News Brief: U.S.-Taliban Talks, Opioid Negotiations, Dorian Aftermath

Originally published on September 9, 2019 8:08 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

After 18 years and nearly 150,000 lives lost, the United States seemed closer than ever to ending the war in Afghanistan after months of negotiations with the Taliban. But then, in a tweet, President Trump called this off.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. President Trump said he was canceling a planned summit with Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, and leaders of the Taliban. And it was supposed to have happened yesterday at Camp David, just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

GREENE: NPR's Diaa Hadid has been following all of this. She's based in Pakistan and joins us. Hi there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Do you mind starting with the substance here? Like, what were these negotiations about? What did it look like that might result from it all?

HADID: Right. So these negotiations, they appeared to be finalized, according to the Taliban spokesperson for negotiations. And roughly, it would have begun with about 5,000 American troops withdrawing within five months from Afghanistan and shutting down five military bases. And there would have been more phased withdrawals after that.

The Taliban were meant to agree that they - to commit that they wouldn't allow foreign militant groups to plot terror attacks in Afghanistan and that they would sit with other Afghans to chart out a political future for the country. And that was set for September 23, that meeting. But now that doesn't look like it will happen either.

GREENE: Well, I mean, doesn't look like that's going to happen, but sounds like they were also meant to meet with President Trump earlier. Is that right?

HADID: It's a remarkable and unconfirmed detail. The Taliban said that they'd actually been invited to meet President Trump at the end of August. But they'd refused on the basis that they wanted to sign an agreement first. And that's what led us to this meeting that was meant to happen on Sunday.

GREENE: I mean, we should say the idea of hosting the Taliban on U.S. soil is kind of stunning and totally unprecedented. Right?

HADID: It's absolutely unprecedented. And it was met with criticism even among those in the president's party. And a handful of Republican members of Congress did speak out over the weekend. And they were incredibly critical of the idea of hosting the Taliban. This would have also been shocking for Afghans. Consider the national security forces, who were tasked with keeping the country together once foreign forces leave. More than 45,000 of them were killed over the past five years, largely at the hands of the Taliban. And it's hard to imagine how they would have perceived the president of the United States feting the very people who'd been out killing them.

GREENE: Well - so what happens now? I mean, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the Taliban has failed to live up to commitments they had made. I mean, is that why these talks have broken down?

HADID: Well, so Pompeo's referring to the last Thursday bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including the American servicemen. But there was no commitment that we know of for the Taliban to halt attacks during the negotiations. In fact, there were deadlier attacks by the Taliban during this period, but they largely killed Afghan civilians. And those attacks had even seemed to have stepped up as the talks were winding down. And that could have been for leverage or for optics - to show their people that they had kicked out the Americans.

But there was also growing political pressure on the - on President Trump by people like Senator Lindsey Graham and former ambassadors who'd served in Kabul, warning them that this deal risked igniting a total civil war.

GREENE: Wow. OK. That's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Pakistan covering these negotiations that have been called off by President Trump for now that were supposed to happen, it sounds like, in Camp David over the weekend.

Diaa, thanks so much.

HADID: You're welcome. Thank you, David.

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GREENE: All right. The effort to hold drugmakers responsible for the country's opioid crisis accountable has intensified over the last year.

MARTIN: A lot of the focus has been on a company called Purdue Pharma. This is the company that produced the opioid medication OxyContin. They are facing 2,000 lawsuits across the country alleging that they fueled the crisis. So the company has been in negotiations with state attorney generals (ph) to reach some kind of settlement. Now, though, it turns out those talks have reached a stalemate, and Purdue Pharma is expected to file for bankruptcy.

GREENE: North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has been covering all the various chapters in this opioid litigation for NPR and joins me on Skype. Hi there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what exactly were these talks meant to accomplish here with Purdue Pharma?

MANN: Yeah. So this is a very complicated moment when the company and its owners, members of the Sackler family, have signaled that they want a national settlement, something that would cap their total liability for their role in this epidemic. We've heard payouts could run as high as $10 billion to $12 billion. But in this latest round of talks, state attorneys general demanded that the Sacklers commit to paying roughly $4.5 billion out of their own personal fortunes as part of the compensation. The attorneys general say the Sacklers refused to give that commitment.

Here's Josh Stein. He's attorney general for the state of North Carolina.

JOSH STEIN: We needed more security on the part of the Sacklers that the money that they were pledging, they would, in fact, pay. And we didn't have that commitment, and the Sacklers rejected those proposals. The deal was there to be made, and they refused. And so this is where we find ourselves.

GREENE: OK, where they find themselves - where do they find themselves? I mean, what happens now that the Sacklers are refusing here?

MANN: Right. So Stein and other members of his negotiating team predict Purdue Pharma will now file for bankruptcy protection imminently. In an email they sent Saturday that was obtained by NPR, they said states across the U.S. are already preparing for that bankruptcy to happen. Purdue has signaled in the past bankruptcy is one option they're considering. The company's declined to say whether this is, in fact, imminent. But Purdue Pharma did send NPR a statement last night saying they still hope to negotiate some kind of deal. In fact, they say talks with some government officials, possibly local government leaders, are continuing.

GREENE: But if you have been victimized in the opioid crisis, if you are someone like a state suing this company, you hear the word bankruptcy and - I mean, that could have a lot of implications for whether these lawsuits might go forward. Right?

MANN: Yeah, this could be chaos. I mean, it might take years to sort out in bankruptcy what assets remain, what their value is and then who's first in line for compensation. Meanwhile, these lawsuits are happening fast. A major federal trial involving Purdue Pharma and 20 other drug companies is scheduled for next month in Ohio.

GREENE: And Brian, just remind me about the Sacklers. I mean, they are probably one of the richest and also most controversial families in the United States. I mean, what happens to them here?

MANN: Yeah. So there's a legal argument being made by some states that the Sacklers effectively stripped billions of dollars out of Purdue Pharma over the years, and now they want to claw some of that money back. Here, again, is Josh Stein - he's attorney general in North Carolina - saying they're going to be suing the Sacklers directly.

STEIN: Many states, like mine, will be filing lawsuits against the Sacklers in their individual capacity. I think almost more than any other family and company, they have to wear that burden.

MANN: Yeah. So basically what we're hearing is that the legal trouble - even if bankruptcy happens, the legal troubles for the Sacklers, those are very likely to continue.

GREENE: Brian Mann has been covering the opioid litigation for NPR. Brian, thanks as always.

MANN: Thank you, David.

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GREENE: All right. We're going to turn now to the Bahamas again. We have a reporting team from NPR on the ground there reporting on the communities that were just devastated by Hurricane Dorian.

MARTIN: Yeah. A week after the storm made landfall, conditions are growing increasingly dire. Food is scarce. Water and other supplies are rapidly running out as residents on the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama are just desperately waiting to get evacuated. And it's not clear when they'll come back, if they're ever going to come back. The death toll now stands at 44 people, and that is expected to rise.

GREENE: NPR's Jason Beaubien has been leading our reporting team there and joins me now. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So you, as I understand it, are just outside Marsh Harbour. That's the real commercial hub on the Abaco Islands, right? I mean, just take us there. What are you seeing? And how are people still there even holding up?

BEAUBIEN: I - people, especially here, are really trying to get out, particularly more here, I think, than on Grand Bahama. Marsh Harbour is completely flattened. You know, you look around, there - you don't even see any houses that didn't suffer damage. A lot of things are just completely destroyed. And it's even hard to find people. It's actually interesting.

Over the time we've been here, things have gotten sort of calmer because there are fewer and fewer people around. This is an island of 17,000 people. Thousands have already left. One official I've managed to find was a guy who used to be the head of the chamber of commerce, this guy Vado Bootle. And he's basically saying that, you know, nothing is operating here right now.

VADO BOOTLE, SR: Zero commerce - zero commerce at this time. There's nothing. You can't buy water. You can have as much money as you want; you can't buy anything here.

BEAUBIEN: He is saying that - and that is an accurate description. You cannot buy anything. There are no stores open whatsoever, so everything is going to have to be brought in.

GREENE: All right. So zero commerce, it's hard to find even people. Are there recovery efforts happening? I mean, are you seeing some activity in that regard at all?

BEAUBIEN: All right. So at this point, this has moved over to, you know, search and rescue teams going door to door searching for bodies. They are going - there's some teams out of Gainesville, Fla., teaming up with the Bahamian police, and they're going in. And they are blunt about it, that they are going and they are just smelling for the smell of rotting corpses at this point. And if they believe that bodies are in there, they mark it in a certain way; if not, they mark them clear and they move on to the next one.

I was talking to one Bahamian police officer yesterday. He says they expect more heavy equipment to help them in some of the areas that are - they know there are bodies hidden inside some of this rubble. And they're going to try to get them out of there.

GREENE: I mean, I just think about what you're describing and a community suffering through this. There's no sign that these storms are going to get any less destructive in coming years - maybe worse - just the scale of what you're seeing. Like, is it feasible for islands like this to recovery - to recover, like, every few years if they have to go through this?

BEAUBIEN: I mean, absolutely this is one of the questions that's out here is, like - how do you deal with a time when you might be getting more and more storms like this? You know, this is going to take years for Abaco and for Grand Bahama to recover. And yeah, it's the new reality.

GREENE: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien, who is part of an NPR reporting team. He's talking to us from Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Thank you, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "REFLECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.