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News brief: Zalmay Khalilzad, social media hearing, Sudan coup

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. envoy on Afghanistan who brokered a deal with the Taliban is now talking about what went wrong in the U.S. withdrawal.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Zalmay Khalilzad left the Biden administration last week. He was born in Afghanistan. He became an American citizen and played key roles in four U.S. administrations. He negotiated the peace deal with the Taliban during the Trump administration, and notably, he talked with Taliban representatives in their native language. And even though the withdrawal under President Biden was chaotic, he is now defending his work.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think that some people are looking for scapegoats rather than looking at the causes that got us to do that.

MARTIN: Ambassador Khalilzad spoke with Steve Inskeep, who is with us this morning. Hey, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So how does Khalilzad defend the chaotic U.S. withdrawal over the summer and all that has happened since?

INSKEEP: OK. He acknowledges that things didn't go according to plan, but he's not accepting the idea that 20 years of war went for nothing. The U.S. did topple the Taliban once upon a time, did devastate al-Qaida but, of course, completely failed to instill any kind of lasting democracy. And at the end, he says, the U.S. was just spending a lot of money, a lot of blood and treasure and needed to go.

MARTIN: Yeah. And the question is how the U.S. went, though, right? In 2020, the U.S. made this separate peace with the Taliban and got a lot of heat because they left out the existing Afghan government from those talks. Did that essentially guarantee failure?

INSKEEP: It certainly prepared the way for the United States to go regardless of circumstances, whether the old government survived or not. But Khalilzad argues that the Afghan government the U.S. supported was already losing territory year after year after year. Now, the Taliban were supposed to follow that peace deal by negotiating a deal with that existing government. Those talks went nowhere, and that raised a question in our interview.

Were the Taliban honest with you and with the United States then?

KHALILZAD: I believe that they did make an agreement that they observed, as I give you the example of not attacking or killing a single American soldier. But it wasn't - we weren't trusting them. We were monitoring what they were doing. We were responding when we thought it was appropriate.

MARTIN: You know, Steve, the Taliban made these kind of vague promises about things being different this go-round when it comes to women's rights, the rights of girls. You brought that up. Let's hear some of your interview.

INSKEEP: Before they took power, they spoke somewhat openly about the rights of women, suggested there might be some room for some moderation in their views. Then they got into power. And as soon as they started thinking about specific decisions, they have been more restrictive about women's rights than people would have...

KHALILZAD: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Anticipated.

KHALILZAD: Definitely, definitely. But compared to Taliban of the '90s - and now women are allowed to go to private universities. They're - the private universities are open, and women are going to university. High schools in several provinces, they are open. And others, they don't believe in co-education. They believe that men and women should go separately, boys and girls. And they are saying they will do the same for the rest of the country. They just need to organize the schools appropriately.

INSKEEP: Of course, women are being kept out of a lot of schools right now. But he says at least women are not yet as oppressed as they were in the 1990s.

MARTIN: Right, which, let's just say, is a very low bar. I want to ask about something New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen has said. She has accused Khalilzad of personally failing under two administrations to make women's rights a priority. Is he responding to that?

INSKEEP: He is. He says he would have made women's rights a priority if there had been a final peace negotiation, which there wasn't because the U.S.-backed faction collapsed on the battlefield, so now the Taliban get to make the decisions. But he's still holding out hope that the Taliban can be pressured to improve.

MARTIN: Does the U.S. have leverage to do that?

INSKEEP: Well, the U.S. still has Afghan assets, has things the Taliban want, like international recognition. But now it's their call whether they want to pursue that.

MARTIN: Steve Inskeep, we appreciate this. Thanks.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Bullying, eating disorders, school violence - the Senate is going to take up some of the biggest challenges involving kids and teens at a hearing today.

KING: That's right. The same committee that heard testimony from a Facebook whistleblower three weeks ago is going to be asking again about social media and kids. This time they're questioning executives from YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks is covering this and joins us now. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we've heard a lot of conversation about Facebook and how it is or isn't good for teens. Why do senators also want to hear from these other social media companies?

PARKS: So generally, this issue of how kids are affected by social media apps and online video is among the most bipartisan issues when it comes to, you know, why lawmakers have a problem with Big Tech right now. And these specific three companies play a huge role in that. The parental control software company Qustodio released a report earlier this year that found screen time overall was up 36% in 2020 compared to 2019. Kids who use TikTok were using it for almost an hour and a half a day. Kids who used YouTube Kids were using it an hour a day. And kids who used Snapchat are using it more than 45 minutes a day. I imagine a lot of those numbers sound very familiar to parents who have been locked up with their kids over the last...

MARTIN: Right.

PARKS: ...Couple years.

MARTIN: Miles, is there any sort of hard data about the effect on kids who spend a lot of time using these social media apps?

PARKS: It's really difficult to pin down and generalize and just say, you know, screen time is bad all of the time. A recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder, for instance, found no association in 9- and 10-year-olds between screens and childhood anxiety or depression. But a large chunk of the recently leaked Facebook documents did focus on the mental health effects the platform has on kids. You know, one internal slide found that 32% of teen girls said that they - when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel worse. And TikTok and Snapchat both share a lot of features, obviously, with Instagram. Bottom line here - we're still learning exactly how all of these platforms are affecting us, how they're affecting our kids, and yet tens of millions of kids and people are still using them.

MARTIN: Yeah. So these companies are going to be on defense. Do we know what they're going to say today?

PARKS: So we do a little bit. NPR acquired the opening statements from YouTube and from Snap. The biggest takeaway is that these companies really fight back against this generalization that their structure, their inherent incentivization structure makes it so they prioritize profit over the well-being of kids. In her opening statement, the VP of Snap talks about this moment in 2017 where they say they realized that a part of their app was leading users to make negative comparisons about themselves. They say they redesigned the app. It may have hurt growth in the short term, but that it was, quote, "the right thing to do for our community." That, obviously, opens the door up to this question of, you know, how many other questions like that have all of these companies faced over the last couple years? And how did they respond in all those instances? We may never know the answer to that question.

MARTIN: Is there any sign, Miles, that Congress is moving closer to tightening regulations on these companies?

PARKS: It definitely feels like they're inching closer the past couple years. Obviously, the Facebook leaks may potentially expedite that. But it's important to note again - for how little we know about how Facebook and Instagram are affecting our kids, we know even less about these other platforms. So lawmakers are still kind of in the investigation mode right now.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN: OK. The State Department says $700 million in aid to Sudan is suspended immediately because of a military coup there.

KING: The U.S. has been providing economic aid to support Sudan's transitional democratic government. Now, that government has been in place since a popular uprising tossed out the dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. But that democratic government was overthrown yesterday when Sudanese soldiers detained the prime minister and other civilian officials.

MARTIN: Isma'il Kushkush has covered Sudan for many years. He's been following developments from here in D.C. Thanks so much for being here, Isma'il. Internet and phone services in Sudan appear to be really limited right now. But what can you tell us about what's happened since the military took power?

ISMA'IL KUSHKUSH: Well, since the military took power, we've seen people take to the street. Many of the youth that were involved in the protests of 2019, 2018 that brought down the government of Omar al-Bashir have set up roadblocks, have taken to the streets, are, to the extent that they can, trying to produce videos, photos online, etc. So we think that despite the military coup, most Sudanese will not accept this. This comes days after a huge protest on the 21 of October in support of full transition into civilian rule.

MARTIN: So now all that has just - I mean, the democratic movement there has just been upended. But do we know what prompted the military to take this action now?

KUSHKUSH: Well, you know, for the past months, we've seen divisions between the military side of the transitional government and the civilian side and among civilians themselves. Note that, you know, this - these past two years have been a difficult transition, not only because of the makeup of the transitional government, but also the economic situation, the economic reforms, the pandemic. And the civilian side is not exempt from criticism itself. But I think there are major issues that seem to be in the minds of those in the military. And I think one absolutely is the question of accountability and justice. Note that next month, according to the agreement reached between civilians and the military, that there should have been a transition into full civilian rule that would last until elections were to be set up in 2023. That - this has taken a backseat now.

MARTIN: What effect is the cut-off of U.S. aid likely to have?

KUSHKUSH: Well, the impact of the U.S. withholding financial support, I think, is going to be felt by the average Sudanese citizen.

MARTIN: Yeah.

KUSHKUSH: I mean, this is a time that Sudanese need to re-establish itself, build up its economy. I think we're going to see an impact as far as foreign investment. This will be felt by the average Sudanese.

MARTIN: OK. We'll keep following this. Journalist Isma'il Kushkush, thank you so much for your time and reporting.

KUSHKUSH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.