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Taliban Battling Again For Territory in Afghanistan; Iraqi Army Launches Anti-ISIS Offensive in Ramadi; NYPD Officer Among Six Killed in Afghanistan; Trump Attacks Clinton. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 22, 2015 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for watching, everyone. My colleague, Wolf, starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, it's noon in Nashville, Tennessee, 9:00 p.m. in Baghdad. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Happening right now, we're following three important stories involving U.S. forces overseas. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are claiming responsibility for the attack that killed U.S. -- six U.S. service members just outside of the Bagram Air Base.

To the south in Helmand Province, the Taliban, they are also making a resurgence right now. They're fighting to capture some key areas.

And in Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition is conducting air strikes against ISIS' targets in the key city of Ramadi. The air strikes are supporting Iraqi forces who are trying to take back the center of the city. There are also reports right now that ISIS' fighters are using civilians as human shields to defend themselves from advancing forces.

I want to start with journalist Sune Rasmussen who's joining us live from Kabul right now. Sune, Afghanistan forces reportedly running out of weapons right now, running out of supplies despite pleas for more help from the Afghan government. How dire is the situation for Afghan forces in the Helmand Province right now?

SUNE RASMUSSEN, JOURNALIST: Well, the district has been -- has been under siege for the past 48 hours. This is the Sangin district which is northern Helmand Province. A key district on the main (INAUDIBLE) trafficking route. And the (INAUDIBLE) force is said to be in very dire straits. There has been a couple of Afghan air strikes to support the forces there. And there's also been incoming enforcements from U.K. and U.S. Special Forces to help out the Afghan forces in Sangin. But Helmand itself is under pressure, and this is probably the worst pressure we've seen in the province for a very long time.

BLITZER: Why isn't the Afghan military capable of maintaining this key critical area where so many lives have been lost, including many American lives, in this battle over Afghanistan for the past 14 years?

RASMUSSEN: Well, they haven't -- they haven't completely lost the area yet, but they do have a lot of difficulty holding it and pushing the Taliban back. Sangin has been very heavily -- has been very heavily embattled for the past two years. The one main reason for that is the lack of coordination between the different security forces units, the police, the special forces, the army. There's a lot of corruption in the special forces. There's a lot of inflated troop numbers. There's not as many people fighting as we would like to believe there is.

That being said, the Afghans are putting up a hard fight. And for a better example, Iraq and Libya, the Afghan security forces are actually sticking together and they're not fragmenting to the same extent as in those two -- those two countries. So, it's also a sign that the Afghan security forces are finding some difficulties in their first year (INAUDIBLE) some new responsibility after 15 years of international intervention. So, I think they also need a bit of time to sort of really get used to that role, the combat role.

BLITZER: Because ISIS now emerging as a new threat in addition to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. All of a sudden, there are at least 1,000, maybe 3,000 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan right now. You're in Kabul, the capital. Is there a sense that the city is on edge right now because of all of these threats?

RASMUSSEN: I think we have to take those ISIS estimates with a grain of salt. And even if we have the most estimates, I've heard of, like, 1,500-2,000 ISIS fighting forces, they're still a relatively small fighting force by Afghan standards. But Kabul is getting more nervous, you can say, of the people here. Of course, following across -- what's happening across the country.

And the Taliban and other militant groups are still able to conduct attacks in the heart of Kabul from time to time. That's been the case for a while, of course. But the entire country is, let's say, a little bit on edge here, I think that's the right term, about what's happening in the coming -- the coming year with the security situation.

BLITZER: All right. Sune Rasmussen on the scene in Kabul for us. Thank you very much.

We have also learned the identity of one of the U.S. soldiers killed in yesterday's attack near the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Staff sergeant, Joseph Lemm, a 15-year veteran of the NYPD, the New York Police Department, and a member of the U.S. National Guard. Just two years ago, he surprised his family in west Harrison, New York when he came home after a 10-month deployment. Lemm was deployed overseas several times. Flags will be flown at half-staff across New York in his honor. Our deepest, deepest condolences to his family. That attack near Bagram was the deadliest involving NATO troops in Afghanistan since 2012.

[13:05:04] Let's bring in Congressman Brad Sherman. He's a Democrat from California. He's a leading member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. BRAD SHERMAN (D), CALIFORNIA, SENIOR MEMBER, HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Good to be with you. BLITZER: It looks like the situation in Afghanistan, despite the billions that the U.S. has poured in there, despite the enormous military involvement, is falling apart right now. How concerned are you?

SHERMAN: I don't think it's falling apart. I mean, obviously, we've got to focus on Helmand Province. Kunduz was contested. We were able to take that back. But we're in maybe the 20th year in our struggle against jihadist violence. And one would suspect that that's going to last decades more into the future. Afghanistan is just one of the many battlefields.

BLITZER: Do you think those 10,000 U.S. troops, part of a 13,000 NATO contingent in Afghanistan, should stay there?

SHERMAN: I think so. And -- but I think we've got to be looking at everything from Paris to San Bernardino, from Nigeria to Somalia.

BLITZER: And you think U.S. taxpayers spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan, that's money well spent?

SHERMAN: If we ignore the Middle East, the Middle East will still not ignore us. We have been dragged into this civil war of -- four-way civil war for the future of Islam. And we've -- even in those areas where we haven't been involved, ISIS, Al Qaeda have found that by attacking us, they can build their credibility in the Middle East.

BLITZER: But the Afghan military, you would think -- they have hundreds of thousands of troops, armed, trained, financed by the United States largely. After 14 years, you'd think they'd be able to control their own country but they can't.

SHERMAN: Karzai was not a good leader. There's a lot of corruption in that force. There are units that are relatively free from that corruption. But we will see a see-saw battle in various provinces in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: ISIS is on the merge -- on the -- on the move right now in Afghanistan, in addition to elsewhere throughout South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa. As we all know, the Afghan military obviously not necessarily up to the job. But the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, right now, he's traveling, what, to Azerbaijan in the midst of Helmand Province potentially falling to the Taliban. What's up with that?

SHERMAN: I don't know why he's going to Azerbaijan.

BLITZER: Do you have confidence in Ashraf Ghani?

SHERMAN: Slightly more than I had in his predecessor.

BLITZER: But not much?

SHERMAN: A moderate amount. And we're going to have allies in this conflict that are going to be helpful and others that are not. Well, you look at the Nigerian government, it's a little better than its predecessor. You look at Somalia, things are a little better. But this has -- this has lasted two decades already.

BLITZER: I want to bring in Major General Spider -- James Spider Marks, our CNN Military Analyst. He's a retired U.S. Army. Kim Dozier, our Global Affairs Analyst as well. You know this situation over there, Spider. It looks like it's another situation where Iraq, the U.S. spends an enormous amount of money, a lot of -- hundreds of thousands of military personnel. And when the going gets rough, they disappear.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, the sad fact is that unless there is some glue that holds these forces together, over the course of time, it will dissipate, in terms of a fighting force. And we've seen that quite a bit. We realize that in order for us to be successful, to achieve our national security interests, this is what's it's all about.

How do we get out of a very close fight here that potentially is in the United States and take it elsewhere? That is intergenerational. This is what we call the new normal. This is the constant state of conflict that this nation has now accepted as a result of conditions we see around the globe. Our engagement overseas is a must in order for us to preclude what is an inevitability where this will be closer on our shores. It's going to happen unless we engage overseas.

BLITZER: Kimberly, you've spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, including in Helmand Province at -- obviously in Kabul as well. What's your analysis of what's going on?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIR ANALYST: Well, I would say, to be fair about the Afghan security forces, they have taken some of their heaviest casualties yet over the past year. But they have a real problem with logistics. Your correspondent over there mentioned corruption. The Afghan special forces are actually seen as one of the most effective fighting forces. But because of problems within their ministry of defense, they can't get some of the supplies they need and they're at the front of the battle. So, you have these different things that are hobbling the security forces. They used to have American forces to prop them up in many of these situations.

Now, they're in a situation down in Helmand where they've always had problems getting supplies to those particular bases on the Afghan side. And now, they're facing fierce fighting and not much backup. That's a problem that spells just a continuing back and forth which is why the U.N. is saying, at this point in Afghanistan, the Taliban hold more territory than they did. The last time they held this much territory was 2001 when they were in control.

[13:10:00] BLITZER: Yes, it was before the U.S. came in after 911 into Afghanistan. It looks like a horrendous situation. And Iraq, it looks pretty awful right now. There's a military offensive by Iraqi forces, Congressman, trying to retake Ramadi right now. The U.S. wants to help but this government there in Baghdad, the government of Haider Al Abadi, because of his alliance with Iran, because of the Shiite militias, they don't want U.S. military involvement, other than a few air strikes, coming in to back them up. What does that say about the U.S. role over these years, if the Iraqis don't even want the United States to get involved and help them on the ground?

SHERMAN: Well, the Shiite alliance, based in Iran, is, perhaps, more dangerous than even ISIS. They've killed a lot more civilians. They have killed far more Americans, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even our Marines in Lebanon several decades ago.

And as much as we need to focus on getting rid of ISIS, we also need to focus on getting rid of Assad. He -- because as long as he's there, there's going to be an ISIS. As long as Malaki and his -- and the remnants of his regime and ISIS are pressing the Sunnis, if it's not this ISIS, it'll be another ISIS.

BLITZER: Well, do you have confidence in this new Iraqi prime minister, relatively new, Haider Al Abadi, who seems much more interested in having an alliance with Iran than he does with the United States?

SHERMAN: He's slightly better than his predecessor. But what we've done is turn -- the government in Baghdad is now kind of a satellite of terror end. The one advantage of the current approach is that we've minimized American casualties. Anybody who promises immediate and painless victory is not going to give us immediate victory. And they are going to dramatically increase our casualties.

BLITZER: But, General, you know, you can minimize American casualties very dramatically by simply pulling out all those U.S. forces from Iraq and from Afghanistan for that matter as well. Then there won't be any U.S. military casualties.

MARKS: Well, very true. Congressman, I would have to challenge that as a strategy. To minimize U.S. casualties is not a strategy. What we need to be able to do is try to work as effectively as we can with the host nation so that we can achieve our goals.

And I'm in complete agreement, in terms of Baghdad's relationship with Teheran. It's sinful and it's incredibly painful to us moving forward if we don't have a balance, in terms of what we can try to achieve relative to what Baghdad is trying to achieve. That's what diplomacy is all about. And an element of diplomacy certainly is the military. It's a derivative of what we're trying to achieve.

SHERMAN: We can't have zero casualties. Because even if we had zero casualties in the Middle East, we see San Bernardino. And so, we have to be involved. And as long as we're involved at a present level in Iraq and Afghanistan, we may have the present level of casualties. This year, we've lost only 21, even with this terrible incident in Afghanistan. But we used to lose 21 in a single incident before. And even out of those 21, half have been accidents and half have been caused by the opponent's and the enemy.

BLITZER: Well, let me -- Kimberly, do you have confidence in the Iraqi military right now that they're going to actually take Ramadi and then move onto other even more important targets like Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq which has now, for almost two years, been under control of ISIS? DOZIER: They have proved an increasingly effective. They're not

moving as fast as anyone in the United States would like to see them move, but this has been urban fighting to take back Ramadi. One thing that Baghdad has been responsible on is they haven't used Shiite militia in the re-taking of this mostly Sunni city.

So, it won't be as fast as we want it but it is moving in the right direction. ISIS will probably see -- they've only got about a hundred fighters, they think, inside Ramadi. They'll probably do one of their strategic retreats.

And they actually intercepted a piece of paper that ISIS had been handing out to its fighters, telling them to commit atrocities as they exit places while dressed as Iraqi security forces. I can't independently verify that's really what ISIS is handing out, but it may spell that they are changing their battle to an insurgency instead of trying to hold the territory. That means the Iraqis have gotten more effective.

BLITZER: Are you as frustrated as a lot of people are here in Washington, Congressman, that the Obama administration continues to refuse to provide weapons directly to the Kurdish Peshmerga, arguably the U.S. best friends in this fight against ISIS right now, insisting it's got to go through the central Shiite-led government in Baghdad? Is that OK with you?

SHERMAN: It's not. Many of us on the Foreign Affairs Committee have been pushing to get the Peshmerga the U.S. arms they need. We're also frustrated with the rules of engagement. We have bombing raids but we are trying to have zero civilian casualties.

In World War II, we would have lost World War II. I was sitting there with the French ambassador telling me that we had 70,000 Frenchmen who died due to allied bombing. But when the allies arrived at Normandy, they were welcomed with open arms.

[13:15:01] Right now, the Iraqi government is providing free electricity to ISIS. If we had the rules of World War II, we would be bombing the electrical facilities that provide electricity to the ISIS governed areas.

BLITZER: Like in Mosul you mean?

SHERMAN: Exactly.

BLITZER: That's free electricity? I didn't know that.

SHERMAN: Yes.

BLITZER: And so what does the U.S. say to the Iraqi government about that?

SHERMAN: We say we -- well, the government position is that we applaud your efforts to make sure that civilians are not inconvenienced. You have to inconvenience civilians governed by the enemy.

BLITZER: Brad Sherman, the congressman from California, thanks for coming in.

Kimberly and Spider, thanks to you guys as well.

Donald Trump didn't hold back in blasting Hillary Clinton yet again, calling something she did during the last debate disgusting and using an even more crass word to describe her relationship with President Obama. She's speaking live in Iowa this hour. We'll see if she responds to his comments. So far Donald Trump hasn't paid a price, at least a major price in the polls for what he has said, but there are some new numbers out there suggesting there has been a tightening in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. We're going to break it all down when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to presidential politics here in the United States. The Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, she's on the campaign trail right now in Iowa. She's got a town hall meeting that follows a rally last night where Donald Trump attacked her using a vulgar term. These are people in Iowa. They're getting ready to hear for -- Hillary Clinton's event. Her campaign tweeted a little while ago, referring to what Donald Trump said about her, quote, "we are not responding to Trump, but everyone who understands the humiliation this degrading language inflicts on all women should #iamwithher."

[13:20:12] Meanwhile, the presidential race is getting down and dirty with Trump's use of a vulgar word. So what exactly did he say during a rally last night. Trump used a Yiddish word to describe Clinton's loss to President Obama in the Democratic contest for the presidential nomination in 2008. He also joked about Clinton's late return to the stage during Saturday night's debate. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE: I'm watching the debate, and she disappeared. I know where she went. It's disgusting. I don't want to talk about it. No, it's too disgusting. Don't say it, it's disgusting.

She was going to beat Obama. I don't know who'd be worse. I don't know. How does it get worse? But she was going to beat -- she was favored to win and she got schlonged (ph). She lost. I mean she lost.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our senior Washington correspondents, Jeff Zeleny and Joe Johns.

Jeff, I guess, just when you think you've heard it all, you hear something else going on. What's your take?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I mean, look, I think Donald Trump knows how to attract attention, and he does it at every single rally. I mean you can't even keep up with all the different things he's said. But, look, I think this -- the saying that Hillary Clinton was -- what she was doing was disgusting is, you know, sort of odd. No one thought what she was doing was disgusting. She, of course, was late to the debate by a few seconds or so because she was in the ladies' room. And as it turns out, the ladies' room was a much longer walk from the debate stage than the men's room. So I don't think that Donald Trump does himself any favors or with women voters, but, boy, his crowds love it whenever he says anything about Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: It boosts him up when he goes after her.

ZELENY: Sure.

BLITZER: And, actually, when -- when she goes after him, it boosts her up among Democrats --

ZELENY: It does. It does.

BLITZER: The Democratic base as well. So it could be a win-win politically for both of them to get into this brutal battle.

ZELENY: I guess so. I'm not sure how good for democracy or the process it is, but that's another question.

BLITZER: This new Quinnipiac University pole, Joe, just out, 50 percent of Americans say they would be embarrassed to have Donald Trump as president compared to 23 percent who say they would be proud to have him as president, yet he continues to lead in the polls right now. And we'll put some numbers up there. Among Republicans, there he is, he's at 28 percent. Cruz, Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, 24 percent. Marco Rubio, 12 percent. Dr. Ben Carson, 10 percent. So he's still doing well, although it's tightening up between Cruz and Trump.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Right. That's right. And that 50 percent number of people who say they would be embarrassed, that's about all of the voters who were polled, both Democrats and Republicans. But if you look sort of inside the poll, the numbers are not quite so bad for Trump. Forty-four percent of Republican respondents and 20 percent of independents said they would be proud to have Trump as president. So -- so it sort of cuts both ways, if you will. If you're a Democrat, you'd certainly be embarrassed. I think those polls -- the numbers reflect that. But if you were a Republican, it's not so much.

BLITZER: Among Republicans in this new poll, it's shaping up, at least right now, and these numbers change obviously, as a battle between Trump and Cruz.

ZELENY: It is. And, you know, and it's important to keep in mind these are national polls. But even in state polls, that is how this field is consolidating so to speak. We saw Lindsey Graham get out of the race yesterday and even several who were still in are just not gaining any ground. So this race is -- it's -- it's clarifying. So we have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz really neck and neck, and then the others are fighting for the alternative space on that. But still fascinating that those two are not going after each other.

BLITZER: So at what point do they? If they are the number one and two candidates nationally among Republicans, and let's say in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz is moving up as well. At what point does Trump take off the gloves, Cruz take off the gloves and they start pounding?

ZELENY: I could see Trump do that. I don't think Cruz will do that because Cruz wants Trump's voters. That's where -- if Ted Cruz, Senator Cruz wants to gain, especially in Iowa, those states, he needs some people who have looked at Trump all summer and are like, you know what, we're just not sure he's quite serious for this. But Trump, I think it would certainly be in his interest to go after Ted Cruz. But every time he does, the talk radio hosts and other things, the conservative leaders just sort of whack him for that. So that's why this is so fascinating.

BLITZER: Because he did the other day, before the debate, say that Cruz was a little bit of a he maniac, I'm paraphrasing --

ZELENY: Right.

BLITZER: HE used the word "maniac" and then he was criticized by Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, some of the conservative radio talk show hosts. And Cruz himself late -- excuse me, Trump himself later acknowledged, Joe, that he was influenced by that. I think that's the first time we heard Donald Trump acknowledge that he was influenced by the criticism he got from some of these conservative radio talk show hosts.

JOHNS: Yes, and you almost never hear that from Trump. He's a never back down guy. But it's very tough when you're vying for the same voters, and one guy's hoping the other guy falls flat on his face and he turns out the winner. But I think you're absolutely right on that, Jeff.

[13:25:08] BLITZER: Where does Marco Rubio fit into all of this right now because his numbers, at least in this latest national poll, have not gone up all that dramatically like Cruz for example.

ZELENY: They haven't at all, and that's because he is not as beloved by the conservative wing of this party. He is still sort of viewed as more of an establishment figure, which he's not entirely. Let's not forget, he's a first-term senator as well, and he came to town here in Washington in 2010 in this Tea Party wave. So -- but he is trying to sort of have his -- his foot in several Republican camps, if you will. So that's why he hasn't climbed as much because people don't view him as a -- as pure of a conservative.

JOHNS: Right.

ZELENY: And immigration, obviously, is a tough issue for him. But one --

BLITZER: This poll, this Quinnipiac poll, was taken after our CNN debate.

ZELENY: That's right.

BLITZER: And Marco Rubio's numbers actually from the last Quinnipiac University poll, they went down five numbers. JOHNS: Yes, the immigration issue is huge, and the question is, who's

been more pure on immigration to satisfy conservatives in the party who don't want any doors opened on the issue at all. So, Rubio, of course, was the supporter of comprehensive immigration reform back in 2013, which failed. And he's been trying to chip away a little bit at Cruz --

BLITZER: And that -- and Cruz has been saying, you know, Rubio, if you like President Obama's position on immigration, if you like Senator Schumer's position on immigration, you've got to like Senator Marco Rubio's position on immigration, and that seems to -- seems to be working from Cruz's perspective.

ZELENY: You're absolutely right. I mean you saw them up on that stage. You were moderating the debate. That's exactly what Ted Cruz did. Also he used the word "amnesty." That is a very hard thing to refute. It takes Marco Rubio a couple minutes to explain his position. It takes Ted Cruz "amnesty," and so that's what's winning here. But I would still caution people that Marco Rubio still has the support of a lot of the establishment. So if all the other candidates were to get out or fall aside, his -- his -- he still has hope once Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina start coming.

BLITZER: And Dr. Ben Carson's numbers have gone down six points --

ZELENY: Right.

BLITZER: In that last poll as well. All right, guys, thanks very much.

The new polls could add to the momentum behind Ted Cruz's campaign. He's swinging through the south right now. He's stumping actually in Tennessee. We're going to have a live report just head on his latest event, an event right now in Nashville. That's coming up next.

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