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Week In Politics: Biden Sends Troops To Afghanistan As Taliban Gains Ground

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President's at Camp David this weekend receiving what the White House calls multiple briefings on the dire situation in Afghanistan. Let's begin there with NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Is this the fall of Saigon all over again?

ELVING: It looks very much the same, Scott, and tragically so. Those who were not around in 1975 surely have seen the pictures of helicopters lifting the last U.S. military and civilian personnel up from the roof of our embassy in Saigon. We aren't quite there yet in Kabul, but we're getting there quickly. That's where it's heading. These fresh troops that we are sending in are going to be taking charge of a full-scale and immediate evacuation. So the postmortems are already being written, how we built an army for the Afghans but not a political structure that could sustain it. So this summer, the government has not been able to keep its soldiers in the field fed and supplied. And the Taliban are advancing everywhere.

SIMON: And recognizing that great tragedy, you have both the Squad in Congress on the left and Senator Rand Paul on the right who say the U.S. has to get out of foreign wars. Is there a distance between foreign policy thinkers now who are cautioning about the repercussions of U.S. withdrawal and American popular opinion?

ELVING: Yes. And you know, President Trump called this a forever war. He negotiated a deal with the Taliban 18 months ago. He set May 1 of this year as his own withdrawal deadline. Biden pushed that back to September. Let's be frank. The public opinion soured on this war a long time ago. Earlier this summer, an Economist/YouGov poll, respectable poll, found only one American in five opposed the withdrawal this summer. Now, of course, with ugly consequences looming as the Taliban takes over, there's a rush of bewilderment and regret, and there will be much finger-pointing. But our country has made war in Afghanistan longer than anywhere in our history, always hoping we could leave something behind that would endure. But in the end, we were simply the latest foreigners to arrive and the latest to be driven out.

SIMON: Let me ask you about infrastructure. Fox News poll this week indicates 62% of the American public approve of the trillion-dollar plan that was hashed out by a bipartisan group of senators. Fifty-six percent approve of the $3.5 trillion domestic spending plan that's backed by just Democrats. But the road to an infrastructure agreement's suddenly got a little rockier, hasn't it?

ELVING: Oh, my, yes. There's clearly a majority of Democrats in the House for that bipartisan deal on infrastructure. But a core group of progressives from deep-blue, urban districts say they won't vote for that deal until they get a vote on the spending package you mentioned that's three times larger and has their priorities in it such as climate change measures and free community college and Medicare expansion and much, much more. So that's problem one for Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Problem two is that another group of Democrats from swing districts say they want to vote on infrastructure right now before even considering the larger package. So the speaker isn't dealing with just one hostage situation. She's being squeezed between two.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the census. We've been reporting this week on new census data. And when I say we, I refer largely to the peerless reporting of NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, who will be - we will be graced to hear elsewhere in this program. What do you see in the data that political analysts might see, too?

ELVING: I'm struck by the degree to which this census is telling us something remarkably like what the 1920 census told us exactly 100 years ago. The country is getting more urban, and it's getting more diverse. The 1920 census found for the first time that a majority of Americans lived in cities. That was 100 years ago. Today, we see that majority growing larger than ever. Urban growth accounts for all the growth that the U.S. had in the last 10 years. Now, back in 1920, the rural conservatives who ran Congress were so upset at this census report, they refused to acknowledge it. They didn't reapportion the seats in Congress, putting it off for nearly a decade, trying to sweep back the tide. And nowadays, we see conservative forces at the state level trying to pack all the votes of people of color into as few districts as possible to minimize their impact. And we're going to see how that drama plays out in the months just ahead.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.