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At This Hour

Soon: President Biden to Address Crisis in Afghanistan; CNN's Clarissa Ward: No U.S. Flights Took Off In Past 8 Hours. Aired 11- 11:30a ET

Aired August 20, 2021 - 11:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are following breaking news. Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

President Biden is being briefed on the crisis in Afghanistan right now in the Situation Room. The president is set to address the nation once again on this crisis at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

This morning, we are seeing more and more heartbreaking images of what is happening on the ground, the reality on the ground. Thousands of Americans and thousands of Afghan allies for a fifth day risking life and limb to try and get past Taliban checkpoints, to get into Kabul airport. Reports of people being whipped, attacked by Taliban, trampled along the way.

This video we're showing you should hit home hard. A baby being handed to U.S. troops over a concrete wall and razor wire at the perimeter of the airport. That is the level of desperation people are facing right now.

The Biden administration said 3,000 people have been evacuated in the past 24 hours on 16 military transport flights. Nearly 350 are U.S. citizens they say. But the White House still today said it does not know how many Americans are still in Afghanistan.

CNN's chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, she is joining me live on the phone now from the airport in Kabul.

Clarissa, what's the latest? What are you seeing?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, Kate, we've been at the airport now for 12 hours and on the inner field for eight hours. And during the last eight hours, the time that we've been waiting here, we have not seen a single U.S. flight evacuate people.

And so, one U.S. flight took off about half an hour to an hour ago but it was filled with U.S. servicemen and women. The people who have been sitting on the tarmac for the last ten hours have not been able to get on a flight. Which means, Kate, because we did the whole process today, that all of the other bottlenecks are now even more choked because if the flights aren't moving and the people aren't moving then they can't bring in more people.

And so, what is emerging taking place here is -- it is a chaotic scene. You have people lying on floor, with babies and this is incredibly loud here, we're on an airfield and there is aircraft around, mothers trying to put their hands over baby's ears and it is one thing to be here for a couple of hours but the people have been on the airfield for ten hours and before that two days, two days, Kate, to try to get through this airport, beginning with the crush and the beating at the Taliban checkpoints, and then the very, very slow process of getting through the various U.S. checkpoints before you get to the airfield.

And, you know, there is just no supplies here. People are standing in the scorching 90 degrees sunshine for hours on end. We saw a tiny newborn baby being evacuated for medical care because she was completely dehydrate and had sun stroke. I've seen U.S. soldiers handing out strips of cardboard to be used as makeshift fans. That is the level that we're dealing with.

There is no tents. There is nothing for these people. And these are the lucky ones. That is what is so hard to get your head around here. These are the lucky people who will get to leave.

BOLDUAN: Are you getting -- is there any explanation that you can see or fathom what the hold up is, why there haven't been any flights out. The pentagon said there are multiple factors that could slow things down that are out of their control. One of them being weather. I assume is there any weather that is slowing this down? I mean, is there any explanation.

WARD: So a few hours ago there was a nasty looking storm on the horizon. And it did seem at that time that that was slowing down some of the air traffic movement. However, I would say that that -- well, for this immediate vicinity, I'm not a meteorologist, but in the immediate vicinity and other flights seem to be taking off.

I've seen a couple of civilian aircraft, a Pakistan airlines flight which I believe was evacuating diplomats and some sort of World Bank employees and such, I've asked everyone I can here what is going on, why aren't the planes taking off, how long can these people lie on these walks and this gravel.


I don't want to tell you what the bathrooms look like, Kate, because there are about three stalls for 500 people and obviously no cleaning or anything like that. There is water and there are MREs.

But it's a desperate situation. And it is a mess. It is a mess. And everybody understands that this is, you know, an incredibly huge challenge. No one would expect this to be seamless.

But the thing that people keep raising with me is the idea that why did it have to be this way. Why couldn't people have been evacuated more gradually? The U.S. knew it was leaving for a long time, why wait until the Taliban takes the capital before you start evacuating allies who are vulnerable to threats from the Taliban?

BOLDUAN: Have you had a chance, you said these are the lucky ones. Especially when you see the crush outside of the airport and these being the lucky ones there now stuck hours and hours in the heat laying on pieces of cardboard as you point out. Who are -- who are these lucky ones? What are their stories?

WARD: Well, these lucky ones, I mean, from the people that I've been able to talk to, there is a few dual nationals so Afghan Americans. There are a lot of translators who worked with the U.S. military and people that worked with the U.S. embassy. There are some U.S. embassy personnel around here trying to facilitate getting them out.

And then other Afghans who have paperwork in order and probably worked with various other U.S. or international organizations. And I did see a lot of people getting turned back today and you could imagine how crushing that is. Your paperwork is not in all in order or you have -- you couldn't get a HR letter in 24 hours from the people in you worked for in 2014.

I mean, it is a bureaucratic nightmare for the people who don't have any real recourse once their turned a way. And we've seen the images of the crush that you mentioned. We actually went through the crush today and we were very lucky because we went through a gate where there were relatively few people, a very early hour in the morning.

But I could tell you, it was one of the more harrowing experiences I've ever had. Because the desperation when the gate opens just a tiny -- just ajar and there is just a rush of people pushing and desperately trying to stand up and holding hands with my colleagues and some of our local staff trying to get out and everybody is screaming and children are screaming and on the other side of the wall they're screaming to get back.

I mean, it is just unconscionable that there are -- they're carrying newborn babies and I just, you know, I hear it -- at a certain point, I'm at a loss for words honestly.

BOLDUAN: I was going to say, this is a situation that it's unsustainable is what you're describing. And as everyone knows who is -- who follows your reporting and have for years, you have covered a lot of war and conflict. You have some seen of the best and worst of humanity. How do you describe this?

WARD: You know, I think what is sort of so striking about this is that the people who are right now loading their babies over razor wire hoping that an American soldier might catch it so they could have a better future, those people were allies of the U.S. They worked with the U.S. They risked their lives to act as translators and facilitators and drivers and cooks, and at the end of it, this is the thanks they get.

And I understand that everyone is working really hard to try to evacuate these people now. But honestly from what we're seeing on the ground, and in the eyes of many who I'm talking to on the ground, it feels like too little too late because the scale of this mission is now enormous beyond the capacity of any military but even beyond the capacity of the U.S. military and the 6,000 or 8,000 troops who are now here.

And because there is this tight time frame by which this has to be executed, it is just -- I'm sitting here, Kate, for 12 hours in the airport, eight hours on the airfield and I haven't seen a single U.S. plane take off.


How on earth are you going to evacuate 50,000 people in the next two weeks? It just, it can't happen.

BOLDUAN: It is also a horrible situation for the troops that are on the ground. As you say, it is too little. There aren't enough of them there. Their mission is impossible that they've been asked to pull off.

WARD: Not only that, but I mean, I wouldn't underestimate, this is such a different mission to what most of these guys are used to and I spoke to a British soldier who said I did two deployments in Helmand province, one of the most dangerous Taliban insurgency flash points during the war, but he said the PTSD I will have from the last week is way more intense than those two deployments because he said I'm seen with my own eyes babies being tossed as we have already shown tossed over the fence, over the razor wire, and I've watched people being trampled to death.

And as he was saying it to me, Kate, he started bawling. It is not that often that you will find a soldier just start weeping in the middle of a conversation with you at 11:00 in the morning. But that's the level of pressure they're dealing with that, that's the level of horror that they're witnessing, and I think for a lot of them, that is the level of guilt they're feeling. Because I'd had so many emails so many messages from soldiers, from marines, who are just deeply uncomfortable with how this is all shaken out and feel a responsibility for these people who were on the front lines with them for 20 years and who are now being crushed and beaten as they try to escape.

BOLDUAN: And as a sign of maybe what a problem is still before however long this takes is still today, Clarissa, the White House is -- cannot say how many even Americans are still in the country which when the promise and guarantee is from the president to get every American out of the country, and you'll stay there until you do, it is impossible to know when this mission is going to end if you don't have a counts of how many Americans are in there. I mean, does that make sense?

WARD: Yeah. I mean, here is the thing, Kate. Let's be very clear about this. I've now spent more than 12 hours watching this whole process as it plays out. And it is very disorganized.

And privately, off the record, these guys will tell you that. It is totally disorganized. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. It is an enormous operation. There are many different nationals involved.

We've seen planes from the Romanians, Hungarians, I mean all -- the French, the Italians, there are so many different contingencies involved. You have multiple entrances to the airport and trying to negotiate with the Taliban, deal with your NATO allies, and, frankly, so far , it is just about moving along but I was shocked when I came today, because listening to the talking points that I was hearing from the Pentagon and the White House, I thought this whole thing was moving along swimmingly now.

And yet here I am 12 hours later and I haven't seen a plane take off in eight hours. And I'm watching children coming up to me and saying, please could you get me some food.

So, it's clearly -- it's clearly not working and one can only hope, I get it, it is really mammoth, gargantuan task and it is not for me to sit on the side lines and criticize without understanding the enormity of this undertaking. But, again, I come back to the point before, why did it have to be this way? Why did we have to try to evacuate 60,000 people in a few days with the Taliban providing protection for that operation?

BOLDUAN: The president --

WARD: Is that ideal? And a lot of people feel it could have been prevented.

BOLDUAN: And the president is about to speak. I mean, do you hear Joe Biden's name being discussed there? Is this at all something that the Afghans that are there, the Americans that are there, sitting in that airport and desperate situation, is that at all anything they care about in this moment is hearing from Joe Biden?


WARD: You know, I don't think they really care about hearing from the president to be honest. I had a few people make comments to me like, you know, America is supposed to be the greatest superpower in the world what is the hell is going on here, you know? And that is kind of the attitude.

Nobody is really interested in politics or promises or talk about enduring partnerships, okay? Because for them it doesn't mean anything at this stage. People are interested in getting out and getting their families out and stopping the insanity and the chaos that's going on on the perimeter of this airport.

Beyond that, I don't think anyone has the threshold right now to, you know, to be paying too much attention to the speeches. They want action.

BOLDUAN: There is plenty of time, we've been told over and over again for after action reports and to talk about regrets later. But as you are reporting, you're literally in the middle of what is now a true humanitarian crisis on the outside of the airport walls and now, it seems on the inside of the airport walls and the airfield where you are.

I'm wondering how you think this ends?

WARD: I mean, I really don't know because I had assumed, again as I said, I heard reports things were moving faster and this morning we saw three planes take off in a couple of hours and we thought, okay, that's a good sign, things are moving faster and then we sat in line for five hours in the blistering heat, no shade and a lot of hurry up and wait and get up and move five paces and then sit back down again and then -- I kept going up to them and saying, look this woman has a small baby, she cannot stand in the sun for hours on end and then of course the little newborn baby that had to be evacuated for medical attention.

But the answer, sorry, Kate, to get there, the answer is I don't know how it ends. But I could only say for all of the people that I have come across today and in the past two days and swarming around the airport and around the city people are too afraid to go the to airport but that it does end soon.

BOLDUAN: Well, and that is the thing, I spoke to a translator who worked with U.S. Special Forces for five year and I spoke to him last night and he's in hiding an he told me that he is tried multiple times to make it to the airport. Each time forced to turn back because the very same Taliban that are looking for him are the Taliban that are guarding the gates of the airport. That just, it is impossible.

WARD: Yeah, listen, I think for a lot of people it is a real psychological block which makes perfect sense. If you're worried that you're going to face the threat or retaliation for something that was even worse, violent attacks because from the Taliban because of who you worked with or worked for, then obviously the idea of being brushed up against a bunch of Taliban fighters with guns it is going to be completely petrifying to you.

At the same time, I would honestly say, I would advise people in this moment to what I've seen here over the last few days not to come to the airport until the situation is resolved and until the process is streamlined and until there is a system in place and a efficient and effective system in place to do this whole processing well.

But one thing to keep in mind, with regards the Taliban, as vicious as some of the fighters may be on the outer perimeter, they want us out. Okay. They want Americans out. They want NGOs out, they want them all out.

So in the short-term, rather, I think they are in their open way trying to facilitate that. Trying to push back the crowds, to allow the situation to sort of alleviate a little bit inside and then get more people out.

The worry becomes, of course, for people who really feel that they are a high level target. I don't know how you're going to persuade them to take the chance to go and confront the Taliban face on basically and try their luck getting in. BOLDUAN: And you truly -- you think that at this point that it is not

even safe enough to try to come to the airport from what you've seen in this process, Clarissa.

WARD: It is not that it is not safe enough, but the entry date is definitely very dangerous. There are multiple factors getting trampled most notably I would say beyond being beaten or getting hit by a stray bullet as the Taliban tries to clear the crowd. It is not that it is not safe enough, it is chaotic here and if you have -- I mean, I saw a disabled young man in a wheelchair earlier. I shutter to think what he's doing right now after, you know, two days for some people are stuck in this airport. Two days, 48 hours.

This man told me his children were -- there is nowhere for them to wash, they're lying on cardboard and rocks and gravel. You know, there is no proper bathrooms, there is some MREs, like military meals and some water, but that is it. There is barely any shade.

And it is not for the faint of heart and it is certainly not for the elderly or the newborn baby or anyone who might be a bit vulnerable. It is tough going out here.

And so, obviously, if there is an imminent threat and then people -- I'm not saying people shouldn't try to get out, I'm saying that right now the situation is so chaotic, you might almost be better off waiting a day or two until hopefully some systems are put in place to make this a more streamlined and efficient process.

So, the best extent that it can be because obviously it is a very, very challenging time.

BOLDUAN: All horrible and impossible choices that seem to be getting more horrible as the days progress. Clarissa, thank you for your reporting and bringing some eyes on the ground to what very few people can see. Thank you. We'll check back in with you.

WARD: thank you.

BOLDUAN: We'll check back in with your crew.

Clarissa Ward, in the middle of it, Kabul airport, has not seen a flight take off in the eight hours she has been on the airfield. So many questions of what is going on and how this is going to end.

So, President Biden, as I mentioned earlier, he is going to be addressing this growing crisis at 1:00 p.m.

Let's get over to the White House. CNN's John Harwood has been standing by. He is live there for us.

John, is the White House giving us any preview of what we could hear from the president?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Look, Kate, the aperture of this war has shrunk to exactly what Clarissa Ward is describing -- that is the scene of the Kabul airport, the ability to get people out, the ability to get people to the airport and processed. And the president is going to talk about that.

If, in fact, as Clarissa said, they haven't been flights taking off for eight hours, the president needs to bring some clarity to that situation and help Americans understand what is being done. And if there are holdups, why are there holdups and what are the prospects for the next ten days until we get to August 31st or perhaps beyond August 31st if the president has indicated if there are American citizens not yet, that they know of, that are not yet evacuated.

The view of the White House is that this disorder, this chaos, this desperation was going to happen whenever it was clear that the Afghan government was going to fall. Whether or not they tried to accelerate evacuations in July, whether it happens now or even after American troops would leave, had it happened later this year. You got a country of 40 million people and a prolonged civil war and the winning side of that war has a record of brutality and hostility to Western values and the people in Kabul, city of 6 million people, many of them share Western values, they're going to be frightened with very good reason.

And so it is, as Clarissa was indicating, it is a impossible situation for the people trying to get out and impossible situation for the troops. They're going to do the best they can.

And for president Biden having made the decision to leave, he is going to try to explain to the American people exactly what he's doing and how the American military is going to achieve the most honorable and acceptable end to this evacuation over the next couple of weeks.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. I mean, simply, how do they fix this? Now, not later. Now.

HARWOOD: Not easily. Not easily at all, Kate.

BOLDUAN: That's right, that's right.

John, thank you very much.

So, CNN has also learned, top Washington officials were in fact warned. Sources within the State Department telling my colleagues that nearly two dozen diplomats in Kabul sent a classified cable to the State Department in mid-July urging fast action because they feared a potential catastrophe in Afghanistan.

CNN's Kylie Atwood is live at the State Department with these details. Kylie, what is the latest you're hearing about this?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, well, Kate, this is significant because what this demonstrates is that these diplomats who were at the U.S. embassy in Kabul were seeing that the State Department needed to be doing more proactively to prepare for what they saw what was going to be the eventual fall of the Afghan government.


And they wanted more to be done to get the Afghans processed and evacuated out of the country before a crisis unfolded like we're seeing right now.

Now, the deputy national security adviser addressed this memo when he spoke with wolf Blitzer last night and he said that, yes, these diplomats foresaw that the Afghan government was going to fall. But they didn't see that it was going to happen as rapidly as it did. They were essentially in the same boat as everyone else.

He also said that some of the things that they propose at the administration that they do were actually done. But I'm also told that there are things that were in this memo that weren't done quickly enough. Such as setting up a biometric enrollment program for the Afghans so when it is time to get them out of the country, you have a list and could get them out quickly.

Now, the State Department spokesperson is saying that, yes, the state department does value internal dissent. The Secretary of State Tony Blinken reviews all of the dissent memos and signed off on the response. But this is significant that there was this dissent memo at all, because diplomats don't do this as a first case scenario.

They do this as a last-ditch effort to tell the secretary that things aren't going well, that their voices aren't being heard and rest assured those on Capitol Hill, bipartisan group of folks who are calling for an investigation here are going to want to see this memo and exactly what was done and what wasn't done that they proposed -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Kylie, thank you very much for that.

As you just heard, Clarissa Ward is reporting she said that no U.S. flights have taken off from Kabul airport in the past eight hours, since she has been on the airfield.

Joining me now is retired General Wesley Clark. He's a former NATO supreme allied commander and a CNN military analyst.

General, thank you for being here.

Your reaction, Clarissa said that since she's been on the airfield she's not seen a flight take off. They are not moving people on to these planes like they need to be in the last eight hours. What is your assessment of what is going on?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think the military has done about as much as it could in getting in there quickly and trying to establish I security perimeter. This is not purely a military problem. You have to know who these people are and where they're going to go before you bring them in.

And you've got also the diplomatic problem. You've got a potential military problem outside of the airport. So, it's not an easy solution. For example, do you then go to the Taliban and say, gee, we'd like to have these people released and brought in and those are the people that the Taliban wants to hold there and basically shoot.

So you can't quite identify your list to the Taliban. Would you like to go to the Taliban and say, look, you have 40,000 people out here waiting to get into the airport, can we give you some tents and some food and some water so they could be more comfortable out there, pretty soon you'll have 400,000 people out there at that rate because they all want to get out.

You'd like to bring them into the airport. But then you don't know who they are. So, where is the State Department biometric data base, how do we have -- how do we know who these people are?

We spent years on biometric identification in Afghanistan. We should know everything. But the embassy destroyed a lot of records. The embassy collapsed on to the airfield and so most of the people have been evacuated. So we probably don't have the tools and the civilian personnel we need on site to expedite this.

And then you have the air flow problem. Now we take air transportation for granted in the United States. But in the military, we always have crew rest issues. So, you can fly for eight hours no problem, you could extend somebody for say 16 hours, you're dealing with long distances. You're dealing with a certain number of pilots.

We probably need to fly in additional air crews, preposition them on the airfield, provide them the kind of rest they need so that when the aircraft come in, they could be quickly turned and pulled out. Has that been done? Can't tell.

So there are a lot of issues here shorted out. I've got tremendous confidence in our armed forces leadership and those troops on ground and I could assure the American people based on the calls I'm getting, they're doing everything possible they could do. But just think of it this way -- all of the people in line outside of the airport walls, you would like to bring them in and shelter them and sort through them and who are you and so forth, some of those people once you start doing that are not going to be our friends.

And if you go out with the Taliban and say, look, you have to help us right now, we have people all over this country, you could help us get these Americans and say, what is it worth to you? We want our money released. We want this, we want that.