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Lawmakers warn Pentagon of impending bloodbath for Afghan partners



WASHINGTON — Two lawmakers who are veterans of the war in Afghanistan warned a Pentagon official on Wednesday that Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government would be hunted down by the Taliban unless the Biden administration organized an emergency evacuation before American troops withdraw in four months.

“We need to get these people out,” Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who saw combat in Afghanistan, said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. He said U.S partners faced a “death sentence” when the U.S. leaves.

Waltz and other lawmakers expressed frustration at the hearing with David Helvey, the acting assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, about the Biden administration’s plans for tens of thousands of Afghans who face retribution from the Taliban for their association with the U.S. government or other Western organizations. Helvey said the Pentagon would be able to evacuate the Afghans if it were requested, but the lawmakers wanted to know what steps were imminent.

“We need to evacuate them out,” Waltz told Helvey. “What’s preventing you from doing that?”

Helvey replied that the administration hoped to see the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a peace settlement to end the conflict. “We’re focusing on a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan.”

Peace talks between the Taliban and their adversaries in the Afghan government have stalled.

Waltz said the Biden administration had to take action now to save the lives of Afghan partners and fly them out to a U.S. military base or territory outside the country, where their paperwork could be vetted and reviewed.

“These people who stood with us are being hunted down as we speak,” said Waltz.

The congressman recounted how one of the interpreters he had worked with was murdered by the Taliban six years ago after he was stopped at an insurgent checkpoint on his way to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The interpreter was heading to the embassy with documents to apply for a visa under a program set up for Afghans who were employed by the U.S., Waltz said.

“I want to be clear, we need an evacuation plan and time is of the essence,” the Republican lawmaker said.

“We are working with our inter-agency partners to look at the resources and mechanisms to support those folks,” Helvey said.

But Waltz said when the remaining U.S. forces leave as scheduled in September, former Afghan partners would have a target on their back.

“When that last soldier goes wheels up, we have essentially handed them a death sentence,” Waltz said.

To help Afghan interpreters and others who face retribution from the Taliban for their links to the U.S., Congress in 2009 set up the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program, to provide U.S. visas to Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. government. The program has a backlog years long. More than 17,000 Afghans have applied, and their paperwork is still being reviewed.

“We do have a special responsibility to support and protect those who supported and protected us for the past 20 years,“ Helvey told lawmakers. He suggested Congress devote more resources to the SIV program as a way to help Afghans who worked with the United States.

Veterans organizations from across the political spectrum sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday calling for an evacuation of Afghan partners to American territory.

Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado and former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said at the hearing Wednesday he might not be alive today without the help of interpreters.

Crow asked Helvey if the Defense Department was ready to organize an evacuation of Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government.

“If directed to do so, we can,” Helvey said.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Co., speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, on April 22, 2021.Erin Scott / Reuters file

Crow pressed him on which agency in the U.S. government was taking the lead on the issue.

Helvey said he believed it was the State Department.

“You believe or do you know?” Crow asked.

“I do not know for sure,” Helvey said. “It depends on what we’re talking about.”

Crow said there was a moral and national security imperative to take action to airlift Afghan partners out of the country.

“We are several weeks into this drawdown. We have no time left. “

Helvey said the administration had no agreements in place in neighboring countries that would allow access to bases for U.S. troops or permission for overflight into Afghanistan for surveillance or counterterrorism-related missions. The administration is “exploring” options with some regional governments, he said.

Discussions were underway with Kabul on the size of the future U.S. diplomatic mission after troops withdraw; as well as how the U.S. would help train Afghan security forces or collect intelligence without boots on the ground, according to Helvey.

The Pentagon official offered few details on a number of key questions, including the nature of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda, and said he would address the topics in a classified hearing later on Wednesday.

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Republicans announce federal bills to ‘restrict the spread’ of critical race theory



A group of House Republicans on Wednesday took recent attacks on critical race theory a step further by introducing a pair of bills to ban diversity training for federal employees and the military.

Some 30 GOP representatives have signed on to support both the Combatting Racist Training in the Military Act and the Stop CRT Act, Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina said at a news conference in Washington.

The first bill is a companion to legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that aims to prohibit teaching “Anti-American and racist theories” such as critical race theory at any academic institution related to the U.S. Armed Forces. The Stop CRT Act works to codify former President Donald Trump’s executive order banning diversity and racial equity training for federal employees — an order President Joe Biden reversed in January.

“Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche,” Bishop said at the news conference. “For the sake of our children’s future, we must stop this effort to cancel the truth of our founding and our country.”

He said the initial bill “stands for the idea that CRT does not belong in our armed forces. The Stop CRT Act will be the most comprehensive legislation to restrict the spread of CRT.”

The bills are the latest in a string of proposed legislation targeting diversity and anti-racism teaching — which is being characterized as critical race theory — in several states across the country. Such bills in Idaho, Louisiana, Rhode Island and Tennessee target the teaching of anti-racism in schools.

Conservative leaders began focusing on critical race theory after Trump used the decades-old academic term in a September 2020 memo ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding diversity training. Around the same time, educators were using the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 New York Times “1619 Project” in the classroom to teach a more holistic history of the country. So, Republican leaders began publicly criticizing both the project and critical race theory, often using the term to describe all anti-racism efforts.

“Many that are condemning critical race theory haven’t read it or studied it intensely,” Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston–Downtown and co-editor of “Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines,” previously told NBC. “This is largely predicated on fear: the fear of losing power and influence and privilege. The larger issue that this is all stemming from is a desire to deny the truth about America, about racism.”

Critical race theory is a concept that seeks to understand racism and inequality in the United States by exploring and exposing the ways it affects legal and social systems. The school of thought was founded by academics including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw and others in the 1970s and ‘80s and builds on critical legal studies and radical feminism.

On Wednesday, the Republican leaders said they hope the two proposed bills will continue the work Trump started. The news comes just hours after the Texas House passed a bill to limit what educators can teach about the nation’s history of racism and contentious current events. Dozens of education, business and community groups in the state condemned the bill, noting that it would limit local control. Texas state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Democrat from Houston, called the bill “tyranny,” according to The Texas Tribune.

“We have come to this body and have made the decision to tell our teachers how and what to teach,” Johnson told the paper, noting that there is “not one agency that has compelled a teacher to teach critical race theory, so this author literally is legislating nothing — an overreach of power.”

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Biden administration scrambles to stave off gas shortage crisis



WASHINGTON — Just as Covid-19 seems to be loosening its grip on America, the Biden administration was faced with potentially crippling gas shortages in what risked becoming one of the first large-scale non-pandemic crises to test the White House.

Gas lines, hoarding, price-gouging and even fist fights were reported in the Southeast as thousands of stations ran out of fuel following a cyberattack that shut down a key pipeline serving the East Coast. The administration announced on Wednesday that pipeline was restarting. Colonial Pipeline warned it will still take days to restore the supply.

President Joe Biden pushed to keep Americans optimistic after his White House warned for days that consumers shouldn’t panic buy gas.

“I think you are going to hear some good news in the next 24 hours,” Biden said on Wednesday. “I think we’re going to be getting that under control.”

Republicans and their allies in the conservative media seized on the crisis, comparing Biden to former President Jimmy Carter — who lost re-election after an energy crisis in 1989 led to gas shortages, skyrocketing prices and rationing — and sharing memes saying Biden’s presidency is “out of gas.”

Officials set a target to get the Colonial Pipeline back online by the end of this week. But even before the shutdown, gas prices were climbing as people re-emerge from Covid-19 lockdowns to travel again — the national average broke $3 per gallon for the first time in seven years on Wednesday. Analysts were warning about potential shortages this summer even before the cyberattack.

If the pipeline shutdown had dragged on beyond this week, it could have reverbating affects cross the economy, including grounding flights and slowing supply chains for other needed goods.

Several states declared an emergency. Seven-in-ten gas stations in the Charlotte, North Carolina area ran out of at least one kind of fuel by Wednesday, while prices had risen to $6.99 a gallon at at least one Richmond, Virginia station. And airlines have already had to scramble to conserve fuel at affected airports.

East Coast cities have been relying on fuel stored in giant tanks, but it could only last a matter of days. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warned in its daily situation report, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, that if the pipeline stayed offline beyond Wednesday, there could be “widespread impacts on the fuel supply in the Southeast and Central Atlantic Markets.”

“I understand and I am doing everything I can using every lever of government to ensure we reduce the impact on the American people and their lives,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters when asked to summarize Biden’s message to the country.

The White House characterization of the gas crunch shifted as the pipeline shutdown dragged on, with officials stopping short on Monday of calling it “shortage” but then employing the term repeatedly on Wednesday.

High octane politics

Pump politics have lost some octane in recent years thanks to low prices, but gas prices have long been a touchy political issue, since they are felt personally and immediately by voters and impact nearly every part of the economy.

When gas prices spiked in 2008, they became a central issue in that year’s presidential campaign. Republican John McCain attacked Democrat Barack Obama in TV ads for opposing more domestic oil production and his vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin popularized the phrase, “Drill, baby, drill!”

Now, even when the pipeline returns to operation, gas prices — and gas politics — are likely on the rise again after the Covid-19 pandemic halted travel and parts of the fuel supply chain.

“Rising gas prices are a sign Americans are getting back out into the world — attending baseball games, going to concerts, taking a road trip — basically staying anywhere but at home,” said Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy. “This summer may see some blockbuster demand for fuel as well, as Americans find it very challenging to travel internationally, leading many to stay in the confines of U.S. borders, boosting some weeks to potentially record gasoline demand.”

The White House has scrambled to find alternate ways to deliver fuel to areas impacted by the pipeline closure.

The administration issued an emergency declaration Sunday to allow truckers to drive on more overtime hours and with less sleep than federal restrictions normally allow in an effort to deliver more oil and gas, which was followed by a waiver Tuesday temporarily allowing the impacted states to sell dirtier gasoline than would normally be allowed under environmental regulations.

Officials also said they were preparing to temporarily waive the Jones Act, which would allow foreign-flagged ships and vessels to deliver fuel to the Eastern seaboard should the need arise, and they said they were working to enlist rail operators from around the country to transport fuel to the affected areas.

Panic buying

Republicans are not going to let a good crisis go to waste and see an opportunity to undercut Biden as he has enjoyed months of relatively favorable economic news.

“President Biden’s leadership is non-existent,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said on Fox News. “Gas prices are through the roof and people are now waiting in line. There was a major hack by Russia, likely. President Biden doesn’t want to confront that. You’re looking at home prices… We’re seeing inflation starting to go through the roof.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Fox News that the fact that a Russian cybergang could hobble the U.S. economy made Biden look weak, while Republican senators like Marco Rubio, of Florida, and Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, said the pipeline disruption showed Biden was wrong to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline — even though that pipeline would have carried crude oil from Canada to ports on the Gulf Coast for export, not gasoline for domestic use.

Others argued Biden was too slow to act and should have mobilized government resources before lines began to form at gas stations. Tucker Carlson said on his top-rated Fox News show that “the White House approves of this disaster,” because it would advance Biden’s environmentalist agenda to “close every gas station in the entire United States” in the move to electric vehicles.

But experts and local officials of both parties say panic buying, not the genuine supply disruption from the cyberattack, is responsible for much of the shortages now. “Panic buying of gas right now will create this artificial demand that will make all of this worse,” said AAA spokesperson Morgan Dean.

On Monday, demand for gas was up about 40 percent from the previous week as people rushed to fill up and shortages were being reported in parts of the country that don’t get their gasoline from the compromised pipeline, such as South Florida, which gets its fuel from oil tankers, and Arizona, which get its fuel from other pipelines.

“Please do not fill up your car unless you need to and do not fill multiple containers. Overreacting creates more of a shortage,” Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said Tuesday, when data showed just one-in-200 of her state’s gas stations were experiencing outages.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission even felt compelled to remind people via social media not to fill plastic bags with gas.

“Obviously people made a run on the pumps after the media coverage got so extensive coming out of the weekend, which has created certainly a supply issue here in the state of Georgia,” the state’s Republican Gov. Kemp said on Fox News Business. “It is frustrating that people are panic buying. We tried to ask people to use good common sense. Get what they need, not more than they need. And that’s fallen on deaf ears for some.”

To ease the gas crunch in the next few days before the pipeline comes back on, it’s a message the Biden administration hopes more people wills start to listen.

“We understand that there are shortages resulting from the Colonial Pipeline shutdown,” Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday at the White House. “This is a time to be sensible.”

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