Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: June 21, 2021

Taliban fighters retake key Afghan towns, Claudette regains strength after killing 13, and more

1

Taliban retakes 2 Afghan provincial capitals

Taliban fighters entered two northern Afghanistan provincial capitals on Sunday to cap an offensive in which they captured hundreds of government forces and seized their equipment in recent weeks. One of the capitals the Taliban seized was Kunduz, which they took over briefly in 2015 and 2016 before being driven out by U.S. airstrikes, and U.S. and Afghan government forces. "Right now, I hear the sound of bullets," said Amruddin Wali, a member of Kunduz's provincial council. "The Taliban have appeared in the alleys and back alleys of Kunduz, and there is panic all over the city." The insurgent victories came as U.S. and international troops mostly concentrated in Kabul prepare to leave the country this summer, leaving Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban without international combat support.

2

Claudette regains tropical storm strength after killing 13

Thirteen people died in incidents blamed on Tropical Storm Claudette, which swept across the South over the weekend. Ten of the victims were killed in a fiery crash on a wet interstate in Alabama — eight had been riding in a van from Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, a youth home for abused or neglected children. The crash on Interstate 65 appeared to have occurred when vehicles hydroplaned on the wet highway, authorities said. The storm went through northern Georgia and the Carolinas after coming ashore on the Gulf Coast, raising the threat of tornadoes in Alabama. It was downgraded to a tropical depression but regained tropical storm strength as it neared the North Carolina coast early Monday. 

3

Report: Iranian nuclear plant shuts down as talks paused

Iranian state TV reported that the country's lone nuclear power plant underwent an emergency shutdown over the weekend. The shutdown of the plant, which is in the southern port city of Bushehr, is expected to last "three to four days," an official from the state electric company Tavanir said Sunday. Iran opened the plant in 2011 with Russia's help. This is the first emergency shutdown Tehran has reported. The report occurred as Iran and Western officials announced a pause in their negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal after Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner and harsh critic of the West, won Iran's presidential election. Raisi will replace Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist whose government struck the landmark deal under which Tehran promised to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

4

Ex-FDA chief warns COVID cases could surge if vaccination rate falls

Former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb warned Sunday that coronavirus infections could surge this fall if vaccination rates drop. If only 76 percent of the eligible U.S. population is vaccinated, one projection forecasts that infections could reach 20 percent of last winter's peak, Gottlieb said on CBS's Face the Nation. Gottlieb said he didn't "think it'll be quite that dire," but he said states with low vaccination rates already were experiencing rising new cases, particularly with the spreading of the highly contagious "delta" variant. "So Connecticut, for example, where I am, shows no upsurge of infection, but Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri show very substantial upsurges of infections. That's based entirely on how much population-wide immunity you have based on vaccination," he said.

5

American Airlines cuts flights to ease strains

American Airlines said Sunday it was canceling 950 flights, or about 1 percent of its schedule, in the first half of July to ease strains on its operations as travel demand bounces back faster than expected from the coronavirus-induced decline. American said the change would help avoid disruptions during the heavy summer travel season and "minimize surprises at the airport." The news came as staffing shortages and maintenance issues forced the company to cancel about 200 flights over Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The airline said it aimed to pick the flights it was canceling to inconvenience the smallest number of customers possible. Companies that provide catering, fueling, and other services for airlines face staff shortages as they try to get up to full speed.

6

Sullivan: U.S. preparing more sanctions against Russia

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the Biden administration was readying more sanctions against Russia over the poisoning attack that nearly killed jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. "We are preparing another package of sanctions to apply in this case," Sullivan said on CNN's State of the Union, adding that the measures would be announced "as soon as we develop the packages to ensure that we're getting the right targets." Sullivan said the U.S. also would impose sanctions over chemical weapons. The Biden administration imposed its first sanctions over Navalny's poisoning in April, although they did not target Russian President Vladimir Putin or his associates directly. Sullivan's comments came days after President Biden and Putin had a meeting in Geneva they both described as positive.

7

GOP's Portman: Manchin voting reform compromise a federal election 'takeover'

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on Sunday called Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-W.Va.) compromise federal voting rights proposal, which he outlined in a memo circulated to lawmakers last week, a "federal takeover of the election system." Manchin's plan, which includes a ban on partisan gerrymandering, was intended to be an alternative to a sweeping bill his fellow Democrats are pushing to counter voting restrictions passed in several Republican-controlled states. "What he's saying to the state of Ohio ... [is] 'We're gonna decide how redistricting is done, we're gonna take away it away from the democracy in effect,'" Portman said, referring to the proposed gerrymandering restrictions. Some Democrats praised Manchin's blueprint, but Portman's comments fueled expectations that Republicans would have the votes to block the legislation with a filibuster.

8

Macron's party falls short in French regional elections

French President Emmanuel Macron's centrist La République en Marche party suffered a brutal defeat in French regional elections on Sunday, according to an exit poll by Elabe. Macron's candidates won just 10.9 percent of the vote, apparently failing to qualify for the second round of balloting in some regions. Mainstream left-wing parties won 34 percent of the vote, while their right-wing rivals got 29 percent. The far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen fell short of expectations, picking up 19 percent. The elections were seen as an early sign of the country's mood ahead of next year's national elections. In the northern Hauts-de-France region, conservative presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand took 41 percent of the vote, and boasted that he had "broken the jaws" of the National Rally, which got 26 percent.

9

Japan sets limit on Olympic spectators 

Olympic organizers announced Monday that they would allow spectators at the Tokyo Summer Games, with a cap of 10,000 or 50 percent of a venue's capacity. But Olympic officials, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said that spectators still might be banned altogether if conditions regarding the spread of the coronavirus get dramatically worse. "I think that's obvious from the standpoint of making safety and security our utmost priority," Suga said, according to the Kyodo News Agency. The news came after a vaccinated member of Uganda's team tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in Japan on Saturday. It was the first coronavirus case reported among the first athletes to arrive ahead of the Games, which are scheduled to start July 23.

10

Jon Rahm wins U.S. Open

Jon Rahm won the U.S. Open on Sunday, overtaking Louis Oosthuizen with back-to-back birdies on the last two holes to win his first major golf tournament. The victory came in Rahm's first event since testing positive for the coronavirus. Rahm, who is ranked No. 3 in the world, is the first Spaniard to take a U.S. Open title. He finished with a 4-under-par 67 in the final round to eke out a one-shot victory and end a six-year winning streak for American golfers. Rahm, 26, cradled his 3-month-old son, Kepa, after walking off the 18th green. "Little man, you have no idea what this means right now," Rahm said to his son. "You will soon enough."

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