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Pentagon Says, We're Trying to Meet August 31 Deadline for Full Withdrawal; FDA Grants Full Approval to Pfizer COVID Vaccine. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired August 23, 2021 - 11:30   ET



REPORTER: So, you're saying that U.S. troops are originally planned to be on the perimeter outside the airport, but that did not work out? Is that what I understood?

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: No. That was -- the original 5,800 forces were planned to secure HKIA and those gates.

REPORTER: The interior of the airport, there was no one planned to be on the outside?

TAYLOR: That's not what I said. I said that, you know, as the plan that went in and what has changed is the coordination and using the use of or the Taliban being there.

REPORTER: Understood. Okay. One last question, if I might. Given this arrangement, I mean, does this mean that the Taliban is, for better or worse, now in a better position to essentially dictate when we leave?

TAYLOR: I can't answer that. What I do know is that our continued mission, which we were given, was to secure the airfield and to ensure the -- to facilitate the evacuation by August 31st. And I'll just refer back to the comments that Mr. Kirby has already made about the August 31st date. Yes.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: And we've covered this pretty well about August 31st. Megan?

REPORTER: So, the vaccine rollout plan, is the idea now that Pfizer will become mandatory and the secretary will wait until mid-September to ask for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, will he ask earlier or will the vaccines become mandatory as they become fully licensed?

KIRBY: Yes. Megan, what I can tell you is that the focus right now today with this FDA approval is on the Pfizer vaccine and moving forward to implement a mandatory vaccination regimen for Pfizer. I don't want to get ahead of decisions that haven't been made yet.

Yes, Dan. Sorry. Mike.


KIRBY: Sorry.

REPORTER: Thanks, John.

KIRBY: You guys with the masks on getting everybody confused. Go ahead.

REPORTER: Can you speak a little to any COVID prevention that's going on at the airport? Are evacuees being tested before they get on aircrafts? Are they being tested in intermediary countries?

KIRBY: Yes, good question. As I understand it, medical personnel at Hamid Karzai International Airport are conducting COVID screening for those who are febrile or symptomatic. And then, as appropriate, depending on what the temporary safe haven, what the guidelines are at the temporary safe havens, additional screenings at some of those safe havens occur. And then upon arrival at the United States, all passengers are being tested upon arrival and then medical professionals make the proper decisions after that.

REPORTER: Are there any concerns about positive tests for soldiers on the ground?

KIRBY: Of course there's --

REPORTER: Or have there been any examples of soldiers testing positive?

KIRBY: I don't have that level of detail. I don't know what positive results may have come in for soldiers working at the airfield. But, obviously, at the airfield, obviously, their health and safety remains a top concern for all of us.

Yes, Louie?

REPORTER: Clarification at the top, I think you announced that Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is now --

KIRBY: That is correct.

REPORTER: Is that a new -- an addition? Is that something new?

KIRBY: That is one additional base. We had been talking about three prior to that, Fort Lee, Fort McCoy, Fort Bliss. Joint Base McGuire- Dix-Lakehurst is now available to receive some of these SIV applicants.

And with the four bases, what our goal would be is to reach the ability, not necessarily the actual count, but the ability to build out to about 25,000 capacity. We aren't there yet, Louie. It's going to take days and weeks I think for all four to be able to combine to get to that level, but that's the goal, as we are right now. And the other thing I would say is if the secretary in communication with the chairman and with General VanHerck at north com feels we need to add to that capacity and add to the list additional U.S. military installations, then we'll do that. But right now, we're at four.

REPORTER: And what is the current number of individuals who are at those four bases?

KIRBY: I do not have that. We can take the question and I'm sure a northern command would have a better number than I do right now.

REPORTER: Okay. And my last question is this, I apologize for asking three. It's such an effort to get into the airport and some people are lucky to get in. But now, we're hearing that the food supplies, the water supplies, sanitation, hygiene are really bad inside the airport, and so bad that some people are actually returning to go outside the perimeter. So my question is this. How can you prevent a humanitarian crisis inside the airport as this goes on and on?


KIRBY: Yes. Fair questions, Louie. I want to let the general take it. And I think you had the number too for the installations.

TAYLOR: So, that was in, right now, in the (INAUDIBLE) right at approximately 1,200 have entered into the United States. As we talk about the conditions and the ability to continue to provide a humane and safe piece on the airfield, as you see some of those flights that continue to come in to Kabul, those are bringing those supplies in. So, as those supplies are used, we are continuingly replenishing those to ensure that we have food and all those things that are needed, water, for those that are preparing for evacuation flights.

So, you know, the last 48 hours, we had a lot of folks on there, which is a good thing, right? That means we have gotten people through the gate, we have processed them, that means we have people safe then we can fly out. The commanders there are always assessing what the requirements are to ensure that safe and humanitarian environment.

KIRBY: And I would just add, Louie, I mean, we're mindful of these reports too. It's not lost on us. There's a lot of people. And they are desperate. And we are trying to do the best we can to get them out of harm's way as fast as possible. And when you have a throughput problem, it means that some people are going to be stuck in a given location, whether it's at Hamid Karzai International Airport or Qatar or other temporary safe havens. Nobody wants to see this go on for any longer than it has to be. And believe me, nobody, more than the U.S. military and our troops want to see anybody suffer more than they have to.

And we are very aware that there are and have been some sanitation issues as well as, you know, issues of sustainment. And as the general said, we're making that a priority as we float some of these planes are coming in with that material on it, that kind of support, and then they're leaving with people, we're doing the best we can under extraordinary circumstances. And believe me, the pain and the suffering, the fear, the anxiety, all of that, none of it is lost on us, our troops.


REPORTER: I just received a report that the British evacuation commander in Kabul, Vice Admiral Ben Key has been locked out of all negotiations between U.S. Centcom staff, 82nd airborne and Taliban commanders and that there is a great deal of tension between the Brits who are sending people outside the airport and the members of the 82nd Airborne who want to join them. What is happening with our British allies? Is this report accurate? And, supposedly, there was supposed to be an 82nd Airborne jump into Bagram Air Base to open that field and that that was shut down by the White House. Is that accurate?

KIRBY: Jen, first I'm hearing these reports. You have to let me go back and look at this. I don't know. The only thing I would -- you mentioned that the Brits who want to go out, we are doing it as well. We are going out as needed and helping Americans get into the field.

REPORTER: You only described one instances.

KIRBY: She asked me specifically about airlift, and I mentioned one using rotary wing aircraft. That doesn't mean it's the sum total of what we're doing to go out and try to bring and assist Americans coming in. We're just not going to detail all of them because the threat environment is so high.

As to these reports first I heard, you have to give us a little time to dissect and come back to you.

Yes, in the back?

REPORTER: Yes. There are reports that some of the equipments that you left and were landed in the hands of Taliban are going towards Pakistan. Do you have that report as well? If it lands in the hands of Pakistan, those equipments, are you asking Pakistan to get back to you?

KIRBY: I don't have anything on that reporting that you got there. I guess we'll just have to take a look. We can take the question and see if we can get back to you. I don't have anything on that.


REPORTER: Can you clarify something that you said to Jen and Courtney about on occasion going out to do missions outside a bit? What kind of coordination then happens with the Taliban forces on the ground? Are there joint patrols happening now between Taliban and U.S. forces when that happens?

KIRBY: No, there's no joint patrols.

REPORTER: -- movements, what kind of communication happens? Can you give us any sense of --

KIRBY: There's no joint patrols. There's no joint coordination. But, obviously, we're in communication with the Taliban about their presence and where it is around the field. And I think, Nancy, for reasons I hope you understand, we're just not going to get into the tactical level details of what we're doing to help facilitate the passage and assist the passage of Americans getting on to the field. And we want to preserve as many options as we can going forward because the threat environment outside the airport is so dynamic and, quite frankly, dangerous.


So, for I think very good reasons of operational security, we're just not going to detail everything we're doing and every opportunity we're taking advantage of.

REPORTER: I do appreciate that. I just want to understand if the U.S. forces are side by side with Taliban? I'm trying to get a visual of what it looks like. That's all.

KIRBY: No, we are not out there side by side with them. It's not about joint patrols. So, you can erase that visual. That is not what's happening.

Okay. I'm going to have to get going, guys. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Our goal is to come back here again at around 15:00 for an afternoon update and we'll keep you apprised if and when that changes. Thanks very much.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN AT THIS HOUR: All right. We've been listening in. I'm Kate Bolduan. We've been listening to the Pentagon update there on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

With me right now, as we learned quite a bit, CNN Military Analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Thank you both for being here.

General, what we heard from the general as well as John Kirby, what sticks out to you from the update today?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, truthfully, Kate, it's what I've been saying since last Monday, that all NEO look and are extremely chaotic from the very beginning due to a variety of factors. Everyone is in a desperate rush to get out of Afghanistan, and that includes those not authorized to leave.

The adjustments made to this mission, to this NEO, noncombatant evacuation operation, in my view, having had to plan and almost conduct a NEO in another country once before had been magnificent. The atmospherics and the messaging early on were not good. It has changed over the last couple days. Remember, we've only been doing this now for seven weeks.

And in listening to the John Kirby explain some of the things going on, you have to almost have a military mind to understand the nuance of what is happening. And a lot more is going on behind the scenes than anyone could probably guess. We're focused on this approach because it's a fluid situation with a very dynamic set of circumstances, a government that has fallen, a military that's not supportive and a requirement to get a whole lot of forces in. And those are the kinds of assumptions that have to be confirmed or denied in either a permissive or contested environment during a noncombatant evacuation operation.

So, I personally think things are -- in my view, they are certainly improving significantly. The numbers are increasing rapidly. And the mission is now sort of settled a little bit, where a lot more processes and coordination is occurring in a much better rate.

BOLDUAN: Paul, they said just under 11,000 were evacuated by the U.S. military. That's a big increase from the 24-hour periods that we have been seeing in the days prior. But one thing that we heard from the podium was that several thousand Americans have been evacuated. But when pressed on if they were being intentionally vague or just still don't know and to offer some explanation, John Kirby wouldn't go there. Why do you think they cannot be more specific or won't be more specific, Paul? What's your reaction to that?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, FOUNDER, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: Well, I think the big takeaway is this is still a giant mess. There's sometimes when they're going to have to withhold details for operational security, there are other times when they clearly don't know.

And I think the challenge for our friend, John Kirby, who used to be here on CNN, is that you can fact check him in real-time. He puts something out, you can look at reporters on the ground in Afghanistan, you can hear from Afghans who are at the gate and this is still a real catastrophe.

They may be trying to stabilize this patient, but the patient is still bleeding. They can get people out and they are getting people out at a much higher number, and that's good, but this is still far from a good news story. If you look at the overall number of Afghan allies we have to evacuate, even with this number, maybe they've gotten to 10 percent. That means we have got 90 percent or more to go. And who knows what's happening outside of Kabul. So they're trying to get their hands around this.

And I think you're starting to see a different message from the Pentagon than you are from the White House because the Pentagon is dealing with the military and strategic challenge. The White House is now dealing with the political catastrophe that they may think is going to go away but is not going to go away. And I'm glad to see you and many others in the media are still focused on this.

Because at the end of the day, we have got friends outside the gates dying. They're being hunted by the Taliban. And there's mission going on back here at home led by American veterans and others to save our allies because, quite frankly, our government hasn't done it. Thousands of Americans across this country are organizing to get our friends out because our government failed to do it. BOLDUAN: And, General, the Taliban -- we heard that the goal is to get everyone out by August 31st. We heard the president say -- suggest yesterday that they are -- can make plans for expanding -- extending beyond that deadline, if need be.


The Taliban this morning saying, no, the U.S. -- all U.S. forces must be out of Afghanistan by the 31st. I'm just curious kind of your thoughts on if this -- if push comes to shove and they're up against this deadline, what the United States does.

HERTLING: I think what you'll see, and that's why Press Secretary Kirby refused to answer the question, is there is continuing negotiation with the Taliban. And the Taliban is not going to -- in my view, is not going to stand in the way of an extension of the mission. It's just not to their advantage to do that.

So, what I think you'll see, first of all, and I disagree with Paul on some of the things he just said, part of the reason that John did not want to give the number of Americans is because, again, having done NEO operations, you never know. There are embassy officials, there are expats, there are private citizens, there are people on vacation, there are married folks -- Americans married to Afghans that are visiting the country, it's just hard to put a number on it.

And what we've seen in the first seven days of this evacuation is there were literally tens of thousands of Afghans storming the airport who had no ability to get out because they weren't authorized to get out. These were not SIV recipients or the special evacuees. These were just people that wanted to get the hell out of Afghanistan.

But going back to your question about the 31st of August, I think we will see -- this is my prediction, we will see a continued coordination with the Taliban to extend that deadline. But we're also going to see a whole lot more people evacuated in the next eight days before the 31st.

BOLDUAN: And look, I get -- I get -- I 100 percent understand confusion and hesitancy to talk about maybe how many Americans they believe are still on the ground in Afghanistan. I think what you're seeing from the reporters in the room in the briefing is that they are surprised that they don't have a more specific number on the number of Americans who have been evacuated out of Afghanistan, when they do have numbers like 10,400 people were evacuated, they are specifics sometimes and not in other times. But, again, I'm not on the ground.

Paul, one additional problem now, one additional problem on the ground, is now this renewed threat from ISIS. We've heard this from the White House. We've heard this from other places that now ISIS-K is now threatening to basically commit attacks against Americans outside and around the airport. The president's national security adviser spoke directly to that threat just yesterday on CNN. Let me play this for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal.


BOLDUAN: So, in the midst of trying to do what is needed and get people out safely, now you have this. I mean, how does this complicate and change the dynamic, really, on the ground of how quickly you can move people and what you need to do to protect U.S. troops and Americans, as well as our Afghan allies?

RIECKHOFF: Tremendously. And, unfortunately, this is another predictable outcome given our hasty withdrawal. And it's important to remind people, this is not about whether or not we should have gotten out. This is how we're getting out and it didn't have to be this way.

Let me just break it down this way, you see the images on your screen of thousands of people jammed up against a wall. They are the ultimate soft target for ISIS. And that's what our troops right now have to contend with. That's what our NATO allies have to contend with, and that's just in Kabul. We don't see what's happening in the outer provinces and all across this country. This is so far from over.

And I think that's part of what me and other veterans are trying to appeal to the president to level with the American people about. I don't know how the heck they're going to get out of there by August 31st. And if they do, what's going to happen after?

We need our president to level with us about the reality on the ground and to continue to present options for what's next and to level with the American people about the risk that our men and women are facing everyday that you can see on CNN. There's no spinning that. There's no sugar coating it. And they've got to get less defensive and start being proactive.

BOLDUAN: Thank you both of you for coming on. We heard there will be another briefing from the Pentagon. It continues. We will continue to follow it. Thank you both, I really appreciate it.

We also have breaking news that we are following. It's a very busy day. The FDA has just granted full approval of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine. Will it be a game changer in the race to vaccinate? The FDA just held a briefing about this approval. Much more on this after a break.



BOLDUAN: We have breaking news at this hour. The FDA has just granted full approval to the Pfizer COVID vaccine. This is yet another big step forward in the quest to get more Americans vaccinated. Could it prove now to be a game changer though? We will soon find out.

I want to bring in CNN's Elizabeth Cohen. She has got more detail on what the approval means. Elizabeth, the FDA did just hold a briefing on this announcement. What did they say?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: What they said is that they've looked at the clinical trial data, they looked at it for a longer period of time than they did when they gave emergency use authorization.

And this is still an incredibly effective and safe vaccine. It's not quite as effective as they said before when they gave it more time. It went from being about 95 percent effective to 91 percent effective. That's sort of a testimony in some part to how the efficacy wanes over time. When you look over six months, it's not as effective as at two or three months, but still an effective vaccine.

Now, getting full approval versus just having emergency use authorization, Kate, in some ways, it doesn't mean much for you and me. We're already vaccinated. It just proves we did the right thing. But this could have meaning for people who are unvaccinated.

So, let's take a look. Some unvaccinated people have said, I don't like emergency use authorization. I want full FDA approval. So maybe they'll be encouraged to take the shot by the news today. Also full approval allows Pfizer to advertise. Pharmaceutical companies are good at advertising.

Advertising works. Let's hope it works here. Also, and this is probably what's really going to do it, it encourages employers and restaurants, et cetera, to require the vaccine. If you're not getting vaccinated but your boss says, okay, that's your right, you've got the freedom to not be vaccinated but you can't work for me, that may make you roll up your sleeve.

Also, it's important to note this approval is only for 16-plus. Ages 12 to 15 are still -- they can get the vaccine. It's still under emergency use authorization. Practically, that doesn't mean much. Still, get your 12 to 15-year-old vaccinated.

Let's take a look at vaccination rates. So, this is for everyone, 12- plus. You saw it was super high in the spring. It took a nose dive, and then it went up just slightly recently in the past few weeks because people were scared of dying of delta.


The folks who are not vaccinated, that's 82 million people or 29 percent of the population still has not taken the shot. Kate, let's hope this news makes the difference. Kate?

BOLDUAN: We will very soon see. Elizabeth, thank you very much for that update.

And we're going to have much more on this breaking news ahead, the FDA's full approval of Pfizer's COVID vaccine. Is there now going to be a full court press from the White House? How does this change their plans to try to convince more Americans to get the shot? Three top doctors joining us next about what this means for everyone.