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Ten sailors missing in US destroyer collision; Trump to announce new Afghanistan strategy; International manhunt for Barcelona attack suspect; Pyongyang threatens "merciless strike" on US. Aired 2- 3a ET

Aired August 21, 2017 - 02:00   ET

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


GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: We are following the breaking news this hour here on CNN. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

Ten US navy sailors are still missing after the USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, collided with a merchant ship near Singapore early Monday morning.

Five sailors are injured. There is some visible damage to the ship. You can see a hole at the bottom it, but it's moving to port under its own tower. Singapore says it's leading the search and rescue operation at this point.

Let's brining a CNN national US correspondent following the story, Kyung Lah. It's good to have you with us, Kyung. We're looking at this image of the ship at this point. Just give us a sense of what we know at this point about the sailors, the search for the missing and those injured.

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're about eight-and-a-half hours, George, after the initial collision was first reported.

And the very latest that we're getting are that the search is continuing. It may be very frustrating for the families to hear, but the navy says that they are continuing to search for these missing ten sailors. We don't know how their progress is being made.

What we do know is, as you can see from those images of the USS John McCain, is that it is moving to port in Singapore. It did have that huge hole on the side. That was the point of impact, we believe, when it collided with that oil tanker, an oil tanker that is approximately three times the size of the USS John McCain. So, this was the warship taking on some significant damage there.

But as far as the injured, we can tell you that five sailors were also injured. Four of them were taken with non-life-threatening injuries to Singapore. They were airlifted by helicopter. One of the other injured sailors was able to stay aboard the McCain.

But, George, right now, the search for the missing still continuing at sea. HOWELL: All right. The big picture here, Kyung, with regards to the US Navy, this is not the first time. We reported on a collision just two months ago. The USS Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine container ship. Before that, two other incidents earlier in the year. Tell us more about that.

LAH: It's been a troublesome year as far as collisions/incidents. Just this year alone, if you take a look at these four incidents. You can see there, August 21, June 17th, May 9th, January 31st. All of these happening involving the USS fleets. Three of them are based out of the Seventh Fleet based here in Japan.

So, a lot of questions are going to be raised after this latest incident about how did this happen. There was a significant review after the USS Fitzgerald collision with a merchant ship. The two top commanders were relieved of their duties aboard the USS Fitzgerald and a review happened.

So, we anticipate that there will be a significant review as well, but certainly troublesome when you look at the timeline of what happened this year alone.

HOWELL: And with regards, Kyung, to the ship itself, what do we know more about the damage it sustained. And, obviously, at this point, we do understand it is still in route to its destination.

LAH: It is still in route. We'll know much more once it makes port in Singapore. We know that it was - it had a made a routine stop in Singapore. And then, at some point, that's when the collision happened.

What we do now is that it's able to move forward on its own power. At some point, we had also heard a report that it had requested tug assistance, some sort of assistance to power back, but it certainly looks like there in those images that the McCain is moving forward on its own.

Some context here as well about the McCain. The McCain is a ship. It is an Aegis destroyer that has those interceptor missiles that we've been talking about so much over the past few weeks. It is forward deployed to deal with the crisis in the Asia-Pacific region.

In this particular theater, the biggest crisis point is North Korea. While it was not directly involved right now with North Korea, it had been making a routine stop much further away. This is one of the forward deployed ships.

It is part of the cards that the United States can play if there is some sort of conflict. This takes that piece out of that card, that stack to play.

HOWELL: Our senior US correspondent Kyung Lah following the story for us in Tokyo. Thank you so much for the reporting. We will stay in touch with you.

The US president tweeted about this collision saying the following, "thoughts and prayers are with our US Navy aboard the USS John S. McCain where search and rescue efforts are underway."

[02:05:10] In the coming hours, President Trump will address the nation on Afghanistan, outlining what the White House calls the path forward.

Mr. Trump will explain the new military strategy on Monday night. He's said to be frustrated by the lack of progress after years of engagement against the Taliban and other militants.

For months now, the president's team has been working on drafting a strategy for Afghanistan. More than 8,000 US troops are presently deployed there. US Defense Secretary James Mattis says the new strategy isn't just for Afghanistan, but for all of South Asia. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES MATTIS, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Not willing to make significant troop lifts until we've made certain we knew what was the strategy, what was the commitment going in.

In that regard, the president has made a decision, as he said. He wants to be the one to announce it to the American people, so I will stand silent until that point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: Advisors has been presenting President Trump with a range of options from surge in troop numbers to a full withdrawal. CNN's Elise Labott has more now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: President Trump has decided on the path forward for America's engagement in Afghanistan - the longest war in American history.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that, on Monday, the president will lay out that strategy in an address to the American people.

Now, on Friday, the president met at Camp David to review his options with his top national security aides, including Secretary Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Vice President Mike Pence.

The White House has been taking an exhaustive month-long review of US policy towards Afghanistan and has been accused by many in Congress of dragging its feet.

Now, back in February, General Nicholson, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan requested a few thousand troops to break what he said was essentially a stalemate with the Taliban.

Now, Secretary Mattis said all options are on the table, ranging from a surge in troops to a complete withdrawal. Now, one proposal, former White House strategist Steve Bannon argued for involves a shifting of responsibilities to private contractors or mercenaries, if you will.

We're hearing a bump of about 4,000 troops, mostly advisers that would embed with local units of the Afghan National Army is likely. It's not a major departure from the current strategy being pursued in Afghanistan. But a decision on troop levels is just one component of the strategy.

Defense Secretary Mattis noted this is a full South Asia strategy, including the need to pressure Pakistan to stop providing safe haven to the Taliban and other extremist groups operating in the country.

Elise Labott, CNN - Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: Elise, thanks for reporting. Later this hour, we will talk with CNN's security and intelligence expert Bob Baer about the challenges that US faces in Afghanistan and the war which he calls unwinnable.

President Trump's Afghanistan announcement will follow what has been a very rocky week to say the least. So, the question, will this be the opportunity for the president to turn the page?

Well, let's talk about the pages that he hopes to turn first with Scott Lucas. Scott, a Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham in England and the founder of EA WorldView and editor.

Thanks for being with us, Scott, this hour. So, before we talk about the week ahead, let's talk about the week that was.

We saw Mr. Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon fired. There was also that intense criticism the president faced for his response that both sides were somehow to blame for what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. Controversies that came at rapid pace.

And now, this new "NBC News"/Marist poll showing three key states that helped President Trump to win the election, 64 percent of registered voters in Michigan, 63 percent in Pennsylvania, 64 percent in Wisconsin, now say they feel embarrassed by his conduct in office.

Scott, the question here, the snapshot that we see, what does it say about where the president stands?

SCOTT LUCAS, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM, AND FOUNDER AND EDITOR OF EA WORLDVIEW: Well, I think the president has been standing on slippery ground for months. The Russia investigation, the failure to get any major legislation through Congress including healthcare proposals, uncertainty over his budget, and uncertainty within the White House.

The question is whether that slippery slope became a cliff face last Tuesday, when he appeared to give a pass to white supremacists and criticized the so-called alt-left over Charlottesville. It's one thing to accept that people caricature each other at flights. It's a different thing to appear to be endorsing or accepting swastikas, Nazi-style salutes, anti-Semitic slogans.

Now, as I think your correspondents are noting, the hope is today that the Afghanistan announcement will sweep some of that to the side.

[02:10:03] Now, let's not talk about Charlottesville, let's not talk about white supremacy, but can it actually push aside the Russia investigation and the economic issues in the weeks to come and, indeed, is the Afghanistan proposal really a strategy or just simply a holding announcement? Those are the questions we face in coming weeks.

HOWELL: So, the president in his first response was criticized for not saying the words white supremacist, neo-Nazis and KKK members, again, in his first response. He only did so in his follow-up response with reporters the next day - well, not the next day rather, a couple of days after that.

But Mr. Trump is getting some support from Jerry Falwell Jr., giving the president credit presumably for that second try in naming the problem. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JERRY FALWELL JR., PRESIDENT, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY: The bold and truthful statements I was referring to were his willingness to call evil and terrorism by its name, to identify the groups, the Nazis, the KKK, the white supremacists, and that's something a leader should do. And I admire him for that.

President Trump is something that we haven't had a national leadership in a long time. He is substance over form. So, many of our politicians, recent leaders, national leaders have been form over substance. They tell people what they want to hear, they sugar-coat everything or they have sugar-coated everything. And I think the American people have gotten sort of a thin skin and I think they need to listen to the substance of what he had said.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: Well, the substance of what he said the first time, Scott, he didn't use those words. The second time, he did. Keeping in mind, President Trump, when he was running for office, constantly criticized his predecessor for not using the terms radical Islamic terror.

The question to you, Scott, does the president deserve the credit that he is getting from Mr. Falwell, given that he was - didn't use the words initially?

LUCAS: Well, I'm a son of a preacher. So, to be clear, Mr. Falwell was not speaking as a religious figure, he was speaking as a political spokesperson for the president. You say that Donald Trump came out and criticized white supremacists and criticized racism. Well, he did so on a prepared statement a week ago on a Monday. He read that from a script. It was a day later, you might remember, that at this ad hoc press conference at Trump Tower that he came out and said it was the alt-left that were carrying clubs, saying it was fake news and fake media that were whipping up the white supremacist threat.

And then he went on Twitter and tried to shift that issue to that of Confederate statutes. Look, all these white supremacists and neo- Nazis were doing were supposedly defending these symbols of southern heritage and culture.

So, no, Jerry Falwell was re-creating the events of the past week. We need to be clear about that.

The question is, moving forward, do we see an attempt by the president and by his realigned White House staff with Steve Bannon gone to be more conciliatory, to recognize the issues before all Americans, not just some, or does Trump revert back to his aggressive and quite often hostile rhetoric?

HOWELL: It is important to point out the president sent out a couple of tweets following up on the Boston protests that were conciliatory toward the protesters that were there.

Looking ahead toward this coming week the president's plans for Afghanistan and his announcement to the nation, what do you expect to hear?

LUCAS: Well, I expect we're going to hear a troop increase, which is what James Mattis at the Pentagon, what H.R. McMaster, the National Security Advisor, have been pushing for. Probably several thousand troops in addition to about 13,000 that are already there.

But there's a why - well, there are two questions. One is the strategic question is, what exactly are you doing in terms of political, economic, social questions in Afghanistan?

We're now 16 years into this conflict and the root cause is not a war with the Taliban. The root cause is the Taliban still commands the support, whether or not they are coercing it or it's willing, of almost half of the territory in the country. So, putting in more troops isn't going to be enough. And that raises the political question.

We know that Steve Bannon opposed this troop increase. We know that he wanted to privatize the war, for example, with people like Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. Will Bannon and the hard-right outlets support this or will they, as they have promised they will do, wage war on H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, because they believe that figures within the White House working against Trump's.

So, we're going to a domestic dispute over this as well as questions about what happens on the ground.

HOWELL: Delving into the detail and nuance there. Scott Lucas, thanks so much for your time today.

LUCAS: Thank you.

HOWELL: Spanish police have identified this man as a key suspect in last week's deadly terror attacks, but they fear he may have already fled the country. Those details ahead.

[02:15:02] Plus North Korea is reacting to the US military drills with South Korea. Its latest threats against Guam and Hawaii. Also, we're learning more about the moment deadly mudslides hit Sierra Leone from people who survived them. And now, they're begging for help.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOWELL: Back with the breaking news story. We're following ten US Navy sailors are missing after the USS John S. McCain, a guided- missile destroyer, collided with a merchant ship near Singapore. This happened early Monday morning. Five sailors are injured.

Let's get some analysis now with Carl Schuster. Carl is a professor at Hawaii Pacific University on the phone with us from Honolulu, Hawaii. It's good to have you with us, Carl. So, first, let's talk a bit about where this collision happened exactly. One of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

CARL SCHUSTER, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR, HAWAII PACIFIC UNIVERSITY: Indeed. It's happened in east of Singapore. So, it's just outside the entrance to the Strait of Malacca or the Singapore Strait, which leads to it.

The ship was en route to Singapore, which is one of the world's top ten busiest sports. The collision appears to have occurred - the pictures, I think, show that she was hit just at her mid-ships, probably in the number two gas turbine engineering room. So, the flooding would've affected the watch in there and possibly (INAUDIBLE 3:28) nearby.

HOWELL: And, obviously, there is a rescue effort underway right now. Ten sailors missing at this point. We know that five were injured. How critical is it at this point in time, the search for these ten sailors? How important is time, now that we're some nine hours on?

SCHUSTER: Yes, sir. Time is always critical. Even though the water there is warm, typically the longer the men are at sea, particularly in that climate, dehydration sets in. And so, typically, you want to find them within 48 hours.

After that, their chances decline somewhat. And the odds of your finding them also diminish with time. So, that's why there's such a massive effort upfront and they'll typically continue for the next two to three days.

HOWELL: OK. And we haven't talked a great deal about the other ship involved in this. We understand that it is a merchant ship, and notably a much bigger ship than the navy ship. Give us some perspective there. SCHUSTER: Yes sir. The ship it hit (INAUDIBLE 4:33) is a 30,000 gross registered tonne chemical or oil carrier. And so, in terms of raw displacements, she is somewhere between four and six times as large as McCain.

Her top speed is only around 9 to 10 knots, so she is considerably slower. She has also only got one propeller. So, given her size and speed, she is not very maneuverable. So, the McCain would have had a speed barring, something that we've seen. McCain would have had a speed maneuverability (INAUDIBLE 5:06).

[02:20:08] HOWELL: Carl Schuster with context there. Thank you so much for your time today.

Moving on now to Spain, an international manhunt is underway for a key suspect in the Barcelona van attack, an attack that killed 13 people.

Spanish Police believe that this man may have fled the country. It was one of their first steps toward securing the northern border with France, but they can't guarantee that he didn't escape despite their efforts.

In the meantime, investigators are learning more chilling details about everything the terror cell had planned. Our Isa Soares has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Standing strong and united, a defiant Barcelona living up to its motto, "More than a club". Today, a city, a fitting ending to what has been a solemn day.

Earlier, Spaniards gathered outside the symbolic Sagrada Familia. Inside, Spain's King Felipe and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pay tribute to those who died and the more than 100 injured.

But prayers hadn't even been heard when the tragedy of August 17th was relived once more. Authorities telling CNN seven-year-old Julian Cadman thought to be missing was confirmed dead.

(on-camera): As the country continues to come together, both to grieve and to mourn, police are making strides on what has become an increasingly complex investigation.

JOSEP LLUIS TRAPERO, HEAD OF THE CATALAN POLICE (through translator): They had planned one or more attacks in Barcelona with explosives that were made during these days in the hopes of causing even greater damage.

SOARES (voice-over): Their grand plan orchestrated from right here. They may have long gone, but their shadow continues to haunt the sleepy town.

For days now, controlled explosions have rocked Alcanar. Police carefully sifting through rubble and the pile of explosives, taking stock of the magnitude of what was being planned. TRAPERO (through translator): The number of canisters is more than

100 at the moment, but the inspection isn't over yet. It will probably last days because it's a very slow process.

As you know, this is the kind of explosive used habitually in Daesh attacks. And we're finding the ingredients to make this kind of explosive.

SOARES: For six months, they squatted in this house until a mistake by them forced their hand. Since that explosion, police say they have discovered human remains belonging to two suspected terrorists. A third suffered serious injuries and is now under arrest.

As the pieces of the puzzle come together, this man, Younes Abouyaaquob, is still on the run. Police may have intensified the hunt with reinforcements in highways and borders, but five days on from the terror attack, they acknowledge he may have slipped through the net.

Isa Soares, CNN - Barcelona.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: Isa, thank you for the report. Military drills are getting underway between the US and South Korea and drawn a new round of threats from Pyongyang.

On Sunday, North Korean state media called the drills reckless and said they were a move toward a possible nuclear war. They also said its military can target Guam and target Hawaii and the United States mainland at any time with a "merciless strike."

The Kim regime sees the annual drills as practice for an invasion, but the US and South Korea say they are purely defensive. All of this comes after North Korea threatened to fire missiles toward Guam.

Our Paula Hancocks is following the story live in Seoul, South Korea. Paula, good to have you with us this hour. So, these drills mark an inflection point any time they happen between North Korea and the US, given though the heated rhetoric of late. Is there a greater sense of sensitivity there?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, George, as you say, this is exactly the way you expect North Korea to react.

Just ahead of the drills, we have this statement from the newspaper on Sunday calling this reckless behavior by the United States. They consistently blame the US for carrying out these drills, saying that these exercises are the reason that tensions arising on the Peninsula.

Now, clearly, this time around, tensions were particularly high even before we got to this point. So, certainly, there is an added concern. But it is the kind of rhetoric that we would expect from North Korea.

We've heard from the many officials. We've heard from the Secretary of Defense in the United States James Mattis saying that North Korean knows these are defensive drills. It is just something that they feel they have to tell to their domestic audience and to make a fuss of it, but he said there is no room for miscalculation here because everybody knows that they are defensive.

And we heard something similar from the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[02:25:04] MOON JAE-IN, PRESIDENT OF SOUTH KOREA (through translator): There is no intent at all to heighten military tensions on the Korean peninsula as these drills are held annually and of a defensive nature.

North Korea should not exaggerate our efforts to keep peace nor should they engage in provocations that would worsen the situation using the exercises as an excuse.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HANCOCKS: Now, I should point as well a little bit about these exercises. They're called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. They start today. They go on for ten days. But they are mainly a computer simulation.

So, you will expect - and we heard this from Secretary Mattis as well - that there will be a lot of soldiers hunched over computers. It's not going to be the thousands of US Marines landing on a South Korean beach that you see often in the spring time. It's not going to be the massive live fire drills that are very dramatic pictures quite frankly that North Korea could see as a provocation.

It's far more low key when it comes to the physical footage that you might see and there is very little, if no, access by the US military and the South Korean military at this point.

Whether that makes a difference to North Korea, whether the fact that they don't see provocative pictures makes a difference, we'll just have to wait and see because just the fact that these drills are going is infuriating them at this point. George?

HOWELL: Paula, it's certainly important to point out that these will be different than other drills of the past, but the question, as you raise, will that difference make a difference for North Korea?

Paula Hancocks live for us. Thank you so much for the report.

Still ahead, the Afghanistan conflict is the longest running war in US history. And President Trump says that he has a new strategy for the conflict. We'll talk to a security and intelligence expert about options ahead.

And in less than 10 hours' time, millions of people will begin witnessing a total solar eclipse. What they can expect from the celestial event, as CNN NEWSROOM concludes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HOWELL: Welcome back to our viewers around the world. You are watching CNN NEWSROOM. It is good to have you with us. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.

The US Navy is searching for ten sailors missing after the USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, collided with a merchant ship. This happened east of Singapore. Five sailors are injured and there is some damage to the ship with flooding in several places.

In Spain, police say they cannot confirm if a key suspect in last week's deadly terror attacks is still in the country. They believe this man may have fled north, past the border with France. The attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils left 14 people dead and more than 100 people wounded.

The US President Donald Trump is planning to address the nation Monday to announce what the White House calls the path forward -

HERE

(HEADLINES)

[02:30:17] GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to address the nation Monday to announce what the White House calls the path forward with regards to Afghanistan. He and his defense secretary, James Mattis, have spent months working on this new strategy. Mattis says it will cover all of South Asia.

Let's bring in CNN intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer, for more on what we can expect from this announcement.

Bob, it's good to have you with us this hour.

This, from a president who has criticized U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It's a decision that was several months in the making since he took office. What do you expect to hear from President Trump and what do you believe is needed there?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: I think he's going to boost the troop level. There's been no indication we're going to pull out of Afghanistan at all, I mean at this point. I just don't think this president is willing to say, hey, I can't win the war, so let's pull out. Frankly, what he's up against is this is an unwinnable war. It's not just a war against the war against the Taliban. It's a war against the Pashtun Tribal Confederation, which spans the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, some 40 million people. So adding 3,000 or 4,000 troops may sound good on paper, but it's not going to take back Afghanistan.

HOWELL: Let's talk about the options that were considered before the president has reached this particular conclusion. Options to increase troops, as you pointed out. Options to reduce those numbers. And another that was floated to send in private mercenaries, but reports indicate that last option was never taken seriously. BAER: The private mercenaries won't work. It's going to make no

difference to our fate on the battlefields. Sending Eric Prince's Blackwater is not going to win this war. I know Erik Prince has been out there promoting this with Steve Bannon and a lot of other people. I just don't think McMaster, the national security adviser, or Mattis, the secretary of defense, are going to buy off on this.

I think the most we can do at this point is hold ground, because the Taliban is contesting and controlling 50 percent of Afghanistan. They're doing better today than they have ever done since we invaded in 2001. You know, frankly, this president doesn't know what to do. And this is why it's taken so long.

What it would take to occupy Afghanistan is more than 100,000 troops. And that would be indefinitely. It would do nothing for the Pashtun that are on the other side of the border in Pakistan. So it a quagmire that no one has an easy solution for.

HOWELL: Bob, one thing the U.S. president did do after taking office, dropping the Mother of all Bombs in Afghanistan. It was an action that caught attention around the world. But you described this as an unwinnable war. What more would you say the U.S. government, the president, can do here?

BAER: The only thing that the president could do is add a lot more troops, and I don't think that's politically acceptable in the United States. I mean, we're talking about tens of thousands of additional troops, a true surge. And even at that point, we're not going to be able to completely reoccupy Afghanistan. It's too difficult, logistically, the mountains. The Taliban are a good fighting force. They're well armed by Iran and Russia. There is no easy way. There's no path to victory in Afghanistan. These people are fighting occupation, and they will continue to fight.

HOWELL: And you pointed out earlier that the possibility of pulling all troops out, you say that way out of this situation. But again, we're talking about a president of the United States, Donald Trump, who has that binary of wins and losses. Do you think it would even be a possibility for President Trump leaving Afghanistan and chalking this up to a loss?

BAER: Well, I think -- he said during the campaign that he would pull out completely, but he's changed his mind. You're right, this president cannot see himself defeated in Afghanistan. He doesn't want to be known as president who lost Afghanistan.

You know, this is just like Vietnam and so many other conflicts I've seen where presidents -- it's easy to get in, but very difficult to get out.

HOWELL: Bob Baer, giving us some insight and analysis.

Thank you for your time, Bob.

BAER: Thanks, George.

HOWELL: Let's get some insight now on the ground with journalist, Catherine James, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

It's good to be you with us this hour.

I'm sure you just heard the interview with our analyst, Bob Baer, describing this as an unwinnable war. Talk to us about the situation on the ground there, and whether more troops, as these modest numbers that have been floated, whether more troops would make a difference.

[02:35:17] CATHERINE JAMES, JOURNALIST: What is expected is that more troops will come, as Bob has mentioned. What we're looking at is that the military strategists and the political strategists think this is the best option. At this point, the Taliban, having gained as much ground as they have, controls up to half the country at this point. There's very much a sense that something needs to be done in order to not simply just maintain this as a status quo but to start to make some kind of pushback.

Also, keep in mind that the U.S. is engaged in two separate missions here. One is a joint mission with NATO. That is a training and advice role. One is its own mission under a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government to engage in combat. What we've been seeing is U.S. troops engaging is combat with ISIL. ISIL is also a very, I think, a significant part of this decision. Because what we saw happening in Iraq when the U.S. did pull out was there left some sort of power vacuum. And we saw the rise of the Islamic State. So there may also be a move to try to not leave Afghanistan, because there is a fear of could we possible see a repeat of something like that. We could see something much worse than the Taliban.

HOWELL: This described as one of the longest, if not the longest war in U.S. history.

Help our viewers will understand the strategic importance of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Might have lost the signal there. I think we'll have to come back here in a moment.

But Catherine James is a journalist on the ground in Kabul, Afghanistan.

If you can hear us, Catherine, we appreciate your insight. We'll try to get you back here on the show. Thanks for your time.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands protested the jailing of thee pro- democracy activist. They were sentenced last week to six to eight months in jail for unlawful assembly. Critics say Beijing's fingerprints are all over the decision. One of the three sentenced is Joshua Wong, who became the face of the so-called Umbrella Movement in 2014. It called for more independent elections.

Still ahead on NEWSROOM, plastic pollution is destroying the world's oceans. How one organization is fighting back in the South Pacific.

Also, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will sweep across the United States. It will here, in just a few hours' time. Ahead, an important warning for people who plan to watch the total solar eclipse.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[02:40:05] HOWELL: The situation in Sierra Leone, people there are pleading for help after last week's devastating mudslides. The death toll has now risen to nearly 500 people dead and hundreds more are still missing.

CNN's Farai Sevenzo tells you about the thousands of survivors who are now displaced.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FARAI SEVENZO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPODNENT: Since the mudslide last Monday, Freetown has been some respite from the rains. But survivors of the tragedy are beginning to swell. 20,000 are now homeless says a presidential spokesman.

The government has issued an appeal for help as the threat of disease looms. And people are without shelter in the harsh rainy season.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need the support so that we can get permanent housing solutions for this unfortunate people that are scattered all over the city and dealing with the challenge of hygiene as we are speaking.

SEVENZO: Schools and churches are being used to shelter the homeless. And for many here, the memories of the mudslide are still raw. And they have been telling stories of incredible loss.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We just saw the hill coming down. After that, somebody came and took us. When they carry my child -- I didn't see my husband again. I look for him. I look for him. I didn't see my uncle. My sister, she lost two of her children.

SEVENZO: About a third of those killed when the rain and mud carried everything in its path to the valley below were children.

This has left children parentless and parents childless in one morning.

The government knows the task ahead is enormous and is calling for help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This shouldn't happen to Sierra Leone, shouldn't happen to anybody. This is why we are appealing very passionately, come to the aide of Sierra Leone, who have never received a disaster of such magnitude in just one day

SEVENZO: This young man tells CNN he lost everything. As he looks up at the hills where large red scare on the mud is, he echoes the government plea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are pleading to people in the world, if you can hear us, help us, please.

SEVENZO: Farai Sevenzo, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: The Iraqi government says it has launched an offensive to drive ISIS out of the northwestern city of Tel Afar. The prime minister of the nation says that ISIS now has no choice but to surrender or be killed. But an Iraqi military commander says the battle for Tel Afar won't be easy. The city is one of the last significant areas in Iraq controlled by the militant group after it was driven out of Mosul earlier this year.

Mysterious sonic attack on U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Cuba may have targeted more people than first thought.

CNN's Patrick Oppmann has more now from Havana.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: CNN has learned that 10 U.S. diplomates and family members were injured by acoustic attacks, but it's unclear who was behind these incidents. In addition, five Canadian diplomats and some of their family members were also affected.

What took place, U.S. officials tell CNN, is sonic weapons starting late last year were placed outside the homes of both U.S. and Canadian diplomats. They put out an acoustic wave or frequency that is not always able to be picked up by the human ear but it has very real physical impacts on people. It can cause nausea, headaches, even hearing loss.

Within a few months when this began, U.S. diplomats said they complained to Cuban officials, demanded an investigation, and that they have received some cooperation. The Cuban government has allowed FBI agents to come to the island, look into diplomates homes, search these homes. But they have not found any devices that could have carried out these attacks.

Some of the attacks were audible, but U.S. diplomats were not able to determine where the source of the sound came from. U.S. government officials tell us when they left the rooms, immediately the symptoms ceased. This indicates, U.S. government officials tell CNN, these were not eavesdropping equipment that had malfunction, but actual targeted attacks on people. It's not clear who has this kind of capability and what the motive would be for attacking U.S. or Canadian diplomats in Havana.

So while there's more information coming to light, the mystery surrounding this case continues.

Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[02:45:05] HOWELL: Patrick, thank you. Parts of the world's oceans have turned into dumping grounds for garbage. Much of it is plastic. Now a giant new garbage patch has been discovered in the South Pacific. The plastic pollution is a major threat to marine life, and one non-profit group is sounding the alarm, doing all that they can to find a solution.

CNN's Lynda Kinkade has this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LYNDA KINKADE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The South Pacific Ocean, a vast marine landscape, a precious part of our earth.

But take a closer look and scientists say it's becoming a plastic garbage dump.

CAPT. CHARLES MOORE, FOUNDER, ALGALITA MARINE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION: Here I am standing on Hivex (ph) Buoy Island.

KINKADE: Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research and Education, a non-profit group dedicated to solving the sea's plastic pollution problem.

In 1997, Captain Moore discovered a massive garbage patch in the nor Pacific. Now they've found another further south. Now has team has confirmed the existence of another further south off the coast of Chile and Peru. Captain Moore estimates it to be two million square kilometers, larger than Mexico.

Here's how it formed. Winds around a persistent high-pressure system drive ocean currents, creating a vortex, causing debris to collect in a central location.

MOORE: I call it a plastic soup. If you think of the ocean as the liquid in a soupy, we've gone from creamy to extra chunky.

KINKADE: Captain Moore and his team spend months patrolling the South Pacific collecting samples, from large objects to plastic the size of a grain of rice.

MOORE: The surface waters are where we see the debris. And it is mostly particulate. The size class that is most common is between one and three millimeters in diameter. But we find interesting objects. A lot of tubs that are used in sorting fish in the fisheries that are manufactured n New Zealand. We found a lot of fishing buoys. And of course, the most common things we find out there are the floating bottles and the bottle caps.

KINKADE: The plastic poses a major threat to marine life. Small lantern fish come to the surface at night to feed on plankton. Many eat small micro plastic instead and are then unable to swim back to the bottom, the plastic acting like a buoy.

Not only do these fish ingest chemicals but so do the larger fish who eat them.

Algalita Marine Research found 35 percent of lantern fish in the previously discovered North Pacific garbage patch are eating plastic.

The researchers are now sifting through the samples to try to get a better understanding of what types of plastics they've collected.

But Captain Moore says it's our throw-away society that needs to change.

MOORE: We have to fear plastic, for not only what it is doing to the marine environment but what it's doing to us. We need to fear it and we need to respect it because it is being treated like waste, like trash, like it's just this bathroom that you throw away. We have to have a new attitude about that in which we realize that it must have an afterlife. It must be reincarnated. It must be part of a circular economy. Or it's going to end up in the ocean and destroy marine life. So we are now working with plastic companies, with Coca-Cola. We're working desperately to reshape the thinking of those who are making this stuff to create this infrastructure to take it back, to have a circular economy.

Linda Kinkade, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[02:49:10] HOWELL: Paying attention while driving seems to be an obvious thing to do, but a Chinese motorist has learned the lesson the hard way. Look at that. Failing to see a sink hole that formed in middle of the road right in front of him and plunging right into it. It appears he was on his cell phone at the time. That's never a great idea, especially when a sink hole happens in front of you. But the state TV says the man did get out of that giant hole unharmed. Thank goodness.

Still ahead, millions of people are being warned to protect their eyes as they get ready for a total solar eclipse. We'll have details of what's dubbed the eclipse of the century. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOWELL: In the coming hours, millions of Americans will witness a total solar eclipse. This is when the moon blocks the sun and day time turns into semidarkness. Scientists will be giving people a sky- high view of it. Researchers from Montana State University and NASA are teaming up to launch dozens of high-altitude balloons carrying cameras that will catch the eclipse as it crosses the country. That video will be streamed live online.

For those who witness the eclipse from the ground, remember to be careful to protect your eyes.

CNN's chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, explains the dangers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the most important thing I can say about this, which hopefully you have already heard, all of you, is don't look at the sun with your naked eye. It's important advice. Your eyes can be severely damaged. And people say you can go blind from that. That's true. You could go blind.

What happens is the powerful bright of the sun can cause damage to the back of your eye, known as the retina. The intensity of the light, in combination of that focus on the back of your eye can burn it or cook it. That might lead to decreased vision or blindness, which can be permanent.

I don't want to belabor this point of scare people, but even of the glimpse. Say you wanted to look at the sun before it completely became hidden behind the moon, even that glimpse is too much. And because you may not feel any pain, you won't know that your retina is actually becoming damaged or too hot.

Your best bet is to get a pair of these glasses. Your sunglasses aren't going to do the trick, no matter how fancy or how expensive or how polarized. You need to get eclipse glasses like this. In part, because they have a safety standard. The most important feature of which is the filter. That is going to reduce the sun's brightness to a safe and comfortable level. It'll be like looking at a full moon instead. It also blocks ultraviolet and infrared radiation. A really good bet to get one of these pairs of glasses.

Remember this for yourself and also if you're going to watch with your kids. Kids may forget. Keep an eye on your children. Make sure they keep the glasses on at all times.

The only time you can look at the sun with your naked eye is when you're in the path of totality. That's when the sun is going to be completely covered by the moon.

I would suggest to you, take some time to listen as well. As the earth is not only going to grow darker but also quieter as wildlife becomes really, really still.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: A good warning from Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Pedram Javaheri joining us now.

Pedram, let's talk about this because, an hour earlier, I heard you talking about the possibility that your eyes can cook --

PEDRAM JAVAHERI, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely.

HOWELL: -- when looking at the sun, so I'm switching from these to these for sure when the time comes for the eclipse in the states.

JAVAHERI: Absolutely. It takes just less than three seconds, too, George. That's a good look.

HOWELL: I can't see you.

[02:55:00] JAVAHERI: I like that.

It took about three seconds. That's the amount of time the sunlight needs to get to the back of your eye and cause permanent damage. That's significant when you think about how quickly that can play out.

You have the sun, earth and moon in perfect alignment for any given location on earth for this to occur once every 400 years. It's never happened in United States' history when it was only exclusive to the United States. This is the only time that we've seen that in almost 300-plus years.

The perspective going coast to coast from Oregon to the Carolinas of the United States. Big questions is, how is the weather going to play out. I want to answer that because it plays a significant role in what you'll be able to see. Here's what it looks like. Notice the northwestern corner of the country, that is where clear skies are expected. In the central region, some thunderstorms. In the coastal region into the southeast and the Carolinas, thunderstorms potential high across that region.

Fascinating because this makes all the difference. We're talking about the sun. The sun is 400 times wider than the moon. But by cosmic coincidence, at this point in time in human history, the moon is also about 400 times farther away as well. When you look at this together, that's why from earth the perspective lines on a perfect solar eclipse where it looks like they are the exact same size. And the full eclipse occurs when this happens, totality. Notice, a narrow strip of land. We're talking about 100 kilometers where the path of totality will be present. That's why some towns like in the state of Wyoming, which have a population of around 200 people, are expecting 100,000 people to turn out by Monday afternoon across that region.

But really fascinating to think about the light and the amount of totality. You might think if you're at 95, 96, 97 percent of coverage, going to get pretty dark, that's not really the case. Not even at 99 percent will you have complete darkness or anywhere near. In fact, when you get to 100 percent totality, it is 10,000 times darker than at 99 percent coverage of the moon. That's because of the extreme brightness level of the sun.

A good way to think about it, if you've slept in a hotel with blackout curtains, George. I know with our schedule at CNN, we have blackout curtains at home.

HOWELL: Yes, we do.

JAVAHERI: A little bit of that curtain being opened allows a tremendous amount of light in, right? Same perspective. 99 percent coverage will allow a tremendous amount of light in. And 100 percent will make it almost entirely dark outside. A pretty neat sight.

HOWELL: Be sure to wear the glasses.

JAVAHERI: Yes.

HOWELL: Thank you so much.

And thank you for being with us. We'll be right back after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [03:00:09] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.