On the Front Line: A Night With Afghan Commandos

On a recent night raid, a Times photographer captured Afghanistan’s elite forces as they disrupted Taliban operations in one of the country’s most volatile provinces.

SOMEWHERE OVER HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — As the city lights faded and the Soviet-era military helicopter banked over the fields and canals of southern Afghanistan one night in May, the Afghan commandos on board made their final checks, looking at maps and adjusting their weapons before turning on their night-vision goggles.

Their objective: to dismantle a bomb-making factory inside a squat mud-brick house in Chah Anjir, a village in Nadali, a district in Helmand Province that is completely under Taliban control.

Just days earlier, the Taliban had opened an offensive on Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah. Afghan government forces had lost ground. The city was under siege. Frantic to relieve some of the pressure on the capital, security officials committed their most elite of the Afghan special operations forces to the province.

21,000 Afghans in the commando forces, with hopes to greatly expand the program.

more than 20 Afghan commandos were killed when their offensive operation to retake a district in the country’s northwest was derailed by a vicious Taliban counterattack.

The outcome of the May raid, documented on the special forces team leader’s cellphone, was considered a success: bomb-making materials were seized and destroyed. Four Taliban members were killed while his men took no casualties. How much that changed the broader battle’s outcome in Lashkar Gah is questionable, but it kept one of the Taliban’s deadliest tactics — roadside bombs and homemade mines — off the battlefield for a brief time.

The commandos returned to Bost Airfield, a civilian airport. But that night it turned into a temporary command center for the unit. Officials had set up television displays and radios atop its small terminal, under a starry sky as fighting echoed in the distance.

Inside the helicopters as the city came back into view, some commandos joked among themselves, others took forceful drags from cigarettes.

Their mission was over. For now.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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A Fading Coal County Bets on Schools, but There’s One Big Hitch

“I hear it from kids all the time: I want to get out of here,” said Kristin Johnson, a 24-year-old middle school teacher at Mount View who lives in Princeton, W.Va., about an hour’s drive away, and is itching for a teacher job to open there. “Those who do get an education know they can make more money somewhere else.”

Ms. Keys returned, in part, out of loyalty. “When I was in high school, we started losing a lot of teachers,” she said. “People feared there would be nobody there to take those jobs.” But a stable teaching job, as well as free housing at her grandmother’s old house, played into her calculations.

This may not be enough to hold her, though. Even dating locally is complicated. Her boyfriend lives over an hour away, outside Beckley. “There is nobody here that is appealing,” Ms. Keys said.

Consider Emily Hicks, 24, who graduated from Mount View in 2015. She is at the forefront of Reconnecting McDowell’s efforts, an early participant in the mentoring program meant to expand the horizons of local youths.

She didn’t even have to leave home to get her bachelor’s degree at Bluefield State College, commuting from home every other day. Today she teaches fifth grade at Kimball Elementary School. Her father is a surveyor for the coal mines; her mother works for the local landfill. But her boyfriend, Brandon McCoy, is hoping to leave the coal business and has taken a couple of part-time jobs at clinics outside the county after getting an associate degree in radiology.

Her brother, Justin, who graduated from high school in June, is going to college to get a degree in electrical engineering. “I have no idea what I’m going to do after that,” he said. “But there’s not a lot to do here.”

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How US Activists Are Trying to Halt the Killing of Kangaroos in Australia

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“If we’re not doing it, the cockies will blast them,” Mr. White said, using a slang term for small-scale farmers. “They won’t stop.”

In the end, the argument over Australia’s kangaroo industry has always been only partly about cruelty and only partly about animals. It is most viscerally about whose values rule.

To Mr. Pacelle, Australia’s professional hunters are justifying harm to wildlife to get paid. To Professor Wilson, animal rights activists are engaging in “imperialism” that forces their sensitivities onto others.

The case against the kangaroo business brings with it a sense of rectitude that transcends borders. The defense is provincial; it’s less moral than pragmatic. And what’s clear, at least in outback Queensland, is that while distance can deliver perspective, it can also overlook facts and oversimplify complicated truths.

The fires that sparked calls for regulation last year, for example, were concentrated in New South Wales, hundreds of miles from where Mr. White hunts. In his state, Queensland, survey data earlier this year put the kangaroo population for the three species that are harvested at 16.7 million — a far cry from endangered.

Leslie Mickelbourgh, the managing director of Warroo Game Meats, said the soccer shoes campaign was also something of a gimmick. Though neither the government nor the industry breaks down exports or total revenue by product, Mr. Mickelbourgh said that kangaroos from Surat were mostly used for meat. The animals are increasingly seen as a more ethical alternative to beef and lamb because kangaroos do not contribute to climate change by belching out methane, and because they are harvested in their habitat.

The industry’s critics, Mr. Mickelbourgh said, “don’t understand our country.”

He was sitting in an office near photos of his father, the founder of the business, with giant piles of kangaroo skins. Mr. White, who happened to stop by, was sitting on a chair next to a banner that read “think local.”

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U.S. Activists Try to Halt an Australian Way of Life: Killing Kangaroos

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“If we’re not doing it, the cockies will blast them,” Mr. White said, using a slang term for small-scale farmers. “They won’t stop.”

In the end, the argument over Australia’s kangaroo industry has always been only partly about cruelty and only partly about animals. It is most viscerally about whose values rule.

To Mr. Pacelle, Australia’s professional hunters are justifying harm to wildlife to get paid. To Professor Wilson, animal rights activists are engaging in “imperialism” that forces their sensitivities onto others.

The case against the kangaroo business brings with it a sense of rectitude that transcends borders. The defense is provincial; it’s less moral than pragmatic. And what’s clear, at least in outback Queensland, is that while distance can deliver perspective, it can also overlook facts and oversimplify complicated truths.

The fires that sparked calls for regulation last year, for example, were concentrated in New South Wales, hundreds of miles from where Mr. White hunts. In his state, Queensland, survey data earlier this year put the kangaroo population for the three species that are harvested at 16.7 million — a far cry from endangered.

Leslie Mickelbourgh, the managing director of Warroo Game Meats, said the soccer shoes campaign was also something of a gimmick. Though neither the government nor the industry breaks down exports or total revenue by product, Mr. Mickelbourgh said that kangaroos from Surat were mostly used for meat. The animals are increasingly seen as a more ethical alternative to beef and lamb because kangaroos do not contribute to climate change by belching out methane, and because they are harvested in their habitat.

The industry’s critics, Mr. Mickelbourgh said, “don’t understand our country.”

He was sitting in an office near photos of his father, the founder of the business, with giant piles of kangaroo skins. Mr. White, who happened to stop by, was sitting on a chair next to a banner that read “think local.”

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Big Hospital Chains Get Covid Aid, and Buy Up Competitors

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While most of the provider aid has been distributed, the Biden administration is expected to begin doling out the remaining funds, estimated at $25 billion of the original $178 billion, said Kristen O’Brien, a vice president for McDermott+Consulting in Washington, D.C. Hospitals are asking for more time to spend the money.

How the aid was spent has not been fully documented. While the larger hospital networks aggressively sought the funds from the start, smaller organizations, children’s hospitals and those in rural areas or serving large numbers of low-income patients had more difficulty securing the aid because of the way the funding formula was structured.

In a later round of funding decisions, officials with the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed applications more closely, and in some cases, reduced or denied requests, Ms. O’Brien said.

Grants given after the initial rush were more targeted, to those hospitals in Covid hot spots or rural areas. A few large chains, including HCA Healthcare and the Mayo Clinic, returned at least some of the money, in the wake of disclosures that wealthier hospitals had received far more aid while reporting healthy profits.

Overall, the aid program did prevent hospital closings, said Ken Marlow, a lawyer with K&L Gates in Nashville, who advises hospitals. “We haven’t seen a real avalanche of these distressed hospitals coming on the market.”

But some may no longer be able to resist takeovers or mergers. “Those providers are potentially more distressed as a result of the stress of the pandemic and will have to be thinking hard about the future, their survival,” said Torrey McClary, a lawyer with Ropes & Gray who also counsels hospitals.

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India Ramps Up Coronavirus Testing

The Indian government on Thursday said it had carried out 2.5 million coronavirus tests in 24 hours, the most in a single day since the pandemic began and part of an effort to try to help contain the spread of the country’s devastating second wave.

Balram Bhargava, the director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, a top government body, said that in the last week, daily average testing had been between 1.6 million to 2 million tests. The government hopes to increase the number of daily tests to 4.5 million per day by the end of June.

India has been devastated by a surge in virus cases and deaths, many of which are believed by experts to have gone uncounted. The increase in testing has largely come from an uptick in use of rapid antigen tests. India’s health officials said they increased the share of antigen tests to 60 percent of the overall number of tests administered because labs have been overwhelmed and results from P.C.R. tests come with a longer wait.

Antigen tests are generally considered less reliable than P.C.R., and may mistakenly identify uninfected people as carrying the virus. But the virus is spreading to rural parts of the country where the health infrastructure is deeply underfunded. For some areas, rapid antigen tests are the only option because the distribution is in the hands of government.

said on Twitter. “Terribly worried that there is a Covid surge in rural India that is going largely unchecked & undetected.”

The council that Mr. Bhargava leads approved the use of a self-administered rapid antigen test kit that was developed by Mylab Discovery Solutions, an Indian company, and gives results in 15 minutes. The company is aiming to ramp up production to 60 million kits per month within the next few weeks.

“This easy-to-use test combines a mobile app so that a user can know positive status, submit the result to I.C.M.R directly for traceability, and know what to do next,” said Sujit Jain, the director of Mylab Discovery Solutions. “We are sure this small step will be a big leap in mitigating the second and subsequent waves.”

Vaccinating India’s population of 1.4 billion people is a challenge. At the current rate of administering about 1.8 million doses a day, it would take the country more than three years to vaccinate 80 percent of its population.

deaths from Covid-19 and Covid-related causes are likely to be two to three times the number that countries have recorded in their official data, because of the limited capacity of many countries to test their people and other weaknesses in official health data.

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From Colombia to U.S., Police Violence Pushes Protests Into Mass Movements

When the history of this global moment is written, there will need to be an entire chapter on police forces’ spectacular own goals as force for change.

Around the world, the police have cracked down violently on protests — only to discover that their attacks, captured on camera and shared across social and conventional media, have been the catalyst that helped turn issue-based campaigns into mass movements.

Movements like Black Lives Matter in the United States, the 2019 uprising in Chile that led to a new constitution, and, now, Colombia’s protests grew out of political wounds unique to each society. But each was transformed into a broad, potentially generation-defining cause once protesters were confronted with police violence.

shaped the culture and training of Colombian police, who amid the protests have often appeared to draw little distinction between peaceful protesters who object to the government’s policies and violent guerrillas who wanted to overthrow the state.

In Chile in 2019, protests initially began as opposition to an increase in transit fares. It was the government’s fateful decision to restore order by calling out the army — for the first time since Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship ended in 1990 — that transformed the protests into a national movement with widespread political support.

Army tanks rolling through the streets sent a message that the country’s transition to democracy was incomplete, and at risk of collapse. Protesters carried placards printed with the face of Victor Jara, a folk singer murdered in the early days of the Pinochet regime, drawing a direct connection between the modern protests and the tanks that brought General Pinochet to power.

Just a year after the protests exploded, Chileans voted to scrap the constitution drafted during the Pinochet years and replace it with a new one.

In Colombia, the violence against protesters, and the heavy militarization of the streets in cities like Bogotá, has likewise sent a message that the country’s democratic project is not just unfinished, but is perhaps in jeopardy.

The 2016 peace agreement was supposed to end the armed conflict between the government and the FARC. But the actions of the state security forces over the past two weeks have many questioning whether peacetime democracy ever began at all.

“I think that the story of this country is about the armed conflict,” said Erika Rodríguez Gómez, 30, a lawyer and feminist activist from Bogotá. “We signed a peace agreement in 2016. And maybe at that moment we felt like, OK, we are going to move on.”

“But actually we have all of the military forces on the streets. And we have these attacks against us, the civil society,” she said. “So we think now that actually, they were never gone.”

It is too soon to say whether the protests will lead to lasting change. The attacks on protesters have made state violence visible to more people, said Dr. González, the Harvard researcher, but she believes that they are still considering it through the lens of “their usual scripts about understanding society, and understanding the police, and understanding everything. So it hasn’t quite come to the point of people converging.”

But Leydy Diossa-Jimenez, a Colombian researcher and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that she sees this moment as a turning point for change across generations. “Gen Z, they are now rethinking their country, and thinking about what has been left by prior generations,” she said in an interview. “They are saying ‘No, this is not what we want.’ ”

“And I think for the first time now, the older generations in Colombia are allying with that idea, that this is not the country we want,” she said.

“I don’t know if the politicians are up to the challenge, and up to the historical moment,” she added. “I just hope they are.”

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India’s Doctors and Medical Workers Face Danger and Trauma

NEW DELHI — The shifts are long, the wards full, the demand so urgent that medical students and interns have been coaxed into filling in. Hundreds of workers have died. Family members at home have fallen ill.

India’s doctors and other medical responders find themselves short-handed and underfunded as they battle the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. Beyond the physical danger they also face, they have been forced by the devastating size of the outbreak and the government’s mismanagement of the crisis into cruel routines of helplessness, making decisions day after day that could determine whether a patient lives or dies.

As beds fill up, they have to choose who among the throngs outside the hospital gates to allow inside for treatment. As the oxygen runs out, they have to choose who gets precious supplies. The emotional toll is mounting.

to the World Bank, India’s health care spending, public and out of pocket, totals about 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product, less than half of the global average.

They also face intimidation and violence, with videos circulating of angry family members thrashing medical staff in hospital halls covered in blood, or local strongmen bullying and scolding them.

when the hospital ran out of oxygen for 80 minutes early in May. Dr. Himthani had treated Covid patients for 14 months before he and his wife were infected.

As the oxygen ran out, Dr. Shiv Charan Lal Gupta, the director of the hospital and a friend of Dr. Himthani for three decades, ran up and down the hallways sending messages to government officials, media outlets and anybody who might help.

In their masks and gowns, the hospital staff gathered with teary eyes and folded arms at the main gate to pay their final respects as Dr. Himthani’s body was wheeled out. Then they went back to work.

44.5 trained health workers per 10,000.

The distribution is unequally concentrated in urban centers. About 40 percent of health care providers work in rural areas, where more than 70 percent of India’s population lives. Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has only 0.24 beds per 1,000 people, less than one-tenth of the world average.

“When I close my eyes, I feel someone needs my help,” said Lachhami Kumari, a nurse at a government hospital in the Rohtas district of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. Her 80-bed facility has been overwhelmed by critical Covid patients. “When I manage to fall asleep, I see people all around, begging for help. That has kept me going.”

At another government hospital in Patna, Bihar’s capital city, Dr. Lokesh Tiwari said almost half of the doctors and paramedic staff have lost family members.

on Twitter. “He asked her vitals, thanked me and hung up.”

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Why Are Colombians Protesting?

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Protests have rocked Colombia for three weeks, with thousands of people pouring into the streets of its major cities — and facing a crackdown by government security forces. More than 40 people, many of them protesters, are dead.

On Monday, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, ordered the “maximum deployment” of the country’s military and police forces to clear roads blocked by protesters, a move he said would “allow all Colombians to regain mobility,” but that some feared would lead to more violence.

The fuse for the protests was a tax overhaul proposed by Mr. Duque, which many Colombians felt would have made getting by in an economy squeezed by the pandemic even harder.

But the outpouring quickly morphed into a widespread expression of anger over poverty and inequality — which have risen as the virus has spread — and over the violence with which the police have confronted the movement.

calls for the government to guarantee a minimum income, to prevent police violence and to withdraw a health reform plan that critics say does not do enough to fix systemic problems.

Mr. Duque’s popularity had dropped before the pandemic, and is now near its lowest point since his election in 2018, according to the polling firm Invamer.

ravaged populations and economies in the region.

many Colombians viewed the plan as an attack on their already difficult existences.

Even before the pandemic, many Colombians with full-time jobs struggled to make even the minimum wage of about $275 a month.

Helena Osorio, 24, for example, is a nurse who works nights and earns $13 per shift caring for Covid patients, barely enough for her and her younger brother to survive. This pushed her to attend recent protests.

The president’s tax proposal also came as coronavirus cases and deaths were rising in the country, leaving hundreds of desperate Colombians to wait for a bed at overloaded hospitals even as the vaccination campaign rollout has been slow.

longstanding frustrations to a boil.

Colombia is among the most unequal countries in the world. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2018 said that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian to approach the mean income in his or her society — the highest number of 30 countries examined.

Despite reductions in poverty in the decades before the pandemic, many Colombians, particularly the young, feel the engines of upward mobility are beyond their reach.

violence continues in many rural areas, fueling frustration.

As the protests have escalated, resulting in clashes between demonstrators and police, Mr. Duque’s government has frequently blamed the violence on armed groups it says have infiltrated the protests.

responded with force, sometimes firing bullets at peaceful protesters, according to New York Times interviews with witnesses. This has exacerbated anger.

At least 42 people are dead, according to Colombia’s Defensoría del Pueblo, a government agency that tracks alleged human rights violations. But Human Rights Watch and other organizations say that the death toll is likely higher.

The Defensoría says that it has received 168 reports of people who have disappeared amid the protests, and only some of them have been found.

In an interview, Mr. Duque recognized that some officers had been violent, but attributed the violence to a few bad actors, saying major change in the police force was not needed.

“There have been acts of abuse of force,” he said. But “just saying that there could be any possibility that the Colombian police will be seen as a systematic abuser of human rights — well, that will be not only unfair, unjust, but without any base, any ground.”

Protesters have also blocked major roads, preventing food and other essential goods from getting through. Officials say this has hampered efforts to fight the coronavirus at a time when new cases and virus deaths are at near record highs.

The defense department says that hundreds of officers have been hurt, and one has been killed, while people associated with the protests have vandalized police stations and buses.

While tens of thousands have marched in the streets, not everyone supports the protests.

Jhon Henry Morales, 51, a taxi driver in Cali, said his city had been nearly paralyzed in recent days, with some protesters blocking the roads with tires.

He had not been able to work, he said, putting him behind on his bills. “Protest is legal,” he said. But, he said, “I also have rights as a Colombian citizen.”

Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil and Steven Grattan in Bogotá.

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