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Interview With Mossad Former Director Efraim Halevy; Interview With Former U.S. State Department Middle East Negotiator And Carnegie Endowment For International Peace Senior Fellow Aaron David Miller, Interview With China National Association Of International Studies Director Victor Gao; Interview With Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service President And CEO Krish Vignarajah. Aired 2-3p ET

Aired March 15, 2023 - 14:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello everyone and welcome to AMANPOUR. Here is what's coming up.



AMANPOUR: Unprecedented resistance in Israel as Benjamin Netanyahu continues his controversial judicial overhaul, millions voice their support

for democracy. And we speak to a former Mossad chief and a former American peace negotiator.

Then --



AMANPOUR: The great wall of steel. Xi Jinping vows to build one to ward off the United States. How will joint military drills between China, Russia

and Iran create a new dynamic?



KRISH VIGNARAJAH, PRESIDENT AND CEO, LUTHERAN IMMIGRATION & REFUGEE SERVICE: It's frustrating that 18 months after the withdrawal, there are

still tens of thousands of Afghan allies caught up in a completely unnecessary legal limbo.


AMANPOUR: An uncertain future. The harsh reality of life for Afghan evacuees in the United States.

Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

Tonight, democracy watch in one of the world's most traveled yet important regions. Israel is facing unprecedented internal unrest as Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu forges ahead with a controversial bill to allow lawmakers a political veto over the Supreme Court, the independent

judiciary. Millions have taken to the streets in some of the largest protests the country has ever seen. Business leaders, legal experts, and

ex-military chiefs are also voicing concerns. And many serving military offices and reservists are threatening to refuse if the bill passes.

Ever since its creation, Israel has proclaimed itself the sole democracy amid dictatorships and authoritarians in that region. Its strongest allies,

like the United States, have touted that democracy as a reason for its steadfast backing. Yet even their support is shifting. We discuss all of

this and the ramifications with our guest tonight.

First, a rare international interview with Efraim Halevy. Former head of Mossad, one of the pillars of the state devoted to security he joined me

from Tel Aviv.


AMANPOUR: Efraim Halevy, welcome to our program. Can I start by asking you about a letter you, yourself, signed along, you know, with other former

heads of Mossad and many, many former members of the intelligence agency in which you talked about this legislation and you feared the uncontrollable

and hasty nature of it. Can I ask you why you chose to write such a public letter at this time? What is at the heart of your concern?

EFRAIM HALEVY, FORMER DIRECTOR OF MOSSAD: Two methods concern me. One was that the last general election, which was held very shortly -- short time

ago, was an election which was decided on supposedly other issues entirely. The intention of having a constitutional change was never mentioned because

had it been mentioned, they probably would've lost the election.

So, I think what they did was they decided not to reveal it to their own constituency and not to reveal it to the public at large, and to spring it

upon the public at large only after they had been elected on a false premise.

AMANPOUR: Golly. That is quite an allegation. And coming from somebody like you, it carries, you know, a huge amount of weight. I guess what I'm -

- want to know then is, what do you think is happening? From what we read, there is a so-called judicial overhaul that everybody says, or at least

Benjamin Netanyahu says, is nothing to worry about. We understand that it might be, you know, kind of backlash from very religious people in Israel

and also the settler movement. What is at the heart of this judicial overhaul?

HALEVY: The heart of the judicial overhaul is that in the future, there will not be any judicial review of legislation in parliament. In other

words, parliament was free to legislate without having any counterparts in the judicial system.

AMANPOUR: And do you believe that threatens what?


HALEVY: That threatens what is normally called democracy, because in democracy you have a balance of power between the various elements that

make up the democracy. You have the legislation, the legislative part of it. You have the courts and you have the general public. And if you don't

have the courts anymore, it means to say that the -- there is no protection even for minority rights in this new set up.

AMANPOUR: Let me play you a soundbite. A little bit of an interview that I did with a recently retired ambassador, Israel's ambassador to Paris. Her

name is Yael German, and this is what she said to me.

YAEL GERMAN, FORMER ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO FRANCE: There will be no restriction for the parliament of the government. And as a matter of fact,

it can do whatever it want and decide whatever it want. And this is not a democracy. I would say this is a dictator.

AMANPOUR: Do you agree with Yeal German that this really impinges upon Israel's much-wanted democracy?

HALEVY: I agree entirely with Yael German. She's a very, very distinguished lady. And she has had a very long and successful career in

local government as well. I think that she puts her finger on it. If these changes, which are now being discussed in parliament, will actually become

laws then we will no longer be a democracy.

AMANPOUR: So, I want to ask you some of the really interesting, at least from us watching from abroad, and perhaps also from inside Israel. The

reaction from within your community, i.e., not just the intelligence community but the security community and the military.

We have seen now an increasing number of public statements and letters from, let's say, pilots, from the commander units, from other intelligence

units threatening not to come to serve for their reserve duty. Threatening what you might call insubordination over this proposal if it becomes true.

What do you think of that? And why do you think there are so upset about it from that part of the community?

HALEVY: These are people who are, in many cases, risk their lives in order to maintain the security of the state of Israel. If their decision-making

process is going to be one of a dictatorship, then the type of decisions that will be taken by this dictatorship will be unpalatable to these pilots

and these other ranks who are now rising up. These are the centerpiece of Israel's defense capability. And you cannot maintain in equilibrate in

between them and a dictatorship.

AMANPOUR: Well, of course, as you can imagine, Prime Minister Netanyahu and those members of his coalition who want this to happen just obviously

they would deny that they're entering into dictatorship. But furthermore, they call all the critics, you know, just left-wing media or, you know,

paid for by the United States or others. This is what Benjamin Netanyahu said about this.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): When we fight on the battlefield and look right and left, we don't do so to check

the political views of our brothers and sisters. We look right and left knowing that we are storming together. Shoulder to shoulder. Against our

enemies. To ensure our security and our future. In a public struggle, there is room for protest, there is room for disagreements, for expressing

opinions. But there is no room for refusal.

AMANPOUR: You were an active chief and, you know, one of your -- or many of your people would come to you and say, sir, I cannot operate. I cannot

serve under these circumstances. Netanyahu says, there is no grounds for refusal.

HALEVY: There is every ground for refusal. And the fact of the matter is that he concealed this plan of theirs before the election and only revealed

it after the election. He knew full well that if this had been the election platform of his party and his side of the aisle in the parliament, he would

not have won the election. And a person who misleads the public on such a key issue, might also mislead the public and also mislead the forces who

are risking their lives in assessing what should be done on the security field.

AMANPOUR: So, why do you think he's taken such a risky move because not only have you laid out the risks from your side of the fence. But the

governor of the Bank of Israel has also said that this is, you know, crazy. Others have appealed to the president to, "Stop this insanity." Your

president. Some have, you know, said that could cause civil war.


Why do you think Bibi Netanyahu has taken the step. Not to mention, you know, criticism and concern from major allies like the United States?

HALEVY: I am not a psychologist and I don't pretend to be a psychiatrist either. But I believe that the Benjamin Netanyahu of today is not the

Benjamin Netanyahu that I knew when he appointed me head of Mossad. And I grieve for this, but I cannot accept that he could -- should continue and

lead the country. And I believe, therefore, that if no solution is found to put this new project of his into wraps and never to be unwrapped, then I

think we will be entering a situation of non-constitutional divide.

AMANPOUR: Can I take you across into the occupied territories, into the West Bank. You have seen what's been going on. There have been, you know,

since the start of the year even more deaths than this time last year, at least 14 Israelis, 80 Palestinians have been killed. Also, the rampage of

settlers inside the occupied West Bank on the village of Huwara. How concerned are you about this? What could it lead to, do you think?

HALEVY: I'm very concerned because I believe that what happened in Huwara is a disgrace and a shame for Israel. It also only shows how the -- shall

we say, the illness of the Israeli system has seeped into the IDF as well. We have now a general who is only recently was commanding a major force in

the West Bank who is now a member of parliament. And he said that he believed that the solution for what happened was -- would be indication

that happened a week or two ago of simply demolishing a whole village.

So, I believe, here you have an example of the damage done by the policies of the current new government.

AMANPOUR: On a more geopolitical level in your region, what do you think it means for Israel that China has brokered this rapprochement between

Saudi Arabia and Iran.

HALEVY: I have published an article in a local newspaper here which also has an English edition. And I have said this is something which, on the

face of it, is very startling. And therefore, I think we should not prejudge it. And we should find ways and means of trying to analyze this

new development and understand what it is that brought the Iranians to their rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. And whether the time has come for

Israel also to seek a different policy towards Iran and maybe in a clever way and in a concealed manner to try and assess whether there is a

possibility of finding a, shall we say rapprochement between Israel and Iran.

AMANPOUR: Golly, Mr. Halevy, I feel like I'm hallucinating. That's heresy, isn't it, for Israeli policy, left and right for -- ever since the Iranian

revolution. Is there really a possibility, do you think? How would that -- what would it look like?

HALEVY: I do not know if there is a possibility. But I say that if this is what has happened, which would look on the face of it to be an impossible

development. That China of all countries and powers in the world would be able to put together such an agreement, then we have to look into it more

deeply and to find what the motives are of all the parties who are involved in this. And maybe we could look to a different approach to the Iranian-

Israeli conflict which Israel did not seek at the outset.

We had a very good relationship with Iran under the previous leadership of the Shah. There is no real conflict of interest between Israel and Iran. We

don't have a territorial conquest -- confrontation. We don't have a common border. And there is no real reason that there should be a enmity and a

state of war between Israel and Iran.

AMANPOUR: Fascinating. And I'll dig deeper into that with our next guest. Efraim Halevy, thank you very much indeed.

HALEVY: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: So, let us dig deeper now on these extraordinary ideas and claims, really the gloves were off from Efraim Halevy.


Aaron David Miller is a former Middle East negotiator at the State Department and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for

International Peace. And he's joining me now from Washington.

Welcome back to our program. You know, I was quite startled and I took notice at the very blunt words of the former head of the Mossad. What

struck you most?


think it's precisely that. Not just Efraim Halevy is a very wise man. In fact, instrumental with Former Prime Minister Abin in the negotiations that

led to the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. It's not just from Efraim Halevy, Christiane. It's from so many former Shin Bet operatives. Head of

Mossad, Danny Yatom, said last month that if in fact judicial reform went through then -- the military side there was no compelling reason to obey

the orders of legitimate government.

I sat with three Israeli reservists yesterday who were bringing the same message to Washington, that I think is extraordinary. And Efraim's notion

that it is the men and women who put themselves in harm's way to defend this state, who are now coming out with, I think, a message the fate of the

state, the character of the state of Israel, a democracy, an imperfect democracy perhaps. But a democracy alone in this region that these are the

stakes and the future of the state of Israel as it approaches its 75th anniversary when the borders of the state nor the identity of the state are

yet settled.

These are tumultuous time. And judicial reform effort, I think is a major threat to both Israel's peaceful integration in the region and its

democratic character.

AMANPOUR: So, before I ask you how the U.S. should react, you mentioned it's peaceful reintegration in the region. It looks like, sort of, an end

run has been done by the Saudis and the Iranians via the Chinese around what Netanyahu had hoped would be increasing reintegration. He, I assume,

wanted to have a deal with Saudi Arabia. What does that mean, that deal, for the region, for Israel, and actually for the United States.

MILLER: I mean, I've written about this. And I think we need to wait and see to determine whether or not this is some sort of transformational

moment or whether it's just another twist and turn in the complexities of the Middle East labyrinth.

I think that this was driven in large part, Christiane, by Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS. I think he's sending a very unmistakable message to the

Biden administration which is the Middle East souq is now open and you, Mr. President and you Americans are not the only customer. I think he's also

hedging with respect to Iran, 150 miles separate to two countries. He knows there is an asymmetry of strength and weakness in favor of Iran with regard

to Saudi Arabia. So, I think he's hedging there.

And he's given the Chinese an extraordinary opportunity together with Iran, basically, Americas erstwhile international adversary. Brokers an agreement

between the Biden administration's erstwhile regional adversary and a presumptive ally of the United States Saudi Arabia. So, yes. I think the

administration on this one is -- even though they were well informant along the road, these negotiations were taking place, is looking it up -- looking

at them, Christiane, larger (ph) from the outside.

AMANPOUR: You know, back to the internal Israeli dynamic right now, the drama that's some folding. As you mentioned and Efraim Halevy mentioned,

you know, a growing number of stakeholders are complaining and out on the streets, including in an interview with Richard Quest, the governor of the

Bank of Israel. And we know that U.S. investors are, you know, warning about, you know, messing around with the independent judiciary. We know

that, you know, the shekel has taken a dive. Here is a little bit about what Amir Yaron said.


AMIR YARON, GOVERNOR, BACK OF ISRAEL (through translator): I cannot be clearer than this. The independence of the governor, the independence of

the Central Bank are critical to the economy. Any country that has tinkered, let alone weakened the independence of the central bank has

suffered dire economic consequences.


AMANPOUR: So, it's from all quarters now, the complaints, including you know, the business quarter. Again, what do you think is going to happen?

Who's going to sort out some sort of compromise?

MILLER: I think -- back to Efraim Halevy's notion that it's not the same Benjamin Netanyahu with whom he dealt during the '90s or even in the early

outs (ph).


I think the prime minister was triply -- have been risk-averse, frankly, and a proponent of judicial independence has now become risk ready. And I

think it's driven largely by a number of factors including the reality, Christiane, that his ongoing trial for bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Now, its third year in the Jerusalem district court is, in many reflects (ph), driving this.

Israel has had five elections. Largely because Mr. Netanyahu would not allow any government to be formed or easily -- party to participate in any

government unless he figured out a way to get a majority in an effort to pass judicial override which would somehow immunize him or delay or

undermine his current trial. I think that, frankly, coincides with the interests of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir who want to use the

judicial override, I think, in order to pass legislation that will bind most of the West Bank. Jerusalem is already next to the state of Israel to

Israel proper.

So, I think judicial reform, the occupation, it's all part of the same piece. And it's heading in a very bad direction if, in fact, this goes

through. And three Knesset readings are passed. The Supreme Court then declares this "Unconstitutional", even though Israel doesn't have a formal

constitution, I think you can see -- you might see massive civil disobedience. Hopefully not violence. But you're talking about a functional

state, frankly, on the cusp of becoming a dysfunctional.

AMANPOUR: You know, I also want to ask you about what Halevy said about Iran and whether -- he posed the question about whether it's a moment now

for Israel to think of a different relationship with Iran. How does that strike you?

MILLER: Hard to imagine, frankly. He was talking about the period before the revolution in 1979 in which Iran and Israel enjoyed quite a close

cooperative relationship on the security and intelligence side. I see this Chinese broker to Iranian-Saudi deal, frankly, Christiane, as much of a

transactional sort of arrangement. Not a transformation. And I think it's going to be extremely difficult for any number of reasons for even quiet

talks between Israel and Iran to get started in order to narrow the gaps and ideology and in regional power than separate the two sides.

AMANPOUR: And what should the U.S. do now? I mean, look, the United States has been Israel's main backer for all these decades based on many, many,

many reasons. But even now, we can see that sentiment is shifting. A new poll is about to come out, you know, delineating that, and I'm talking

about sentiment in the United States. towards -- more towards Palestinians. What should the U.S. do if there is a full-blown constitutional crisis

inside Israel?

MILLER: Should as opposed to what will it do? I mean, you know, I have my own personal views. But let's be clear, the Biden administration does not

want a major confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu. It's bad politics, as far as they're concerned. They don't see much margin or profit, frankly, in taking

down the Palestinian issue because the prospects right now are pretty grim.

The president and his advisers, including Secretary of Defense Austin. It is extraordinary that Secretary of Defense of the United States of America

would offer official views on the internal --


MILLER: -- two-ins and throw-ins of a fellow democracy.

So, they've delivered their private messages. The president delivered a message through Tom Friedman, with respect to shared values. Mitch

McConnell, and again, as you know, Israel is becoming incredibly politicized with the Republican Party, emerging as the Israel right or

wrong party, the go-to party. Mitch McConnell has already said, at least twice, that the United States should stay out of it. It's an internal

Israeli matter.

I think the administration on the issue of judicial reform will continue to deliver strong private messages. But I don't think they are in a position

where they are willing and or able --


MILLER: -- to have a major fight with Israel on this issue.

AMANPOUR: Well, we'll see how it develops. Aaron David Miller, thank you very much indeed.

Now, as we said, China, Iran and Russia are closing ranks as their relationship with the United States and its allies rapidly deteriorates.

The Chinese defense ministry announced today that it is staging naval drills with Iran and Russia in the Gulf of Oman this week. Chinese Leader,

Xi Jinping, has promised to strengthen its national security and forges its military into a, "Great Wall of Steel."


Meantime, China is accusing the U.S., U.K. and Australia of, in their words, going further down a dangerous road, after they entered a new deal

on nuclear powered submarines which were intended to counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. And as we discussed earlier in the program,

China is also flexing its diplomatic muscles on the world stage. Again, that historic deal that we just talked about. Now, that is reframing the

established order in the Middle East and America's presume dominance there.

So, let's bring you the view from China and all of this with Victor Gao. A former Chinese government official who is joining me now from Beijing.

Victor Gao, welcome back to the program. I know it's super later or super early for you in Beijing. So, thanks for being with us.


AMANPOUR: What do you think when you hear your president, your leader, talk about building a ring of steel? What is that intended to tell his own

people and the world?

GAO: For the Chinese people, Chinese President Xi Jinping's remarks are really very reassuring because in a very dangerous and uncertain world, the

Chinese people do want to have absolute assurance that China's sovereignty and territorial integrity will be fiercely defended. Now, for the rest of

the world, I think China's message is clear. That is China is an independent sovereign nation, standing firmly on its principle, and it will

refuse to be bullied by any country or groups of countries in the world.

In this way China will really do its homework, continue to improve its economic development, but also engage with the rest of the world on equal

terms. And I would say, this peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia really is the first indication that China is now completely independent in

its own initiative.

And you need to expect that more initiatives will come from China mediating and playing good offices (ph) in very difficult situations. Like, for

example, involving Israel and Palestine or involving Myanmar's relations with ASEAN, or even with deep rising (ph) issues on the Korean Peninsula.

You will see a much more proactive profile coming from China based on this self-confidence and assurers (ph), and the need for promoting peace rather

than agitating for war by some other countries in the world.

AMANPOUR: OK. So, that's really extraordinary. I mean, you said a few things that are regional, that makes sense. But then you went and said that

they may get involved between Israel and Palestine, which the Chinese have never done. That's pretty extraordinary if they take that on. Do really

think that's going to happen?

GAO: Absolutely. I think there are already preliminarily initiatives in that direction. Why? Because China has always been a very strong supporter

of the legitimate courses of a Palestinian people on the one hand. On the other hand, China has also been a very close and friendly nation towards

Israel. China is really cooperations are very deeply rooted and covers many industries and areas.

China believes that its good relations with both Palestinians on the one hand, and Israelis on the other hand, gave them this unique position that

they are impartial between Israelis and the Palestinians. And they have the moral high ground to promote peace because China still believes that if

Israelis and Palestinians can work out a better solution to take care of a legitimate interests of both sides it will be a good solution for

themselves as well as for Middle East as a whole.

AMANPOUR: So, Victor --

GAO: I think the -- this --

AMANPOUR: Victor Gao, let me just interrupt you for one second because that leads me to ask you another question. So, China, you said, is showing

its new self-confidence and its desire to play a much bigger world role. It also says, that it abides by the U.N. Conventions and Charters and respects

territorial integrity.

So, can you explain to me how it's squares that circle whereby it's so close to Russia, which has violated the U.N. Charter about invading another

country. And right now, it is, you know, loudly proclaiming that it's about to have unprecedented joint military exercises with Russia and Iran. What -

- that is the message but it's not a message about holding the international law?

GAO: Christiane, allow me to explain this very interesting and very important situation. First of all, among all countries in the world today -



-- China is the only country which has produced -- proposed a peace framework to end the war between Russia and Ukraine, and whichever

countries which stand behind Ukraine. This is a very important initiative because China believes that the war will not of serve any constructive

purpose and eventually, only peace can really restore the confidence of the people in that part of the world and also, create the maximum benefits for

the people in Ukraine, as well as for many other countries in that neighborhood. Prolonging the war is a greater disaster for everyone


Now, on the other hand, China-Russia relations have been normalized since 1991, and it has always been based on equality and good neighborliness and

the bilateral trade started back in 1991. As a matter of fact, it started back in 1989 when the former Soviet Union was still around. And no one

should expect that they can throw a wedge into China-Russian solidarity and cooperation and good neighborliness.

Yes, indeed, that China-Russia are conducting a military exercise, both involving their army, naval forces and air forces, this actually should be

viewed as really a contributor to peace and stability. Not only between China-Russia but in our part of the world.

AMANPOUR: With Iran, I mean, they are very few people who are going to see that as peaceful. But we'll see. But I guess, you know, you talk about the

Chinese peace plan and we know that's been roundly denied and denounced by, I mean, basically it's Russians -- is Russia's peace plan. It's Russia's

idea. So, what do you think President Xi is going to say to President Putin when he visits soon? And then, apparently, we understand he's going to

speak by -- remotely with President Zelenskyy.

GAO: Now, first of all, I think to really promote this peace proposal I think China need to reach out to both Russia and Ukraine. I don't think

there is any firmed-up arrangement as to how this arrangement been China in Ukraine will be eventually finalized. But I can assure you that there are

channels of communication between China and Ukraine at the very top and in multiple ways. So, they keep talking with each other. And be in China and

Russia, of course.

They have hotlines. They can compare notes and talk with each other about many things, not only about the war but more importantly about China-

Russian cooperation in many areas. China is probably the only country today, in the world of today, which is well equipped to broker a deal

between Russia on the one hand and Ukraine on the other hand because it does not have a vested interest.

China's only interest is to promote peace between these two countries on the basis of the U.N. Charter and full respect for sovereignty and

territorial integrity of a member state of the United Nations. On that basis, I think whatever territorial disputes between Russia and Ukraine can

be really talked about in peace and diplomacy rather than through war. And no one should be allowed to pour more fuel onto the war in Ukraine, leading

to more destructions and more loss of civilian lives in Ukraine.

AMANPOUR: Lastly, you know, your foreign minister has defended ties, as you are doing with Russia. He says, the more unstable the world becomes,

the more imperative it is for China and Russia to advance their relations. We know also that there's this -- that there's a real -- I mean, it's

perceived to be a kind of a new alliance against the United States.

So, the U.S. has said that potentially, President Biden is interested in the conversation now that the big party Congress is over with President Xi.

Where do you think relations are? Are they as bad between the U.S. and China as it looks?

GAO: I think China-U.S. relations have never been as bad as it is. And it is also going to further deteriorate in the coming couple years. Whether it

will stabilize in the next administration of the United States, it's not known.

However, I'm confident about the general direction of China-U.S. relations for the medium-term and the longer-term. Because I think Washington is

really worried about two nightmares, and they combine the two nightmares together. They worry about China surpassing that of the United States in

terms of the size of the economy. They also worry that as a result of that, China will impose its views political system ideology on to the United


From the Chinese perspective, these two things are completely not related with each other. China believes that it will continue to grow. And

eventually, the size of its economy will be larger than that of the United States. It's inevitable. It's a mega trend of our world.


But on the other hand, China will never impose its political system or ideology on any other country, especially onto the United States. I think

between China and the United States, what we believe will happen is to live and let live. China and the United States need to live and let the other

side leave rather than, I will live at your expense. This is not the Chinese --

AMANPOUR: OK. Last, last question. One word answer. You talk about the next two years. So, does that mean that Xi Jinping will take back Taiwan by

hook or by crook as he said in the next two years?

GAO: I think the unification of China is a mega trend. Most of the people alive today will live to see the Chinese unification. I hope it will be

done through peaceful means. And I believe nobody should pretend to be surprised once China is reunited.


GAO: China is the only member of the Security Council, permanent member of states, which has not yet achieved the full national reunification because

of the unfinished civil war in 1949. It is time to achieve reunification for China as a whole.

AMANPOUR: Victor Gao, thank you for that perspective from Beijing.

Now, in the year and a half since Americas ignominious Afghan withdrawal, the Taliban have systematically scrubbed away two decades of rights for

women and girls. Now, refugees who managed to escape to America face the real prospect they may be shipped back to live under the thumb of the


The Afghan Adjustment Act, a bill to extend their stay in the U.S. is now stalled in Congress. And if it fails, almost 80,000 Afghan evacuees risked

their freedom and possibly their lives. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, a refugee herself, runs the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and she joins

Hari Sreenivasan to discuss their fate.


HARI SREENIVASAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christiane, thanks. Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, thanks so much for joining us. This conversation

is happening at a time when there are more than 77,000 Afghan evacuees living in the United States right now. And their status is in limbo. Why?

Sort of who are they and what's at stake?

KRISH VIGNARAJAH, PRESIDENT AND CEO, LUTHERAN IMMIGRATION & REFUGEE SERVICE: Yes. The situation is becoming more and more urgent. These are

the evacuees who worked alongside the U.S. military, the U.S. embassy, they were advocates for gender rights, freedom of press, other American and

Western values. And quite frankly, it's frustrating that 18 months after the withdrawal, there are still tens of thousands of Afghan allies caught

up in a completely unnecessary legal limbo.

Essentially, what it means is that they don't have a permanent pathway to legal status. So, they don't know if they can stay in the U.S. or whether

they'll be returned to Afghanistan to face Taliban retribution.

SREENIVASAN: So, your organization, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has resettled about 14,000 of these folks. Tell me a little bit

about what that transition has been like since the American withdrawal, which was at best traumatic.

VIGNARAJAH: So, we've had a chance to meet some incredible people, patriots who really risk their lives, risk their family's lives to help us

in America's longest war. The last, you know, many months have been us helping find affordable housing for them, moving them into those houses,

finding public schools to an older school aged children with. But just candidly, in terms of the toll of the uncertainty, it really has added

immense stress and anxiety to an already difficult experience rebuilding.

You know, a year and a half later, our case managers are still feeling (ph) the question from Afghans on a nearly daily basis, when will I know if I

can stay in the U.S.?

SREENIVASAN: So, that question about staying, I mean, it might seem like a small semantic difference. A lot of Americans watching this are going to

say, just they're kind of shorthanded as refugees. But that word refugee versus people on humanitarian parole is very different. Explain the

distinction for us.

VIGNARAJAH: Yes. So, a refugee is essentially someone who traveled to a third country. They apply to the U.N. or the U.S. government and were able

to resettle in the U.S. But when they arrive in the U.S., essentially, their legal process has ended. Meaning, they've been admitted to the U.S.

They know that they will stay here for the rest of their lives.

Humanitarian parole is a temporary status. So, for these individuals, depending on what the time limit that was allowed it means that they were

able to stay here for a year or two. And now, they have to adjust the status. And so, that's why we've been advocating for the Afghan Adjustment

Act because it would allow them to change their status to a more permanent one. Congress is done this for every modern wartime evacuation -- evacuee

population before.

And so, it would be unprecedented for us to do this -- to not do this for Afghan allies.


SREENIVASAN: So, Senator Klobuchar also has Republican co-sponsors to this Adjustment Act. What's -- why is it stalled right now?

VIGNARAJAH: It's a great question. So, in the previous Congress, we met some initial resistance by a few key Republican senators. Some have raised

concerns about insufficient vetting. And the bill sponsors and supporters have worked in good faith to address them. That's why the Afghan Adjustment

Act actually includes more screening on top of the rigorous process they already underwent. Because I think it's important to bear in mind, they

were vetted during the evacuation, and throughout the following months they spent on U.S. military bases. But I think it's just as important to think

about not just who opposes this bill but who supports this.

There have -- has been such enthusiasm from veterans' organizations, refugee advocates, faith communities, civil society groups. You know, in

fact, recent polling shows that 76 percent of Americans want to do right by our Afghan allies and pass this bill.

SREENIVASAN: You know, for those who might have security concerns, what are the kind of additional steps that have now been taken to sway the

concerns of those Republican members of Congress who might have these? And, you know, if you can describe in kind of a thumbnail the layers of vetting

that have already happened for this population.

VIGNARAJAH: Yes. It's important to understand, when we're talking about the evacuees, when we're talking about refugees, they are the most vetted

immigrants who are entering the U.S. because there has been a long-drawn- out process. You know, these are individuals who were going through biometric checks.

You have our intelligence agencies, Department of Homeland Security, working closely together with the FBI, making sure that basically every

database that we can access to check these individuals against those checks are being down.

And, you know, these are also individuals who are in U.S. communities all across the country. You know, thankfully, we don't have stories every day

about some terrorist who's infiltrated our community. These are individuals who have become our neighbors, they're working in schools, they're working

in hospitals, you know, they're working at the restaurant that we, you know, visit locally. So, these are people that we either knew because they

worked alongside our military and embassies and some of the most sensitive operations abroad or they are individuals who you very quickly got to know

during the vetting as they got on planes, when they were in -- on military bases, in so-called lily pads, third countries, before they came to the


And I think it's important, Hari, to just stress that these are also individuals who have gone through and will go through additional vetting as

a result of the Adjustment Act.

SREENIVASAN: So, is there a specific deadline or does it depend on when these evacuees land in the United States? I mean, what are they facing?

VIGNARAJAH: Yes. So, it depends on when they arrived. Essentially, once they were admitted through a port of entry, they had two years from that

timeframe in order to change their status. So, we are coming up on, you know, that August deadline for many of them, perhaps September. But it is

important to understand that, you know, no immigration process in the U.S. is quick. And so, that's why the sense of urgency, the sense of desperation

is already being felt.

And that's not just by our clients. You know, every day, we hear from landlords who wonder whether the tenants, you know, will be allowed to stay

and obviously, they have been very helpful in terms of opening up housing to this community. Employers who are incredibly grateful to have hired a

skilled and/or, you know, driven employees, and they don't know what's going to happen to these individuals. So, there is a lot of uncertainty

across the board.

SREENIVASAN: And where are these evacuees located around the United States?

VIGNARAJAH: Yes. So, really, they are in communities all across the country. But in particular, you see a significant population in places like

Northern Virginia, Texas. For many, they might have had family here before or they knew that there was a significant Afghan population in a certain

community and gravitated towards that area.


But it is been fascinating that whether we're talking about North Dakota or Oklahoma there have been welcoming communities that have been incredibly

enthusiastic and generous in helping Afghan families finding a new home there.

SREENIVASAN: There are also been different veterans' groups advocating on behalf of these individuals. I mean, in addition to those veterans' groups,

I'm sure there are people lobbying in Congress to try to get this piece of legislation moving. I mean, what have you heard from legislators that

you've heard from?

VIGNARAJAH: Yes. I mean, what you're describing is the broad support that has been a big reason why we've seen such bipartisanship in terms of the

bill's sponsor -- sponsors. In the last Congress, we were able to bring on 10 Senate sponsors with five from each party. So, we're encouraged that the

bill enjoys such bipartisan support. You know, the veterans' groups that have really fought for this every day have been valuable advocates because

they've talked about their experiences of how an Afghan interpreter risk their life and saved theirs.

Soi, we are still hopeful that in this Congress, that we'll be able to get the Afghan Adjustment Act passed.

SREENIVASAN: You know, I don't get want to pit one community against each another, but the Biden administration has thought about the humanitarian

parole status for say Ukrainians who came through Mexico. Why do you think that this population of the Afghans has not gotten that type of support?

VIGNARAJAH: It's a great question. And I do think it is problematic when you see different policies that are passed for different nationalities. You

know, we made a promise during our presence in Afghanistan that we would protect these families, these individuals, and that wasn't a temporary

promise. And so, I think it is a commitment that the U.S. needs to fulfill.

But that's true across the board. So, whether we're talking about Ukrainians fleeing Putin's invasion or those who worked alongside our U.S.

military and U.S. embassy and others, I do think that it's a promise that we need to fulfill and it's -- the U.S. showing its global humanitarian


SREENIVASAN: If the Adjustment Act does not pas and August comes around, what are these Afghan evacuees face?

VIGNARAJAH: So, I think it depends a bit on who's in power. I think we are hopeful and fairly confident that if we are still talking about the Biden

administration, you know, for the next couple of years, we don't expect any deportation orders that there would be an extension of their temporary

status, whether that's what we call re-parole or they are granted temporary protective status in the U.S. So, there are a couple of pathways to just

extend the temporary status, but it doesn't change the uncertainty and the stress of these families are facing unless it is something like a legal

long-term pathway.

Of course, if it's a changing administration, then I think it is concerning what their future holds. I think it's important to understand during the

Trump administration, for example, you had advisors like Stephen Miller who threw wrenches in the gears in order to lessen the number of special

immigrant visas that were granted.

And so, when President Biden came into power, he actually had a massive backlog of these interpreters of, you know, military aides who were just

waiting in the queue. By law, they should have been processed in nine months. And in fact, the average time period was a least -- you know, was

about three years. So, that's what we're worried about is what happens if you have a change in administration, there's no Afghan Adjustment Act

passed and these families are facing the real prospect of being returned to Afghanistan.

SREENIVASAN: So, tell me a little bit about the concerns that you are hearing from the families here because the Afghanistan that they left is

not the one that they would return to.

VIGNARAJAH: Yes, that's right. And I think that's why we hear from our clients such grave concerns because from their perspective, they fear that

if they are returned it could be a death sentence. They know that not just because of their service now but because they fled the country, they have a

target on their back. They fear retribution against their family.

For all of our clients, I hear about how family that they've left behind have been contacted by the Taliban or, you know, in different situations

have had to really fear for their lives, relocate. And so, it is an incredibly daunting prospect of their return.


SREENIVASAN: What about the status of women's and girls and how that's changed. I mean, half the population that's here got to be concern about

that if they have to go back?

VIGNARAJAH: That's exactly right. I mean, I think, you know, I've met some incredible women who have had amazing careers in Afghanistan. You know, we

actually were able to give a grant to an entrepreneur who just -- you know, was amazing in Afghanistan. She has such drive that she's brought here to

the U.S. I'm sure she'll be a successful entrepreneur.

But, you know, when I led Let Girls Learn for First Lady Michelle Obama, we knew what the Taliban could do. We knew how these delays and returning

girls to school can end up being years, if not decades. And what that means is a lost generation of girls who don't have a chance to get an education,

who don't have a chance to realize their potential.

And so, the idea of families of girls, of women who have tasted the freedom that America represents, to be returned to Afghanistan it's just a dismal

prospect and we can't let it happen.

SREENIVASAN: What are the conditions on the ground that they're describing now that they're concerned about?

VIGNARAJAH: They fear for their families lives because the Taliban are obviously ruling without any constraint. They worry about the economic

conditions because of the essentially complete collapse of the economy. And obviously, you know, there is no real prospect they feel for additional

family members coming to the U.S. That concerns us because government officials in the administration were clear that even without the military

presence, our mission wasn't complete until we protected all the allies who worked alongside of us in Afghanistan.

And I think that we need to fulfill that promise. It may be hard without a counselor presence, it may be hard without U.S., you know, boots on the

ground but that doesn't mean that we can't and shouldn't fulfill our pledge.

SREENIVASAN: I also want to know whether this strikes a personal chord for you. I mean, you and your family left Sri Lanka during a civil war and made

your homes here.

VIGNARAJAH: It does. I know that when I first met some of the evacuees, I met quite a number of parents who I saw in them my own parents. You know, I

was only nine months old when parents came here to the U.S. And I know that it took a lot for them to move halfway across the globe with two very young

kids in their arms, no jobs and just $200 to their pockets.

And, you know, as a parent myself to a five-year-old with a baby on the way, due in less than a month, I understand why these parents made the

decisions that they did because, of course, any American parent can understand the idea of wanting a safe and secure life for your children.

And so, I think, you know, what has been amazing in terms of working with the Afghans is, you know, we set up a Northern Virginia office, a temporary

location. We hired two dozen staff. All of whom were Afghan, many of whom were recently arrived.

And these are individuals who as they were resettling their families said, I want to help the next plane that's coming. And I think that that just

reflects the American spirit, the human spirit. And I guess the other piece of it is just in the generosity of Americans. We had tens of thousands of

volunteers sign up in a matter of days and weeks to help these communities. And to me, that reminds me of just the welcoming community that my family,

thankfully, experienced here that gave us a new home

SREENIVASAN: Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, thanks much for joining us.

VIGNARAJAH: Thanks for having me, Hari.


AMANPOUR: And of course, from our reporting inside Afghanistan, we know that it's a moral and a strategic imperative that America keeps its

promises to those evacuees.

And finally, tonight, the joy of 2020 vision. Three penguins in a Singapore zoo are seeing the world a whole different way after noticing the elderly

king penguins were suffering with cataracts, a team of vets decided to fit them with the custom-made contact lenses. They believe it's a world first

and a milestone for veterinary medicine and wildlife rehabilitation.


Zookeeper say the penguins have rejoined their colony with clear vision and an extra spring in their step. That's it for now. Thanks for watching and

good-bye from London.