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At This Hour

Child COVID Surge to Near-Record Levels; Soon: Secretary of State to Provide Update on Evacuation; Pentagon: 19,000 People Evacuated in Past 24 Hours; U.S. Official: Intel Suggests ISIS-K May Attack Kabul Airport; 180,000 Plus New COVID Cases Reported Among U.S. Children Last Week. Aired 12-12.30p ET

Aired August 25, 2021 - 12:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: As the president is standing by his August 31st deadline.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the clock is ticking Kate and they just have a matter of days left. And of course this deadline doesn't have to go into effect until next week on August 31st.

But the actual deadline for evacuations is much sooner than that. And the White House and the Pentagon have both confirmed that because then at some point, they have to focus on drawing down the thousands of troops that they surged there to help with this effort, and also getting the weaponry getting the machinery out of there.

So that is going to be a big point of focus here, which is a big question is when did these evacuations actually end? And what is that end date that officials are currently working with? And so much of a big part of this has been Americans and how many Americans has been part of this effort? How many have been evacuated so far?

And are there any left to go according to the White House and the Secretary of State? And so that's the update we are waiting to hear from him any moment now, because we did hear from the Pentagon this morning so far 4400, American passport holders have been evacuated from Afghanistan since this effort began about 10 days ago.

I believe is the number that they're starting with. And so the big question that they did not answer, and that is going to be up to Secretary Blinken to answer is how many are left because that has been a really big focus of this is making sure every single American gets out.

And President Biden and his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, have both voiced confidence that yes, they do think they can get every American out by the 31st. And so we'll be waiting to see what those numbers look like?

I anticipate that it will be fairly small. But one reason that the White House has declined to offer those numbers in the last several days is that they essentially said it was so fluid that it was changing literally by the hour.

And so we didn't actually get a number from the administration on American evacuations until the Pentagon confirmed yesterday. That was what it was 4000 it's already up to 4400 today; we'll wait to see what it is we hear from Secretary Blinken. But of course, that is a major aspect of this entire evacuation, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, it absolutely is Kaitlan, thank you very much for that. Let's get over to the State Department Kylie Atwood is standing by from there. Kylie what are you hearing as we wait right now for the Secretary of State to answer some of the questions that Kaitlan just laid out?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, Kaitlan, hit it right on the head there. What we're looking to hear from the Secretary is exactly how many Americans are still in Afghanistan, and are trying to get out of the country have asked the task force at the State Department to help them get out of the country.

Now, President Biden said that is what the Secretary of State is going to be doing today providing a detailed report as to how many more Americans want to get out, because, as we know, the administration has repeatedly said that they won't leave Afghanistan militarily until all of those Americans who want to leave the country are out of the country.

Now, I know the Secretary of State is also going to talk about just how massive this effort really is, the individualized efforts at the State Department has made to reach out to the Americans on the ground, get them to safe places and get them out of the country.

He'll also talk about the enduring support for the Afghan people. But that is really a question mark here right, Kate, as we talk about getting out these Americans being the number one priority for the Biden Administration, there's a secondary question as to how many Afghans fall into that priority category, as well?

The Biden Administration hasn't said exactly how many Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. are going to get out before the U.S. military withdraws. And Secretary of State won't really be in a position to provide us with a fulsome answer to that because the realistic situation here is that the Taliban are in control of the country.

And we heard from the Pentagon spokesperson earlier today that once the U.S. leaves the Kabul Airport, it's the Taliban's job to be in charge of that airport to keep it up and running. Now, I am told that the U.S. government is in touch with allies to try and keep that airport up and running, come to some sort of an agreement with the Taliban.

But as far as we know, that hasn't been formalized yet. If you don't have an airport up and running, you surely can't get those Afghans who still want to get out of the country, out of the country. So we're trying to look for some of those specific details as to you know, if the Biden Administration says they're upholding their commitment to the Afghans. What does that realistically look like?

BOLDUAN: Kylie is going to stand by for us as the Secretary will be speaking soon, and we will bring that to you live. In the meantime, I want to bring in right now the Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Lieutenant General Doug Lute and the Former British Ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott.

Ambassador Lute, the primary questions, as we've laid out for the Secretary of State is how many Americans are still left in the country? How many of America's allies, these applicants have been evacuated and how many are left? Beyond that what would you hope to hear from the Secretary to lay out today?

LT. GEN. DOUG LUTE (RET.), FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: Well, I think first of all, the numbers that Secretary Blinken will refer to today are actually going to be estimates, because the reality is we don't actually know how many Americans are in Afghanistan?

They're not required to register with the Embassy there. It's recommended that they do so but it's not requirement. And then furthermore, there's no master list of those Afghans who have served alongside America over the last 20 years.


LUTE: So in both cases for American citizens and our Afghan partners, we're getting - we're dealing with estimates not hard, in fact, not hard numbers. I think the other thing that that Tony Blinken will refer to today is a point that, that President Biden mentioned in passing in his last remarks.

And that is the humanitarian crisis that looms beyond the crisis at the airport today. Afghanistan is suffering from severe drought, there's a hunger food crisis in Afghanistan. They're suffering their third wave of COVID and they're broke.

All of that confronts a brand new government in transition as the Taliban begins to try to find its feet and move from an insurgency to a government. So this is an extraordinarily complex situation.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Ambassador Westmacott Blinken's got a tough job today. But this does come from President Biden, of course. What do you think of the president's decision and announcement yesterday and rejecting the pressure from Britain and other allies to change his mind on that deadline?

PETER WESTMACOTT, FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: Well Kate, I understand why he took that decision, because it's frankly, not entirely up to the United States President as much as we would like it to be.

But the reality is that if you don't stick to the timetable, which has been agreed with the Taliban, for the withdrawal of foreign troops, then people on the ground kind of love a few mortars over the wall, or they could shoot down an aircraft and all hell breaks loose. So I can understand why the president would have said, well look, we're sticking to the agreed deadline. Of course, United States is doing pretty well with getting its own people out and the numbers that you were quoting, just now admirable, and I think it's extraordinary that they're doing that.

But the problem is that it isn't just about Americans. We've got a lot of Brits there who were the second most important military contributors in Afghanistan for the last 20 years. And we've all got a lot of Afghans whose lives will be in danger because of the support they gave to our missions, our military missions, and our embassies, and NGOs, and so on, who desperately need to leave the country.

And they've got a very, very short window to get out. So it would have been nice if we could have had an extension that deadline. But personally, I understand why the president said what he did, in which case, it really is important, as many aero planes as possible, get people out who need to be got out.

And also, that we help get people to the airport and let them get through the gates, which have been guarded by U.S. and UK military people, if they can get there, onto the tarmac into the aircraft. This is not just about getting Americans out by the deadline. It's about a lot of other people as well, in addition to the humanitarian crisis, which generally quite rightly alluded to just now.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And getting - and those are no small thing what you just laid out getting people to Kabul, getting people to the airport, getting people through the gate and getting people on the tarmac, all of those things are pinch points, and things that people are not capable of doing in some regard.

Ambassador Lute, I have to tell you, the NATO Ambassador who preceded you, is making an interesting point today, more broadly about the conflict and the crisis, calling it a fallacy to think that the choice was between withdrawal from Afghanistan, or keeping a small U.S. presence without any American casualties.

And I want to read you what the ambassador wrote about this. He said, "If Biden had reneged on the Trump deal, the Taliban would have resumed attacking U.S. forces from a position of strength to continue to support the Afghan government and security forces, the U.S. would therefore have had to increase its military presence significantly".

So if you believe this, as your predecessor does, then there wasn't much of a choice left for Biden to make. What do you think?

LUTE: Well, I do think the president faced a binary choice. It was to either abide by the Trump agreement of February of last year 2020, to withdraw U.S. troops by May 1st of this year, or to face a slowly but steadily eroding security situation in favor of the Taliban, that would have seen a requirement to escalate with U.S. forces.

So I think fundamentally, that's the debate. Those two choices are the ones that framed up the discussions in the Situation Room in the White House leading up to the president's decision. BOLDUAN: The best of many bad choices, is that what he was left with?

LUTE: Maybe the least worse.

BOLDUAN: You say better than me that is for sure. Ambassador Westmacott in speaking about kind of - I have heard a lot about the position that the United States is taking unilaterally and the great impact that it has on allies, Britain and beyond.

And also a lot of - I don't know if we can call it Monday morning quarterbacking at this point about what that means for the relationship between the U.S. and the UK. But where do you think decision in this moment leaves the U.S./British relationship. Is it damaged? Is it different today than it was yesterday?


WESTMACOTT: Well Kate, I think I would be misleading you if I said that there wasn't any damage to the relationship. I think there was great disappointment at the way that the president took that decision.

Given that back in Cornwall at the G7 meeting, he had said to other heads of government that the United States military would remain there in such a way as to ensure that diplomatic activity could continue in the foreseeable future.

In Afghanistan, it was not a kind of, we're all out. And by the way, we're going to have a mad scramble at the last minute. And then I think there was also disappointment about the way it was done, Bagram Air Base was shut down, and a lot of technicians and service people were removed without the Afghan authorities being aware of it.

And then, of course, everybody complained that the Afghan National Army didn't do much of a job in standing up to the Taliban. But they didn't have many of the weapons left. And I think it's probably fair to say that a number of them in the Afghan government were disappointed that United States did a deal with their enemies, if you like behind their back, you know, gotcha.

And they were not part to that agreement. And then they were invited to fight back when the United States decided that it was going to go in pretty short order. So all that has created, I think, quite a lot of disappointment and bullying, modeling, you've seen British military and political figures, expressing their disappointment, which is very unusual.

Because you know, even when we've had a few squabbles, and the relationship has always been difficult and transactional over the years, United States looks after its interest and the Brits trying to look after there's, this has not been, you know, a high point, shall we say, of the of the bilateral relationship.

So I'm very much hoping that over the next few days, we can get out in as good order as possible. And that we can rapidly move on towards working together as close allies, both in terms of a strategy for dealing with Afghanistan, and ensuring that it doesn't become a haven for terrorists in future, but also addressing some of those really important multinational issues with which President Biden is super familiar.

And where the United Kingdom and lots of other close allies of America really do need to have a partnership that works with America so you know, we mustn't get out of proportion. But equally, we should not delude ourselves that this has not been, you know, a really difficult passage.

BOLDUAN: Ambassador Lute kind of speaking to the security situation and the threat going forward. But even in this moment, we have this new reporting from CNN, my colleagues, saying that there was a very specific threat stream from ISIS-K against crowds, outside of Hamid Karzai Airport, that are still gathering there as we speak.

How much would an immediate threat like this, do you think play into what really is this larger question of how long the United States can stay in country to keep pulling people out?

LUTE: Well, I think the ISIS Khorasan so that's K for Khorasan Province, which is an area, an all geographic alignment around the Afghan/Pakistan border. The ISIS-K threat is a wild card. And it's a wild card, not only for the White House, and the timing of the evacuations and so forth.

But it's a wild card for the Taliban too, just as the Taliban are trying to assemble a government to try transition from insurgency to government; they face the threat from ISIS, which is a sworn enemy of the Taliban.

So you have within the close proximity of the airport, where U.S. troops, British troops, Western troops are face to face with the Taliban. You have this wildcard, third actor of the ISIS - ISIS-K movement, which could see as a lucrative target the masses of people assembled around the airport, and as an opportunity to strike not only the U.S., but to strike the Taliban as well.

BOLDUAN: Yes, Ambassador Lute really quick. I was just thinking about kind of your deep history in planning for the drawdown of U.S. troops in years past. When you were involved in the drawdown planning years ago did you imagine that it could have gone down like this?

LUTE: So I was - I left before such planning actually took place. We were still planning on the military front, and on the diplomatic front, the political front one when I was involved with Afghanistan.

But I will say that I think that the existing plan, the running plan, was based on the most likely assessment of how long the Kabul government could withstand the Taliban's pressure. Ensure that considered in the planning was what in military terms we call the worst case analysis or the worst case scenario, and that would be one where the government and the military collapse wholesale, which is exactly what we saw.

What I can't speak to is the weight given to that worst case scenario. But military planners are brought up; they're educated to always plan for the worst case and to buy some insurance by way of mitigation factors, buy some insurance against that worst case, actually becoming reality.


BOLDUAN: And in what we're looking at right now, Ambassador Westmacott is, you know, the President Biden has said August 31st, remains the deadline yet he is asking for the Pentagon to draw up contingency plans.

And I was speaking to Congressman Adam Kinzinger and asking him, does he have a clear view of what contingent - what would trigger - these contingency plans to have U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan longer? From the viewpoint of allies it almost feels like Boris Johnson called that G7 meeting to say the ground has already shifted contingency plans already need to be triggered. And I'm curious your thought on that.

WESTMACOTT: I think Boris Johnson will call that meeting partly because he was in the Chair of the G7. And this was - this major international crisis was unfolding. And it was important that he should be seen to be there trying to do something that was helpful.

You're right, that he went - he hoped that there would be the chance of extending our deadline. But as I was saying earlier, this is not a unilateral decision, and maybe - the President of the United States.

Now, I don't know what Doug Lute and my good friend Bill Burns has been doing in Kabul talking to Taliban leadership, it may be about terrorism, and trying to ensure that the Taliban realize it's not in their interests to be safe haven to another very nasty groups that might be sloshing around in parts of Afghanistan.

But he might also be talking to them about the possibility of contingency planning of a few more days without the Taliban reacting very sharply and very negatively. Their public statements have been unhelpful on the idea of extending but it may be the Director Burns is examining those possibilities.

Because there are still thousands and thousands of people who need to leave Afghanistan, most of whom I understand about the documentation in order, many of whom whose lives would be in danger, and who we all would love to see evacuated from the country and not left behind, or to fend for themselves in a terrible situation.

So I think I can't give you a precise answer what would be the contingency circumstances, but I very much hope that there are some private conversations going on which means that if there are lots of people who we haven't been able to get out, for whatever reason that an extension of a few days might be possible.

BOLDUAN: Well, we may learn some new information and some new - and some answers to some of these questions as we're waiting for the Secretary of State to speak any minute now. Ambassadors, thank you so much I appreciate your time.

Alright, we are standing by to hear from the Secretary of State Tony Blinken to give an update on some of the biggest questions about that have hung over this operation so far, which is how many Americans are left in country? How many Americans need to be brought out? How many Afghan allies are there how many they expect to be able to get out in time ahead of the August 31st deadline? I'll take you to the State Department after a quick break.



BOLDUAN: More children sick with COVID than ever before. The numbers are rising exponentially. A new report showing nationwide pediatric infections surged from about 38,000 a week near the end of July to more than 180,000 cases last week. That is more than a four-fold jump in the past month to levels not seen since the winter surge.

And children are filling out hospital pediatric wanes, especially in many of the southern states, where there are still the lowest COVID vaccination rates. Joining me now as someone who knows this and is seeing this firsthand is Dr. David Kimberlin. He's Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Thank you for being here. And I should say you have already yourself seen the worst of COVID you lost your father to COVID in November of 2020 as before, of course vaccines become available. And you were on the front lines this whole time saying how hard fast and mean this virus can be and still, you just wrote for the first time since the pandemic started. I am truly - I now am truly scared Delta terrifies me. Why is that doctor?

DR. DAVID KIMBERLIN, FORMER PRESIDENT, PEDIATRIC INFECTIOUS DISEASES SOCIETY: Well, we've moved - thank you for having me on today. We've moved unfortunately into a new and in some ways sort of unsettled territory in this particular pandemic. And it's the Delta variant that's got us here.

As you pointed out, I mean, my family has personally experienced significant loss and we're not alone 630,000 American families have been in the same position we're in and what I - what I'm scared most of is that that number is going to increase and increase significantly.

I don't want anyone to feel the kinds of things that my mother and my brother, myself and my wife had felt during these last months and yet it seems to be inevitably in front of us because of this hyper transmissible Delta variant and because we don't have enough people that are getting vaccinated if they're 12 and over or wearing masks, whether vaccinated or not in all indoor settings.

BOLDUAN: And I mentioned kind of how it is hitting children harder and harder? Now what is it like Doctor seeing children suffer from this now seeing them gasping for air, when before it was you know, primarily older adults?

DR. KIMBERLIN: Well, it's terrible. You know if any parent could understand what I'm about to say seeing your child or a child that you know or a child you care about sucking in for air nose flaring out gasping trying to just breathe is gut wrenching to watch.


DR. KIMBERLIN: We're seeing many more children admitted who are very sick from this than we've seen at any point prior in the in the pandemic. We're seeing a broader age range as well. We've had one week olds admitted with symptomatic COVID. We've had 18 and 19 year olds admitted with symptomatic COVID.

And we're just now beginning to see that hyper inflammatory syndrome that MISC that usually lags by about three or four weeks, we're just now beginning to see that which makes sense time wise since Delta really hit our region, in June and July.

So this, unfortunately, is highly likely to get much worse before it gets better. And perhaps the only day worse than today is going to be tomorrow and the only day worse than tomorrow is the day thereafter.

BOLDUAN: Which all of this makes it all the more confusing why the vaccination rate in Alabama is still so low? I mean, even President - Former President Trump was booed for promoting vaccines during a rally that he had in Alabama this weekend.

I mean, is someone dealing with this close up every day? Do you see a way to change people's minds on this when it comes to the vaccine?

DR. KIMBERLIN: Well, I sure hope so. You know, we have to have hope. We have to - we have to get up each day and we have to do it all over again. I do think that perhaps the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for 16 and over will be a shift for some people anyway.

I'm hopeful that that'll be the case. I'll also say that, you know, the entire medical community across the State of Alabama really is mobilizing here and stepping into this space and talking with individual patients, and then patients themselves who have chosen to get vaccinated or sharing that information on Facebook and on Twitter and so forth and talking with their friends and loved ones.

So I've seen some increasing numbers in vaccination. We're not where we need to be no doubt about that. But there have been over the last couple of weeks, as people have begun to see what this Delta ravaging is looking like? They've begun to get scared and begin to roll up their sleeves, and we're beginning to see some change.

Now, is it going to be enough? I don't know. We'll need for it to be eventually. And we'll be working every single day to do our part to get there.

BOLDUAN: And is there something that you would say or you have been saying to parents and others who are continuing to forget vaccines, but even fighting mask mandates in schools? And also now, you know, I see - hearing more and more reporting on more stories of healthcare workers now even fighting vaccines. DR. KIMBERLIN: You know it's a broad spectrum. It's not just one demographic that resists what - what is factual information, vaccines will save lives, and vaccines will get us through this pandemic. And masking is the additional - that masking and social distancing are the additional measures that will get us through the more immediate period?

Well, more people are getting vaccinated and getting to full vaccination status. So what we need to do is keep emphasizing that to folks. And I think as well beginning, maybe to do a better job at explaining what the difference is between public health, which is what we're dealing with right now and individual choice.

You know, individual choices is one thing, if I don't take my blood pressure medicine, I'm not on that. But if I were, you know, I might have a stroke that would have impacted me in my immediate family. But if I don't get a vaccine, and I then am infected with COVID, and I spread it to many other people, some of them could die.

This is a different situation than the individual liberties argument that's being applied. And I think we need to do a better job explaining that difference.

BOLDUAN: Doctor, thank you for coming up.

DR. KIMBERLIN: Thank you for your time.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, President Biden's massive and expensive economic agenda, clearing a major hurdle in Congress, where this goes now from here, a live report from Capitol Hill next.