got some emergency provisions to the few people who remain there that way. You can't get there by land or water because of the dangers and the debris. Every structure is severely damaged. They estimate that more than 40% of the homes there were completely destroyed. And they say they're really concerned because of a smell of natural gas in the area. And that's just one spot. This is happening in several places.

Search and rescue grid by grid operations are continuing to make sure nobody's left stranded. Particularly devastating was LaPlace, La., which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where people had to go up into their attics or rooftops to be rescued, and then several areas south of New Orleans. Local officials are getting help there from the National Guard, from the state fish and wildlife boats. There are out-of-state rescue crews who have come in to help. The Coast Guard is using its helicopters. And also, you know, as you always see after hurricanes in Louisiana and other places along the Gulf Coast, you've just got neighbors and volunteers trying to get to people, the so-called Cajun Navy.

Now, this is all complicated because this entire region has no power, including the whole city of New Orleans. It's dark, and it could remain so for some time because of the catastrophic damage to the power grid. You add to that that communication, water and sewer systems are also either strained or completely out of service, and it's just going to be a long haul here.

MARTINEZ: Now, some people got out, but many remain there. How are they coping?

ELLIOTT: You know, it's a struggle, especially because it's so hot and muggy. There's a heat advisory today. And so most people are without air conditioning. There are limited resources to help people cope, more and more coming online each day. Some gas stations and groceries opened, for instance. Latasha Veals (ph) went to a local supermarket in the Algiers neighborhood in New Orleans Tuesday. She had to wait in line a couple dozen people deep. She wanted ice and water because of a boil water advisory, but she came up short. They were already sold out.

LATASHA VEALS: The lights, I could deal with that. The water situation, I'm thinking about leaving because they don't have water here. They're running out of water, like, buying, purchasing water bottles and stuff like that. And it's scorching hot. It's extremely hot.

ELLIOTT: So you can hear the frustration is building. She's just ready to leave.

MARTINEZ: Really quick, Debbie - when will power be restored, any word?

ELLIOTT: Well, the main electricity provider in the region, Entergy, ambitiously hopes to get the first lights back on tonight. But I would expect that to be on a very limited scale. You know, the main transmission system is the problem here, so they're working on that. So it'll be some time now.

MARTINEZ: OK. NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks a lot.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: A state that already has some of the country's strictest voting laws is about to enact even tighter restrictions.

KING: Yeah, that's right. Republican lawmakers in Texas have delivered a bill to Governor Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it.

MARTINEZ: (Inaudible) Of member station KUT in Austin has been along for this legislative ride. Ashley, the legislation was tied up for quite a while. Democrats had fled the state to prevent a quorum, even going to Congress with an appeal for a new federal voting rights law. Did they accomplish anything?

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Well, the bill passed. So ultimately, this is a loss for Democrats. Right? And their efforts to pressure Congress have also gone nowhere because sweeping voting protection bills are still stalled on Capitol Hill. You know, James Slattery with the Texas Civil Rights Project says Democrats may have won a narrower victory.

JAMES SLATTERY: If one were to ask me - were the quorum breaks worth it? - I think absolutely. And the situation for voters in Texas would be much worse if it hadn't happened.

LOPEZ: And he says this because provisions that would have limited voting on Sundays, which is when Black churches - Black church members often go to the polls and measures to make it easier to overturn elections are not part of what's going to the governor now. These limits would have become law if Democrats didn't walk out that first time back in May. And again, these provisions were very controversial, so controversial that many Republicans even wound up backing away from them.

MARTINEZ: But Ashley, wasn't there a last-minute loss for Democrats?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So Republicans stripped out a provision named for this high-profile case of Crystal Mason. She's a woman here who had been released from federal prison, but technically couldn't vote because she was still on supervised release. She says she didn't know that she couldn't vote and voted anyway. And she was charged with illegal voting. And there was this bipartisan backing for this provision that would have tried to keep people from unknowingly getting into that kind of trouble. But it was stripped away because the bill's sponsor said it was too broad.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what wound up making it to the final version?

LOPEZ: A couple of things - first, this bill will add new ID requirements for people seeking to vote by mail. It will also add new criminal penalties to the voting process, including for people who help others fill out their ballots. And there are some provisions that empower partisan poll watchers. Lawmakers also banned drive-through voting and 24-hour voting centers, which are steps that were taken last year by Harris County, which is home to Houston, during the pandemic. Harris County officials have said that voters of color made up the majority of people who took advantage of that 24-hour voting option.

MARTINEZ: Ashley, one more thing while we have you here - a new restrictive abortion law went into effect this morning. Ashley, what more can you tell us about it?

LOPEZ: Yeah. So as of right now, Texas has one of the most extreme abortion bans in the country. People cannot get an abortion here if a fetal heartbeat is detected, which happens as early as five or six weeks into a pregnancy, which, you know, is before many people even know they're pregnant. Most states with similar bans actually have been stopped from enforcing these bans because they've been ruled unconstitutional. But Texas' law, so far, has been able to evade a court block because it was written to be enforced by private citizens instead of the state. So it's been hard for abortion providers to figure out how to stop it.

MARTINEZ: That's KUT's Ashley Lopez. Ashley, thanks a lot.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.