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News Brief: Afghan Withdrawal Testimony, Japan's Next Leader, Proud Boys' Ambitions

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today House lawmakers will get their chance to ask top military officials about the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yesterday in a Senate hearing, lawmakers asked tough questions about the chaotic and deadly end of the 20-year U.S. war. And lawmakers seem particularly interested in how the Taliban were able to take over so quickly.

KING: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been following this one. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What did we learn from the Senate hearing yesterday?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, you had all the top Pentagon officials - Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Central Command's top officer General Frank McKenzie and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley. Now, in opening remarks, General Milley said there were actually efforts to withdraw all U.S. forces in the final weeks of the Trump presidency. A White House memo said all troops should leave before January 15, so five days before President Biden was sworn in. General Milley balked at that, talked to officials, and the memo was rescinded. And about 2,500 U.S. troops remained. Now, we also heard a startling admission from Defense Secretary Austin.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We need to consider some uncomfortable truths - that we didn't fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks.

BOWMAN: Well, those uncomfortable truths actually were well-known. There were numerous government reports over the years from John Sopko, the Afghan inspector general, who wrote about problems with the Afghan army, also from the CIA, from numerous Pentagon advisers. Corruption was a huge problem, and few U.S. officials through three administrations were really willing to take it head-on. It was corrosive and sent Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

KING: Given all of that, what did the military leaders say about the end of the war and the way it was executed, given what they knew?

BOWMAN: Right. At the hearing, there was a lot of focus on the speed of the collapse of the Afghan government, the military and the rapid takeover by the Taliban. It took just 11 days. A Democrat, Jeanne Shaheen, the senator from New Hampshire, talked about the failure to anticipate with those final days. Let's listen.

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JEANNE SHAHEEN: What did we miss?

MARK MILLEY: I think, Senator, we absolutely missed the rapid, 11-day collapse of the Afghan military and the collapse of their government. I think there was a lot of intelligence that clearly indicated that after we withdrew, that it was a likely outcome of a collapse of the military and a collapse of the government.

BOWMAN: But officials thought the earliest the Afghan military would collapse - get this - would be sometime in the fall.

KING: Sometime in the fall - wow. There was another interesting moment yesterday where General Frank McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, said that the U.S. might not be able to stop al-Qaida or ISIS from rebuilding in Afghanistan. How significant was that moment?

BOWMAN: It was significant, and General McKenzie and others said it will be very difficult to deal with the terrorist groups now that all U.S. troops are out. They will handle it with aircraft coming from elsewhere in the region, what's called over-the-horizon, to keep an eye on things with drones and other surveillance and maybe make airstrikes if they see something. But there's a cautionary tale here. Back in 2015, when there were 10,000 U.S. troops, as well as American drones, warplanes in Afghanistan and, of course, partnering with Afghan intelligence services, the U.S. noticed a large al-Qaida training camp in southern Afghanistan. It was operating for more than a year. The U.S. completely missed it. Airstrikes killed about 160 al-Qaida fighters operating right under their nose.

KING: NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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KING: All right. Japan's ruling party, which has a majority in that country's parliament, has picked a new leader.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. He's expected to become the country's prime minister next week, and he won out over the previous front-runner in the polls.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following this one. Who is this gentleman? Who's the winner?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: OK. His name is Fumio Kishida. And as you said, this is the vote for the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP. And parliament will choose the next prime minister on October 4. And because the LDP has a majority in parliament, the LDP president basically has a lock on the premiership. Kishida is a former foreign minister. He's known as a pretty steady hand and stable manager and a consensus candidate within the party who tries to avoid controversy. And that's interesting because he was up against a political maverick as well as two female candidates. Now, today's LDP vote did not produce a majority winner, so they had to do a runoff vote. And in the end, party members, LDP members who are lawmakers, have the most clout in that runoff vote, and they picked Kishi (ph). Basically, he was the safe vote among party insiders.

KING: The safe vote - and now, the outgoing prime minister was unpopular, in large part because of how he handled the response to COVID. Is there a sense of what his successor plans to do differently?

KUHN: Well, you're right. Outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga lasted less than a year in office, and he became very unpopular because he was seen as being very slow and imposing states of emergency during the pandemic, slow in getting vaccines and also insisting on holding the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic, which was not popular. And he was seen as a very dull and stiff communicator. Japan is holding general elections this fall, and the LDP was afraid of losing seats in parliament, and they didn't want Suga as their leader going into that election, so he was forced to quit.

Now, the interesting thing is that the new guy, Kishida, is not seen as a great communicator either. But it's possible that this may not be quite as much of an issue because they're getting the pandemic under control. Infections are down 90% over the peak of the last wave in August, states of emergency are being lifted around the country, and about 58% of the population has now been vaccinated.

KING: OK. So with COVID not entirely out of the way, but sort of out of the way, what else will he be focused on - the economy for sure?

KUHN: Yeah. Well, interestingly, the LDP is pretty much on the same page. All the candidates have similar prescriptions for the economy, and they all are calling for ways to jumpstart the economy and fight deflation. Kishida has already promised a big stimulus package. They're also on the same page on foreign policy. Most people in the LDP are in favor of a very strong alliance with the U.S., especially as mistrust of China is going. Where they're different is on social issues. And the maverick candidate, Taro Kono, the vaccine minister, who's in favor of things such as same-sex marriage, the possibility of even a female emperor, the overhaul of the social security system - and Japan's society is headed in these directions. But with Kishida at the helm, probably big reforms are going to have to wait for later.

KING: OK. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you.

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KING: One year ago today, this happened at a presidential debate between former President Trump and then-candidate Joe Biden.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead...

CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?

JOE BIDEN: The Proud Boys.

TRUMP: Who?

BIDEN: The Proud Boys.

TRUMP: The Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by.

MARTINEZ: That exchange drew a lot of attention to the violent extremist group known as the Proud Boys. And after Trump's comments, the organization's membership grew. So what have the Proud Boys been doing since President Trump lost?

KING: NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef has been looking into that question. Good morning, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What has the past year been like for the Proud Boys?

YOUSEF: Well, in the immediate aftermath of that debate, Noel, there was an increase in street mobilization for the Proud Boys. They were much more visible, particularly at Stop the Steal events. But after Trump left office, there have been mounting organizational and legal pressures on the group. Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys, was outed as a federal informant. He is now in prison for offenses committed late last year. And to date, 15 Proud Boys are facing charges of conspiracy in relation to the storming of the Capitol earlier this year. I spoke with Cassie Miller. She's a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and here's what she said.

CASSIE MILLER: The kind of legal pressure that the Proud Boys are under would have sunk most groups, but it didn't. And I think that tells us something about this particular political moment that this form of dangerous politics is here to stay and it's been widely adopted.

YOUSEF: Miller said that the fact that the Proud Boys are still visible and active in so many places around the country indicates just how much further to the right Trump's base has radicalized in the wake of his presidency.

KING: This is an interesting point she's making because you would think that if they're under legal pressure and federal scrutiny, that would mean fewer people would want to join 'cause it's just riskier.

YOUSEF: That's true. But you know, the group has adapted, Noel. You know, we're not seeing them anymore at these kind of big, nationally coordinated events. And instead, they're really shifting to local activities around a variety of hot-button issues. One person that's really been tracking that is Hampton Stall with the Armed Conflict Location Event Data project. He's been looking at protests, demonstrations and riots that the Proud Boys have attended. And he noticed something really interesting, which is that activities really heated up again this summer, and August was particularly troubling because at nearly half of the events that Proud Boys showed up at, things got violent. Here's what he said.

HAMPTON STALL: It was, in some ways, the top of the wave/tail end of the critical race theory counter-mobilizations by many on the right. But it was also the start of a wave that we're currently in of, like, anti-vaccine demonstrations that turned violent a lot.

YOUSEF: You know, both Stall and Miller say that this seems to herald a new phase that we're in, Noel, a kind of dangerous coalescing of disparate elements on the far right.

KING: How concerned are they about that?

YOUSEF: They're very concerned. You know, the Proud Boys espouse this idea that violence is an acceptable way to counter one's perceived enemies. And so the concern is if they're spreading that idea among other unrelated groups, even if the Proud Boys were to fade, their ideas won't.

KING: NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism. Thank you, Odette, for your reporting.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.