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News Brief: The President In Afghanistan, U.S. Hong Kong Policy


The United States is once again talking with the Taliban about a pathway to peace.


President Trump said so, anyway, during a Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan. Traveling with no advance notice for security reasons, the president arrived at Bagram Airfield - that's a big U.S. base outside Kabul. The president passed out Thanksgiving meals to U.S. troops, met Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, and asserted this about the Taliban.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They want to make a deal, so we'll see what happens. If they make it, fine. If they don't make it, that's fine. We're going to be able to do everything we're doing and, actually, more. And at the same time, we're bringing down the number of troops substantially.

INSKEEP: The president's talk of negotiating with the Taliban comes a few months after an effort to make a deal fell apart.

MARTIN: For more, we've got NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman - is following all of this and joins us now. Hi, Tom.


MARTIN: So this was President Trump's first trip to Afghanistan, we should say. Why this moment?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, it was Thanksgiving. And presidents and other senior government officials have often visited troops overseas during the holidays. And also, the president's never been to Afghanistan before, as you said. He's traveled to Iraq. So I'm sure advisers have been pushing for this because Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is an ongoing war and, of course, right now the longest war in American history.

MARTIN: Right. So, I mean, it would be opportune to have this trip coincide with the resumption of peace talks, but do we know if that's actually happening?

BOWMAN: Well, what we know is that there've been informal talks in Doha, Qatar, with the Taliban. And now, as the president said and others have said, they expect to have formal talks begin at some point in Doha, Qatar. So...

MARTIN: So is that what's new? He's saying, we're going to start them again?

BOWMAN: It appears to be what's new. The American envoy for the peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been shuttling around. He's in Pakistan, talking with officials there. So it looks like talks will begin once again.

MARTIN: But how do we know (laughter) this is - again, the peace talks, as Steve noted, a few months ago fell apart in dramatic fashion. I mean, there were representatives from the Taliban who were already on their way to the United States to go to Camp David for this big event. And then the president said, we're stopping.

BOWMAN: Right. The president planned to have the Taliban negotiators, again, at Camp David to sign a peace deal. That surprised many analysts. But he then abruptly canceled the meeting at Camp David because - what he said were continued Taliban attacks, including one that killed an American soldier. So again, this is all - you know, it's all uncertain, really. Again, preliminary talks - will there be formal talks? I guess, as the president would say, we'll wait and see.

MARTIN: Right. Do we have any indication as to whether or not the Taliban and the central government in Afghanistan led by the democratically elected Ashraf Ghani - I mean, is there any common ground there? Because that's really the key, right?

BOWMAN: Well, the only common ground, really, is everybody wants to see a reduction in violence in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties have risen dramatically over the past year. The Americans are hitting the Taliban hard, hoping to bring them to the table. And the Taliban are responding in kind. So, you know, they are far apart. The Taliban want all American troops out of Afghanistan. And what the Americans want is the Taliban to renounce violence, to reduce attacks, maybe have a cease-fire and basically also turn their back on support for any terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaida, which is what started the war in the first place.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom. We appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel.


MARTIN: Some people in Hong Kong are singing a song Americans know well.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Whose broad stripes and bright stars through...

MARTIN: This after President Trump signed two bills supporting the pro-democracy movement this week.

INSKEEP: Yeah. People in Hong Kong staged a so-called Thanksgiving rally downtown to thank the United States. Beijing reacted rather differently to the U.S. legislation by summoning the U.S. ambassador and demanding a halt to what Chinese mainland authorities see as U.S. interference in domestic affairs.

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Emily Feng on the line from Beijing this morning. Hi, Emily.


MARTIN: So first, let's just explain what these two bills - now laws - what do they do?

FENG: Right. One of them mandates an annual review of Hong Kong's autonomy from China. And it stakes the city's trade status with the U.S. on it. And the reason why that's a big deterrence is because Hong Kong's special trading status with the U.S. allows the city - and thus China - preferential access to U.S. markets, U.S. companies, just as if Hong Kong were a separate country while still technically being part of China.

And the second bill bars the sale of munitions to Hong Kong police - things like tear gas and rubber bullets, which have been used in larger and larger quantities against protesters. Here in Beijing, though, Chinese officials are really unhappy, to say the least. They see the two bills as interference in China's domestic politics. And they have used strong language to back that up. They've called the bills, quote, "hegemonic" and the intentions behind them, quote, "malicious."

MARTIN: I mean, what will be the practical effect of this legislation? I mean, is this expected to significantly help protesters?

FENG: It really depends on who you ask. Virtually all pro-democracy advocates support the bill signed this week because they see it as an efficient deterrence against China. I talked to Andy Chan (ph). He's one of Hong Kong's more radical independence activists. But he summarizes the reason for their support well.

ANDY CHAN: China needs Hong Kong more than Hong Kong needs China. At the beginning it seems nothing, but it will create a chain reaction. And it just implode the economic crisis in China.

FENG: So they're making a really risky bluff here. They're betting that China will not interfere in Hong Kong because it needs Hong Kong economically. But a lot of critics point out Hong Kong's economy is also not doing well. It's actually officially in a recession, largely due to the ongoing protests. And losing that trade status it has with the U.S. would completely tank its economy. Even just threatening to take away the trade status already makes Hong Kong a riskier place to invest. And if Hong Kong doesn't have that status, it doesn't make it special anymore compared to a Chinese city. So if you were a foreign business, you may as well just set up shop in mainland China rather than Hong Kong.

MARTIN: I mean, speaking of bluffs, how serious are Beijing's threats to retaliate against the U.S. for passing these laws?

FENG: They've made really vague threats saying they'll, quote, "take countermeasures" against the U.S. for the bills. But they've kept those threats intentionally vague. And that's a strategy they use, to use ambiguity as a method of intimidation. I think that they're just waiting to see what the U.S. does. And they'll calibrate their response to that.

MARTIN: And what about the trade talks? I mean, how does this play into it, if at all?

FENG: The U.S. and China have signaled that they are not linking trade talks with human rights in Hong Kong. But something to look out for is one of the bills Trump signed does say the president can sanction Chinese officials who violate human rights in Hong Kong. That would be a huge step. And it's, perhaps, one that the president isn't willing to take.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng for us this morning. Emily, we appreciate it.

FENG: Thank you.


MARTIN: The University of Farmington in Michigan billed itself as an innovative learning hub for science and technology students. It even had a scholarly Latin motto - scientia et labor - knowledge and work. There was just one problem - the school was fake.

INSKEEP: A fake university created by the Department of Homeland Security, all to lure immigrant students who were in the U.S. on student visas and looking for ways to stay. This sting took place in January. The Detroit Free Press has the details, reporting that the Immigration Customs Enforcement arrested recruiters and dozens of students. Now, according to ICE, 250 students have been arrested on immigration violations in connection with the operation. And many students have already been deported.

MARTIN: Niraj Warikoo has been covering this story for the Detroit Free Press and joins us now. Good morning.

NIRAJ WARIKOO: Good morning.

MARTIN: So this is very confusing. Can you please explain how this worked? The U.S. government was luring in potential students and then arresting them for visa violations?

WARIKOO: Correct. In 2015, federal agents with the Department of Homeland Security created this fictitious university in a Detroit suburb called Farmington Hills. And the university's name was the University of Farmington. They had websites. They had a Facebook page all saying that this is a legitimate university. They even said it on the government's website that this is approved by the U.S. government. And they had an accreditation agency also say that it's an OK university.

MARTIN: Who enrolled?

WARIKOO: Most of the students were from India, specifically from Telugu-speaking regions. Word kind of spread in that community once a few enrolled that it was a good place to be or a place where you could get CPT training - CPT stands for curricular practical training that some foreign students do.

MARTIN: But I guess what I don't understand - these were not illegal immigrants until the United States government made them so, right?

WARIKOO: Correct. They arrived legally on student visas, and they were in status up until the time they were arrested. And then the U.S. government said, of course, well, this university is not legitimate because it's our university. Therefore, you're out of status, and you're no longer here legally.

MARTIN: So - but still, is the U.S. government's position that these students should have known better - that it was a fake university, but they didn't cover up the fakeness of it very well and that there were these tells the students should have been able to anticipate?

WARIKOO: Yeah. Federal prosecutors have argued in court that the students should have known because there were not on-site classes. But in some cases in other university, they have online classes. And in other cases, the students did inquire to say, hey, when are you going to have the on-site classes?

And the university kept saying, oh, well, it's coming. Or they gave various excuses for it. And even some did transfer out. But even those who transferred out from the university were still arrested and are facing legal problems. So even those who recognized there might be an issue are still now in trouble.

MARTIN: I mean, we only have a couple seconds left. Where did their tuition money go? And what happens to these students?

WARIKOO: Right. So millions of dollars may have been spent on tuition, and it went to the Department of Homeland Security. Now 80% of the 250 students have been deported...


WARIKOO: ...Or left through voluntary departure. And about 10% are fighting it in the court system.

MARTIN: In the courts. OK. We have to leave it there. Niraj Warikoo of the Detroit Free Press. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.

WARIKOO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.