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U.S. military leaders favored keeping troops in Afghanistan

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U.S. military leaders favored keeping troops in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — In their first congressional testimony on the tumultuous final months of America’s longest war, top U.S. military officers on Tuesday acknowledged misjudging the fragility of Afghanistan’s army and said they believed the U.S. should have kept at least several thousand troops in the country to prevent a rapid takeover by the Taliban.

Without saying what advice he had given President Joe Biden last spring when Biden was considering whether to keep any troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee it was his personal opinion that at least 2,500 were needed to guard against a collapse of the Kabul government.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command had overseen the final months of the U.S. war, said he agreed with Milley’s assessment. He also declined to say what he had recommended to Biden.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Milley why he did not choose to resign after his advice was rejected.

Milley, who was appointed to his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Donald Trump and retained by Biden, said it was his responsibility to provide the commander in chief with his best advice.

“The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice,” Milley said. “He doesn’t have to make those decisions just because we are generals. And it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to resign just because my advice was not taken.”

Testifying alongside Milley and McKenzie, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin defended the military’s execution of a frantic airlift from Kabul and asserted it will be “difficult but absolutely possible” to contain future threats from Afghanistan without troops on the ground. Under questioning, he, too, declined to say what advice he had given Biden about whether to make a full troop withdrawal.

Milley cited “a very real possibility” that al-Qaida or the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate could reconstitute in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and present a terrorist threat to the United States in the next 12 to 36 months.

It was al-Qaida’s use of Afghanistan as a base from which to plan and execute its attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan a month later.

“And we must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida,” Milley said. “I have no illusions who we are dealing with. It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war.”

Austin questioned decisions made over the 20-year course of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In retrospect, he said, the American government may have put too much faith in its ability to build a viable Afghan government.

“We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise. It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”

Asked why the United States did not foresee the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, Milley said that in his judgment the U.S. military lost its ability to see and understand the true condition of the Afghan forces when it ended the practice some years ago of having advisers alongside the Afghans on the battlefield.

“You can’t measure the human heart with a machine, you have to be there,” Milley said.

Austin acknowledged shortcomings in the final airlift from Hamid Karzai International Airport that began Aug. 14, such as an initial wave of violence at and near the airfield that led to multiple deaths of Afghan civilians. But he asserted that the airlift was a historic accomplishment that removed 124,000 people from Taliban rule.

“To be clear, those first two days were difficult,” said Austin, who is a veteran of the war. “We all watched with alarm the images of Afghans rushing the runway and our aircraft. We all remember the scenes of confusion outside the airport. But within 48 hours, our troops restored order, and process began to take hold.”

The Biden administration faces criticism on multiple fronts for its handling of the final months of the war.

Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services panel, told Austin and Milley that the withdrawal and evacuation amounted to an “avoidable disaster.”

Republicans in particular have intensified their attacks on President Joe Biden’s decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by Aug. 30, saying it left the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism. They are demanding more details on the suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 13 American service members in the final days of the withdrawal.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command oversaw the withdrawal, testified alongside Austin and Milley.

Inhofe has peppered the Pentagon with a lengthy list of questions about multiple aspects of the withdrawal, including the suicide bombing on Aug. 26 at Kabul’s international airport that killed some 169 Afghans in addition to the American service members. He also is demanding information about decision making over the summer as it became apparent that the Taliban were overwhelming U.S.-backed Afghan forces.

“We need a full accounting of every factor and decision that led us to where we are today and a real plan for defending America moving forward,” Inhofe wrote last week.

The withdrawal ended the longest war in U.S. history. The Biden administration, and some Democrats in Congress, have argued that former President Donald Trump bears some of the blame for the war ending in a Taliban victory, since his administration signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that promised a full American withdrawal by May 2021. They also have pointed to a yearslong U.S. failure to build an Afghan military that could stand up to the Taliban.

“This is not a Democratic or a Republican problem. These failures have been manifesting over four presidential administrations of both political parties,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I, said the day after the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15.

Although Tuesday’s hearing was scheduled to focus on Afghanistan, other topics were sure to come up, including Milley’s actions during the final months of Trump’s presidency.

Some in Congress have accused Milley of disloyalty for what the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, reported as assurances to a Chinese general that the U.S. had no plan to attack China, and that if it did, Milley would warn him in advance. In the days following news accounts of the book’s reporting, Milley declined to comment in detail, instead telling reporters that he would lay out his answers directly to Congress. His only comments have been that the calls with the Chinese were routine and within the duties and responsibilities of his job.

Both Milley and Austin have defended the U.S. military’s execution of an Afghanistan withdrawal that Biden ordered in April. The pullout was largely completed by early July, but several hundred troops were kept in Kabul, along with some defensive equipment, to protect a U.S. diplomatic presence in the capital. The State Department initially said the diplomats would remain after the military withdrawal was completed by Aug. 31, but when the Afghan forces collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving the Taliban in charge, a frantic evacuation began.

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COVID boosters: Who’s eligible to receive additional Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines

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Boosters, employer mandates drive increase in U.S. COVID vaccines

Coloradans who received COVID-19 vaccines produced by Moderna or Johnson & Johnson have been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get booster shots under certain conditions, greatly expanding the pool of who can get additional doses.

In August, the CDC approved boosters for people who have suppressed immune systems. A month later came approval for certain people who’d received the Pfizer vaccine.

In addition to approval for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters, the CDC authorized a “mix and match” approach to the shots, noting people may get a different type of vaccine for their booster than their original shot.

The authorization kicks in immediately for anyone eligible to receive boosters.

“For many Coloradans, a booster dose is an important part of maintaining the greatest protection against COVID-19,” said Dr. Eric France, the state’s chief medical officer, in a news release. “People who are eligible should get their booster dose as soon as possible, especially as we approach the holidays and look forward to safely celebrating with our families and friends.”

The state health department said Colorado has “ample inventory” to provide booster shots to those who are eligible while still administering first and second doses to people completing their initial vaccine series.

Eligible Coloradans can receive free COVID-19 vaccines or boosters at any of the more than 1,700 vaccine providers across the state or at one of the state’s mobile vaccination clinics, officials said. No insurance, identification, proof of residency, or proof of medical history is required.

Here’s who is eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccination booster shots:

Immunocompromised people

Late this summer, the CDC approved booster shots for people who had been inoculated with Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and have suppressed immune systems. But the agency declined to authorize the additional doses for the full population.

People qualify for additional doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines because they’re immunocompromised if they:

  • Had an organ transplant at any time, or a recent stem cell transplant
  • Are being treated for cancer
  • Were born with a compromised immune system
  • Have uncontrolled HIV
  • Are being treated with high doses of immune-suppressing drugs
  • Have another condition that can severely affect the immune system, like chronic kidney disease

The CDC’s authorization of additional doses for people who are immunocompromised did not include Johnson & Johnson, but boosters of that vaccine are now allowed for anyone above the age of 18 regardless of health condition.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccine recipients

This week’s CDC approval of Moderna vaccines comes with the same qualifications as the authorization of third doses of Pfizer.

People who are fully vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can get a third shot if they are 65 or older, or if they’re 18 or older and have qualifying health conditions, live in long-term care settings, or work or live in places that put them at higher risk of contracting the virus.

People who meet those conditions are eligible for a booster six months after completing their original vaccination series.

The health conditions that qualify for the Pfizer or Moderna boosters include:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic lung disease, including moderate or severe asthma
  • Dementia
  • Diabetes
  • Down syndrome
  • Heart conditions
  • HIV
  • Weakened immune system
  • Liver disease
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Sickle cell disease or thalassemia
  • Current or former smoking
  • Organ or stem cell transplants
  • Stroke or cerebrovascular disease
  • Substance use disorder (addiction)

Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients

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A triangular block in RiNo slated to become 49-unit, income-restricted condo complex

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A triangular block in RiNo slated to become 49-unit, income-restricted condo complex

A narrow, triangular block in RiNo is slated to be the site of a new 49-unit, income-restricted condominium complex.

The Chestnut Place Condos are planned to have 14 one-bedroom units, 27 two-bedroom units and eight three-bedroom units, as well as one commercial space.

All units will be sold to buyers making at or below 80 percent of the area median income, which is about $55,000 for a single-person household and $64,000 for a two-person household.

According to city documents, Elevation Community Land Trust has promised to buy the land and building when the project is completed. The trust will then sell the units. The 80 percent area median income requirement will last for 99 years.

The land includes two parcels that total 7,010 square feet, or 0.16 acres, that makes up a block formed by Chestnut Place, Arkins Court and 36th Avenue. There is currently one house on the site, which is kitty-corner from Ironton Distillery and across Chestnut Place from Number 38 beer hall.

Lauren DeBell, the chief strategy officer with Elevation Community Land Trust, told BusinessDen that planned amenities at the Chestnut Place Condos include a rooftop deck, bike shop and bike storage, as well as close access to the riverfront promenade Denver is constructing.

DeBell said the immediate area has an “extremely low” 18 percent homeownership rate.

“It is our hope that residents who have been displaced from the Five Points neighborhood will be able to return as homeowners,” she said, “and that current residents who desire to stay long-term but never dreamed they could own a home will have a new opportunity to purchase a beautiful condo where they can gain stability, wealth and a place to call home.”

Provided by the city of Denver

A rendering shows the north and south view of the proposed Chestnut Place Condos.

As BusinessDen previously reported, the land was sold in November to Chestnut Lofts LLC, which has ties to the Urban Land Conservancy, and 3501 Chestnut Land LLC, which has ties to Shanahan Development, the contractor for the project.

The entities paid $1.13 million across two deals for 3501 and 3563 Chestnut Place, according to public records, with the Urban Land Conservancy retaining about a 70 percent interest and the Shanahan Development entity retaining about 30 percent.

“The biggest challenge this development has faced is the site itself,” according to a briefing on the project from the city. “The very narrow, triangular site, currently comprised of two parcels, required an increasingly challenging building form.”

Developers sought a zoning variance to raise the building height for more units, but the Board of Adjustment for Zoning offered only a “partial variance,” the briefing stated. The land is currently zoned for a five-story building, but it’s within a zoning overlay district that lets developers build higher if certain conditions are met.

“Additionally, the existing structure on the site requires asbestos and lead-based paint mitigation during demolition, increasing overall site preparation expenses,” the briefing stated.

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Colorado unemployment rate drops to 5.6% in September, but job gains lag

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Colorado unemployment rate drops to 5.6% in September, but job gains lag

Colorado’s unemployment rate continued to fall in September despite another month of below-average job gains tied to weaker-than-expected hiring in the public sector, according to an update Friday from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell from 5.9% in August to 5.6% in September, which equates to 10,100 fewer unemployed workers. Colorado ranks 35th for its unemployment rate, which remains stubbornly above the U.S. seasonally-adjusted rate of 4.8%.

Employers in the state added a net 5,100 nonfarm jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis between the middle of August and the middle of September. Before the pandemic, that would be a solid gain, but it is only 42% of the monthly gains averaged earlier this year.

“While that represents a decent number of jobs added, it does fall short of the average from February to July which was 12,000 jobs a month,” said Ryan Gedney, a senior labor economist with the CDLE. In August, the state added a revised 5,000 jobs over July and September wasn’t much better at 5,100.

Gedney declined to attribute the end of enhanced federal unemployment benefits in early September to the drop in the state’s unemployment rate. One of the conditions of receiving unemployment benefits is that recipients must certify they are actively looking for work.

If the state economy keeps adding jobs around last month’s pace, Colorado won’t reach pre-pandemic employment counts until January 2023, said Chris Brown, vice president of policy and research at the Common Sense Institute, in a research note Thursday.

Accounting for population gains, Colorado employers need to add 9,884 jobs a month to get back to pre-pandemic levels by 2023.

“This recovery is like a bad cold, it just seems like it takes forever to get over it,” said Gary Horvath, a Broomfield economist who closely tracks the monthly employment reports.

Gedney said the past two months of weaker employment gains coincide with the rise in COVID-19 cases tied to the delta variant. But for months now, employers have complained they can’t fill openings and that could also be holding back hiring.

Horvath said when he recently tried to schedule a furnace tune-up to get ahead of falling temperatures, he was told the earliest appointment slot was Jan. 25, a sign that technicians are in short supply.

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