The Taliban has agreed to refuse refuge to terrorist groups as a condition of the U.S. military withdrawal, which the Trump administration brokered in February 2020. But it is widely believed that Al Qaeda’s most senior leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is living in Afghanistan, and top C.I.A. officials, including William J. Burns, the agency’s director, have acknowledged that their ability to gather information on terrorist activity there is now diminished.
Ahead of Mr. Blinken’s testimony, the Biden administration’s top intelligence official said Afghanistan was not the most pressing terrorism threat for the United States, even after the Taliban’s takeover. Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said the withdrawal of American troops and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government have created challenges for collecting intelligence in the country.
But, she said, “in terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan.”
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Her comments underscored a tenet of Mr. Biden’s decision to leave: that the enduring conflict in Afghanistan had become a distraction from more immediate threats to the United States, like China, Russia, climate change and the coronavirus.
Given that strategy, the overall decision to withdraw from Afghanistan “made good sense,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador who worked closely with Mr. Blinken and other senior officials during the Obama administration and is now chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.
But, Mr. Jeffrey said, “the preparations for this thing, and the failure of imagination on how fast it would happen and how complete the collapse — that’s a problem that you have to point to the administration on.”
The diplomatic effort that Mr. Blinken vowed would continue largely focuses on pressuring the Taliban to ensure safe passage for people who want to leave Afghanistan, and to protect Afghan women and girls who were denied educations and jobs, and in worst cases, brutalized, when the Taliban last ruled, from l996 to 2001. On Monday, he acknowledged that the Taliban had fallen “very short of the mark” in creating a government that includes women or ethnic minorities, as many countries have demanded.
Covid Vaccine Prompts Strong Immune Response in Younger Children, Pfizer Says
The Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been shown to be safe and highly effective in young children aged 5 to 11 years, the companies announced early Monday morning. The news should help ease months of anxiety among parents and teachers about when children, and their close contacts, might be shielded from the coronavirus.
The need is urgent: Children now account for more than one in five new cases, and the highly contagious Delta variant has sent more children into hospitals and intensive care units in the past few weeks than at any other time in the pandemic.
Pfizer and BioNTech plan to apply to the Food and Drug Administration by the end of the month for authorization to use the vaccine in these children. If the regulatory review goes as smoothly as it did for older children and adults, millions of elementary school students could be inoculated before Halloween.
Trial results for children younger than 5 are not expected till the fourth quarter of this year at the earliest, according to Dr. Bill Gruber, a senior vice president at Pfizer and a pediatrician.
Pfizer and BioNTech announced the results in a statement that did not include detailed data from the trial. The findings have not yet been peer-reviewed nor published in a scientific journal.
But the new results dovetail with those seen in older children and in adults, experts said.
“There’s going to be a huge number of parents who are going to heave a big sigh of relief when they hear this,” said Dr. Kristin Oliver, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “We’ve been waiting for these kids to be protected.”
Children have a much lower risk of Covid-19 than adults, even when exposed to the Delta variant. Still, some small number of infected children develop a life-threatening condition called multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C. Still others may have lingering symptoms for months.
Nearly 30,000 children were hospitalized for Covid in August; the least vaccinated states reported the highest rates. At Seattle Children’s hospital, about half of the children who are admitted for Covid are older than 12, according to Dr. Danielle Zerr, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at the hospital.
“I’ve been dismayed at the fact that the sickest children in our hospital with acute Covid-19 or MIS-C are children who could have been vaccinated,” Dr. Zerr said.
As ideological battles over masking and vaccine mandates play out in communities, the reopening of schools has fueled the surge. In Mississippi, among the states without a mask mandate, nearly 6,000 students tested positive for the virus in one week, and more than 30,000 students, teachers and staff had to be quarantined.
One county in South Carolina — where mask mandates are banned — had to quarantine more than 2,000 students in one day. Remote learning is not an option in many districts, so the safety of some medically vulnerable children in many parts of the country has become subject to the actions of others.
Unvaccinated children, even if they do not become ill themselves, can spread the virus to family members, teachers and others they interact with regularly — among them grandparents or those who are vulnerable to severe disease or death.
Mask wearing and good air circulation can significantly cut down virus transmission. But children are as likely as adults to transmit the virus to others, and more likely to do so than adults older than 60, according to a recent review of the evidence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pfizer’s trial included 2,268 children ages 5 to 11, two-thirds of whom received two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart; the rest were injected with two doses of saltwater placebo.
Given how rarely children become severely ill, the trial was not big enough to draw meaningful conclusions about the vaccine’s ability to prevent Covid or hospitalization. Instead, the researchers relied on measurements of the youngsters’ immune response, on the assumption that the protective levels of antibodies seen in older people would be as protective in younger children.
The children who got the vaccine produced a strong immune response, comparable to the levels of antibodies seen in the earlier trials of participants aged 16 to 25 years. But children in the 5- to 11-year-old group achieved this response with 10 micrograms of the vaccine, a third of the dose given to older children and adults.
At higher doses, the researchers observed more side effects in younger children, including fever, headache and fatigue, although none were severe, Dr. Gruber said. With the 10-microgram dose, “we’re actually seeing after the second dose, less fever, less chills than we see in the 16- to 25-year-olds.”
Immune defenses weaken with age, and the side effects also become milder. This decline in potency is the reason most vaccines are meted out in childhood — and why a much lower dose is often enough for children, said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, who led the trial at Stanford University and chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ infectious disease committee.
“You want to hit the sweet spot, where you’re giving the lowest dose that might elicit reactions, but also high enough to get you a good, sustainable antibody response,” she said.
In children younger than 5, just three micrograms — a tenth of the adult dose — is being tested in trials and seems likely to prove sufficient, she said.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
The F.D.A.’s full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in August did not include children aged 12 to 15, who are still getting the vaccine under emergency use authorization. As they did for adolescents, the companies will seek an emergency authorization for children aged 5 to 11.
Scientists at the F.D.A. must then weigh the benefits of the vaccine against the risk of side effects. In rare cases, the vaccine has led to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, in young people.
But a large Israeli study, based on electronic health records of two million people aged 16 and older, found that Covid is far more likely to cause these heart problems.
In order to detect side effects in younger children, the F.D.A. in July asked Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna to expand their trials to include 3,000 children. But based on the company’s conversations with the F.D.A., Dr. Gruber said he believed the agency would greenlight the vaccine with the data available so far.
Discussions about the vaccine’s risks for children aged 6 months to 5 years are likely to be even more fraught than the vehement disagreements over immunizing healthy adults or teenagers.
“There’s some people out there who don’t really feel that there’s convincing data that under-fives need to be vaccinated,” Dr. Maldonado said.
Even though most children are spared severe illness following infection, pediatric hospitals and I.C.U. units are overflowing, she added: “Why wouldn’t you want to prevent an infection that could potentially put your child in the I.C.U.?”
‘Hotel Rwanda’ Dissident Is Found Guilty of Forming a Terrorist Group
KIGALI, Rwanda — Paul Rusesabagina, the prominent dissident who was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda” was found guilty on Monday of forming an armed terrorist group in a monthslong case that drew international condemnation after government officials boasted about having tricked him into returning to Rwanda.
Mr. Rusesabagina was once praised for sheltering more than 1,200 people in the hotel he managed during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. But he gradually became one of the most high-profile critics of Rwanda’s longtime leader, Paul Kagame, calling out the president for his increasingly repressive rule. Mr. Kagame in turn accused Mr. Rusesabagina of profiting from invented stories about his heroism and of financing armed rebel groups to overthrow his government.
Mr. Rusesabagina was tried on nine charges, including forming an illegal armed group, kidnapping, arson and murder. Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi said, “The court finds that they should be found guilty for being part of this terrorist group.”
“They committed terror acts which they later bragged about in different announcements and videos,” the judge added.
Timothy P. Longman, a professor of political science and international affairs at Boston University and the author of two books on Rwanda, said, “This trial fits into a long history in Rwanda of silencing dissent.”
“The actual verdict in the Rusesabagina case is almost irrelevant at this point, because the message has been clearly sent that no Rwandan is safe to speak out against President Kagame and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front,” he added.
Mr. Rusesabagina boycotted the trial in March, saying he did not expect to find justice. He had been living in Texas last year when he was deceived by Rwandan government operatives into getting on a plane in Dubai that brought him to Kigali, the Rwandan capital. He says he was initially denied access to attorneys of his choosing, held in solitary confinement, tortured and interrogated in a secret detention center.
Mr. Rusesabagina and his lawyers have also contended that his rights to confidential communication and to prepare his defense have been repeatedly violated. The trial, which began in February, received widespread condemnation from Mr. Rusesabagina’s family, rights groups, legal associations, and European and American lawmakers. More than three dozen U.S. senators and representatives have urged Mr. Kagame to release him.
Mr. Rusesabagina decided not to attend the court’s session on Monday, according to one of his lawyers, Jean-Félix Rudakemwa. The Supreme Court complex, which is close to the president’s office, was packed with members of the diplomatic corps, lawyers, and security officials.
“It’s been so painful to watch this trial,” said Carine Kanimba, Mr. Rusesabagina’s daughter, who watched the proceedings online from Belgium. “We knew they would find him guilty. The script was written long before he entered the courtroom. This verdict means nothing.”
At the heart of Rwanda’s case against Mr. Rusesabagina was his leadership role in the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, a coalition of opposition groups in exile whose armed wing, the National Liberation Front, is accused of being responsible for attacks inside Rwanda that killed nine people. Mr. Rusesabagina was on trial with 20 other defendants, whom prosecutors described as fighters involved in carrying out those attacks in southern Rwanda.
The three-judge panel of the Rwandan High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes was expected to deliver its ruling in mid-August, but postponed without giving any reason.
The sentencing will herald a dismal chapter for a man lauded globally as a humanitarian and an activist who displayed courage amid a season of bloodletting.
Mr. Rusesabagina was the manager of the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali when the 1994 genocide began. As Hutu militiamen killed as many as one million people, Mr. Rusesabagina turned the hotel into a haven for 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus — using cash, alcohol and diplomacy to fend off the would-be killers.
Fearing for his safety in the years after the genocide, Mr. Rusesabagina sought political asylum in Belgium. His profile was raised after the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was released to critical acclaim, earning him global accolades including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005.
But it was Mr. Rusesabagina’s 2006 memoir, “An Ordinary Man,” that put him in direct conflict with Kigali. In it, he wrote that Mr. Kagame governed Rwanda “for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis,” and that the Central African nation had “a cosmetic democracy and a hollow system of justice.”
Soon after, Rwandan officials began accusing him of exaggerating his role during the genocide, as well as aiding anti-Rwanda rebel groups. After a series of threats and home intrusions in Brussels, he decided to move his family to the United States, settling in San Antonio, Texas.
It was from there that he boarded a flight in August last year, making his way to Chicago before catching an Emirates flight to Dubai. Afterward, he got on a private jet with Constantin Niyomwungere, a pastor whom he called his “friend” and who he said had invited him to speak to his churches in Burundi, Rwanda’s neighbor.
The two men had met numerous times before in Belgium, with Mr. Niyomwungere even visiting Mr. Rusesabagina’s home at least twice, Mr. Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, said in an interview.
What Mr. Rusesabagina didn’t know was that Mr. Niyomwungere was an agent for Rwandan intelligence and had been part of a setup to lure him to Rwanda. The private jet, operated by the Greece-based Charter firm GainJet and paid for by the Rwandan government, landed in Kigali on Aug. 28, 2020. Upon landing, Mr. Rusesabagina was tied up, blindfolded and arrested.
In December, Mr. Rusesabagina and his family sued the air charter company in the United States, alleging that it was complicit in his kidnap.
For days, he was held at a location he described as a “slaughterhouse” where he remained bound, unable to properly breathe or use the bathroom, according to an affidavit from one of his Rwandan lawyers, Mr. Rudakemwa.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that the arrest amounted to an enforced disappearance, a violation of international law.
The Rwandan authorities denied that Mr. Rusesabagina was mistreated and said that he was going to Burundi to liaise with rebel groups based there and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. But Rwandan officials did not hide their glee in apprehending Mr. Rusesabagina. Rwanda’s spy chief, Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, said in an interview with The New York Times that it had been a “very flawless” and “wonderful intelligence operation.”
The trial officially began in February after the court rejected Mr. Rusesabagina’s argument that he could not be tried in Rwanda because he was no longer a citizen. A Belgian citizen and a permanent resident of the United States, he was denied bail even though his family and lawyers raised concerns about his poor health.
In March, he said he would no longer participate in the trial because he did not expect it to be fair. As late as Friday, his lawyers said that the prison authorities were continuing to subject them to searches, prohibit them from taking documents into their meetings and had confiscated confidential and privileged legal materials related to the case — an issue that Rwanda’s immediate former attorney general inadvertently admitted on a video recording.
Kate Gibson, Mr. Rusesabagina’s lead counsel, said, “Any one of these violations would prompt an independent judiciary to permanently stay the proceedings against an accused.”
As the trial progressed, some of Mr. Rusesabagina’s co-defendants recanted their testimony against him, saying that he had never belonged to a rebel group or ordered attacks. Among them was Callixte Nsabimana, the armed group’s former spokesman, who was brought to Rwanda from Comoros under mysterious circumstances in 2019.
In June, Mr. Rusesabagina’s international defense team said that the authorities had told him they would stop his access to food, water and medicine — a move that, they believed, was meant to pressure him to return to trial. The Rwandan authorities said he was being treated like other inmates and had access to meals and a medical doctor.
Recently released from solitary confinement after 258 days, Mr. Rusesabagina has been attending church on Saturdays, taking short daily walks, talking to his family once a week and reading books sent by family members. But his interaction with inmates is very limited, Mr. Rudakemwa, his lawyer, said.
“No one is allowed to talk to him,” he said. “It’s like another isolation.”
The State of Covid in the U.S.
pandemic. But this is also a moment when the Covid-19 data is unusually tricky to read. In today’s newsletter, I’ll try to make sense of it, with help from four charts created by my colleague Ashley Wu.
On the one hand, the country may be on the verge of a virtuous cycle of declining cases. Although scientists don’t understand why, Covid has often followed a two-month cycle: When cases begin rising in a country, they often do so for about two months, before starting to decline. In the U.S., the Delta wave began in early July, a bit more than two months ago.
On the other hand, schools across the country have recently reopened, and some other activities — like crowded college football games and Broadway plays — have restarted. All this socializing has led some epidemiologists to predict that cases could surge this month.
Right now, it is hard to figure out what’s happening from the much-watched charts that track daily Covid cases. Those charts have recently been messy because of Labor Day. With testing centers and laboratories closed for the holiday weekend, cases plunged artificially during the long weekend, before surging — also artificially — in the days after. As a result, the seven-day average of Covid cases (the measure that many trackers highlight) has been distorted for much of this month.
We have tried to smooth over the fluctuations by reassigning some of the positive tests from the day after Labor Day to the holiday itself. We kept the total number of confirmed cases the same but imagined that they followed a more normal weekly pattern (which is probably closer to reality).
You can see the result in the dotted line below:
Our adjusted line does not fully eliminate the Labor Day noise, but it does offer a clearer picture. And that picture is encouraging. The number of new cases has fallen more than 10 percent since Sept. 1.
The state-by-state data is consistent with that trend. In some states where the Delta wave struck early, like California, Florida and Missouri, cases have been falling for even longer. In states where Delta arrived later, like Colorado and Massachusetts, the wave has begun to show signs of cresting.
The data on hospitalizations, which can be more reliable than the cases data, is also consistent with it. The seven-day average of the number of hospitalized Americans peaked on Sept. 3 and has since fallen about 7 percent:
The most likely scenario seems to be that the Delta wave has peaked in the U.S., after slightly more than two months of rising cases and hospitalizations. (Here is The Morning’s longer explanation of Covid’s mysterious two-month cycle.)
Worse than Europe
Still, there are two important caveats to the encouraging trends.
One, the current Covid situation remains terrible in much of the U.S. Hospitals in the Mountain West, Southeast and Appalachia are filled with Covid patients. Doctors and nurses are overwhelmed and exhausted. The number of nationwide Covid deaths — which typically lags the trends in new cases by a few weeks — has continued rising recently. About 2,000 Americans are dying every day.
The situation here is worse than in almost any other country. The U.S. death rate over the past two weeks, adjusted for population, is more than twice as high as Britain’s, more than seven times as high as Canada’s and more than 10 times as high as Germany’s. If Mississippi were its own country, it would have one of the world’s worst total death tolls per capita, CNN’s Jake Tapper noted yesterday.
Why? One reason is that the U.S. — after getting off to an excellent start — now trails many of these countries in Covid vaccination rate. Almost one in four American adults still has not received a shot. The unvaccinated continue to be disproportionately people without a college degree and Republican voters.
The vaccines radically reduce the chances of serious Covid illness, and deaths are occurring overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated. Yet many people have chosen to leave themselves unprotected. It’s a modern tragedy, caused by the widespread distrust that Americans feel toward society’s major institutions and exacerbated by online disinformation.
The second caveat is that the encouraging trends of the past couple of weeks are not guaranteed to continue.
Covid’s two-month cycle is not a scientific law. There have been exceptions to it, and there will be more. Maybe those packed football games will cause new outbreaks that are not yet visible in the data. Or maybe the onset of colder weather or some mysterious force will lead case numbers to rebound in coming weeks. The pandemic has spent almost two years surprising people, often for the worse. As my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli has written, Covid has given everybody a crash course in scientific uncertainty.
For now, the best summary may be that Covid is both an unnecessarily bad crisis in the U.S. and one that appears to be slowly becoming a little less bad. If recent history repeats itself — a big if — U.S. cases will keep declining during the early autumn.
More on the virus:
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‘The Power of the Dog’ and more
Founded in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival has a democratic spirit. It is intended for the general public, while festivals like Cannes are invitation-only. “It’s just a flood of movies — good, bad and indifferent,” writes Manohla Dargis, a Times film critic who attended this year’s Toronto festival, which wrapped this weekend.
Highlights included “Flee,” a beautifully animated documentary about an Afghan refugee; “Hold Your Fire,” a jaw-dropper about a decades-old American hostage crisis; Benedict Cumberbatch as a 1920s Montana cowboy in “The Power of the Dog”; and “Becoming Cousteau,” about the underwater French explorer.
Manohla’s favorite film from the festival, “The Tsugua Diaries,” was shot during the pandemic and is about “friendship and the deep, life-sustaining pleasures of being with other people.” — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
The pangram from Friday’s Spelling Bee was carrying. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Plucky spirit (five letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. Amy Fiscus, The Times’s national security editor, is joining The Morning’s team and will oversee the launch of our weekend editions.