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Pentagon Says, Can't Vouch for Taliban Ability or Intent Against ISIS-K; Pentagon Says, Taliban Security Failure May Have Led to Bombing; 13 U.S. Service Members, 90-Plus Afghans Killed in Kabul Attacks. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired August 27, 2021 - 11:30   ET



JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Louie, go ahead. Wait, we've already got you. Louie, go ahead.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) by a gunfire?

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATIONS: Like I said, we're asking very detailed questions about the fight that that will continue to be collected. I can't answer, you know, numbers. That is just -- I would say, you know, that could come out. But just knowing the facts, the incredible, you know, devastation that happened there, I think we should just leave it there.

KIRBY: Hang on just a second. Go ahead.

REPORTER: I'm sorry. So, my question, I'm following on Leta's earlier. Yesterday, the president said you will hunt down and get the revenge on the ISIS attackers yesterday. Can you just explain to the American public who might be wondering, hey, we had 25 troops on the ground? What will that look like if we go into a situation where we're going to go and hunt down these ISIS?

TAYLOR: I think as we look at currently, I've already -- I think I've answered that question of we have, you know, options there right now that we can, you know, ensure the commander has the ability to take action as those opportunities present themselves. But I'm not going to go into and try to think about the, you know, how a decision General McKenzie would make in future operations.

KIRBY: Louie?

REPORTER: Just a quick follow up on the gunman. Was there more than one gunman and was that gunman killed or what --

TAYLOR: As I said, those information is still coming in. I would say, what we do know absolute fact there was a -- you know, a suicide-borne IED right there and gunfire. That is for sure that we know. REPORTER: My other question is going to be this. We have 31 American casualties overall. That is a significant number at one location. I mean, what -- how can we explain why they were -- were they concentrated in one area? Was there a shift change underway? I mean, how is it -- or were they spread apart in one line and that is just how the blast was?

TAYLOR: This answer is not going to be rewarding to you, but it goes back to the commander will figure all those out at due time, right? And those are the questions that I think are very appropriate, and people warn those (ph). But right now, what I can tell you is the commander is continuing to execute the mission, make sure that other forces in there can continue there and ensure that those information, as I think of couple of the questions that we answered earlier, will come at the proper time.

REPORTER: Yes, this question is for General Taylor. I know it has been said numerous times that the focus of the mission is get evacuees and Americans out as quickly as possible. But for those that were injured during the attack yesterday and taken to the local hospital, has there been any talks about setting up security for those individuals? I'm hearing reports on ground, there are concerns that ISIS may attack that hospital. So are there any talks to possibly help keep those Afghan civilians, excuse me, safe from a potential attack? And then once they are well enough to travel, how will they get to the U.S. as well?

TAYLOR: You're talking about Afghans that were injured in the attack. First of all, what I can report is that there were some Afghans there that were part of that that were treated, by, you know, U.S. and other forces immediately there. I'm not fully aware of the reports of on the hospitals in Kabul because I do know there were Afghans taken to multiple locations in Kabul.

KIRBY: We'll have time for just a couple more. Yes, ma'am.

REPORTER: Mr. Kirby, you said that lives are the priority. So my question is pretty straightforward. Should the U.S. or should Americans expect more U.S. casualties in the next few days?

KIRBY: I mean, I obviously don't want to see any more casualties. That is why we are monitoring the threat streams very closely and taking what we believe are the best possible steps to prevent another tragedy like this from happening. I mean, that is -- the secretary was -- made that clear to leadership and last night and this morning that force protection will remain paramount -- obviously a paramount concern, as it always does.

REPORTER: And just to add to that. Apparently, there is a bottleneck at Dulles Airport with the U.S. airlines coming with refugees at Dulles Airport. Are you aware of this or are refugees being stuck on the tarmac for hours and hours?

KIRBY: Yes, we are aware of those reports and they have proven accurate in the last couple of days.


It's really more an issue for customs and border patrol and the process. So I don't want to speak to them or their process. But as we understand it this morning, they have worked through the difficulties and we believe that wait time now upon landing is going to get much, much shorter. But I would refer you to my colleagues at customs and border patrol to speak to that.

Okay. Thanks very much. One more? Go ahead.

REPORTER: How many Afghan SIVs have been flown out so far or other Afghans without green cards or --

KIRBY: Check me on this, but we looked at the number just before coming out, it is just -- we have just under 7,000 now that are in the states and being processed. And that number will change every day, obviously, as it should.

Okay, thanks everybody. We'll see you again at -- I'm sorry, I said 3:00. It is 3:30 this afternoon. General Van Herck will join me. I do apologize for the delay this morning. We were getting updates literally as we were getting ready to come out to see you. We'll do the best that we can to be more punctual. But thanks and we'll see you later.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hello, everyone, I'm Kate Bolduan. We've been watching an update from the Pentagon. John Kirby briefing alongside General Hank Taylor once again and taking questions from reporters on the explosions and the attack of yesterday in Afghanistan, as well as an update on the evacuations from Kabul.

But joining me right now, let me get straight over to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. He in Doha, Qatar tonight -- today, tonight.

Nick, two of the major headlines that I picked up on were that they now believe there was only one suicide bomber, not two explosions, as was initially reported. Additionally, they said that they -- in the past 24 hours, they had 300 Americans they were able to fly out and evacuate in the midst of this. I'm not sure -- and you tell me what you're hearing about the fluidity of the numbers on the ground but I'm not sure where that leaves how many Americans were left in the country.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: No, it is extremely unclear. And the State Department's latest comment on this suggested there were a thousand people they were concerned of. But they thought the vast majority of those had kind of made plans. Now, it is possible that that 300 is separate to that 500 we were informed of that have been flown out yesterday.

So, they could be getting through the remaining American citizens in Afghanistan at quite a fast clip. It would certainly make sense. And a source directly familiar with the situation at the airport said, look, it is hard to understand if you're an American in Afghanistan right now that you're still interested in leaving if you haven't already come forward. They're in the closing window here. But what you also mentioned too, Kate, about the suicide attacker there is very interesting. It shows frankly how enormously complex investigating this is and fraught for the Pentagon at this stage. Of course, they have to be sure that nothing they say about this situation confer the compromised security, particularly their relationship with the Taliban.

So, we've gone from a place where we were talking about gunmen yesterday in the CENTCOM briefing and two blasts to the possibility of one gunman who was also the suicide bomber. Hard to understand, to be honest, how a suicide bomber could have got as close as he seems to have done to those Marines outside of the gate whilst still firing.

But this is all something that they're clearly trying to put, I think, on the slight side now to investigate slowly and give the correct answers. But they may be hard to come by given, frankly, how chaotic and crowded that particular scene was. But it shows the dangers moving forward. It shows how little information they certainly publicly appear to having to go on when it comes to planning for future threats.

We got an indication there too about how the evacuation is going to start looking going forward. I do think we're going to get a paucity of information about how this progresses probably for security reasons. I spoke to a source directly familiar with the situation in the airport who said it looked like the evacuation operation was beginning to wind down now. Again, we heard there that they will continue to evacuate people to the end. But it is going to come a time when that capacity to process new arrivals in that airport diminishes because they don't have the personnel there anymore.

This is an exceptionally fraught operation. John Kirby there was talking about the need to constantly have the military and the evacuation process, the withdrawal and the evacuation moving together, balancing each other and adjusting as necessary.

But, essentially, this is now as fraught as it possibly could be. They are surrounded by the Taliban, who they have a good relationship with at the moment. ISIS-K are somewhere in the mix potentially with further suicide bombers and they have to withdraw the last troops in America's longest war from the surrounded singular air base at some point in the next three to four days. A very difficult challenge at the best of times and it seems to get harder every hour. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yes. And, Nick, stick with me. You also described, I think, it very well of kind of what we also saw in this press briefing.


And let me bring in retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling on this. It seemed pretty evident from how John Kirby as well as General Taylor were talking that they seem even more careful with their word choice today, and as Nick is getting to, in order to do everything possible to not further compromise this security and further endanger the troops on the ground. One question, General, that was not answered, that I found really interesting, is when John Kirby was asked if their belief -- basically about the belief and the understanding right now of if the Taliban intentionally let the suicide attacker through their checkpoint or if it was unintentional and a massive security failure. They still don't know, they say.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Kate, I'll push back a little bit and say the suicide bombers are the hardest enemy to deal with. Because -- and I'm sure John and General Taylor were both saying that because they just don't know yet.

But I would really find it hard to believe that this was an intentional action to let a suicide bomber through the Taliban checkpoint because I know that the Taliban and ISIS-K have been fighting each other and are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what they believe is the future of Afghanistan.

And this was as damaging to the Taliban as it was to the reputation of America. Certainly, the Taliban wants to portray themselves as protecting the citizens of Kabul, being on the verge of taking over the new government. And if we were to look back over the last year or two at the number of suicide attacks by ISIS-K inside of Kabul, or inside of other places throughout Afghanistan, you would find quite a few of them. And every single time the people have blamed the Ghani government for not protecting them against this kind of terrorist attack.

So this was something truthfully concerned me from the very beginning. I'm sure it concerned the commanders on the ground. A suicide attack, as soon as you -- the bomber comes up to your checkpoint, whether it is Taliban or American, if they're discovered having a suicide vest on them, the action that they usually perform is to punch themselves off and turn into a pink cloud. Unfortunately, somehow, this individual got through the Taliban but the investigation will show whether or not or could show whether or not it was intentional, but my gut tells me it certainly wasn't because this hurt the Taliban pretty badly as well.

BOLDUAN: And that's interesting. And I want to get to the White House on this question about retaliation. But, first, let me ask you about it, General Hertling, because the president -- as President Biden has said, he said -- yesterday, he said, we have some reason to believe we know who they are. And taking them out, the ISIS, whoever mastermind this and ISIS-K, in general, taking them, it seems, would be then the first real test of this over-the-horizon capability that we hear so much from the president, as we heard from -- we also heard more about in this Pentagon briefing. How capable is that strategy?

HERTLING: Well, I mean, the president could have said, we certainly know who they are. But then the issue is targeting, because these are cells. And that is how you target a suicide bomber cell. You don't go the bomber itself. If the bomber has the vest on and is approaching a checkpoint, that is the hardest mission. What you're trying to do is go after the cell that's producing the bombers, influencing the bombers, drugging the bombers, getting equipment for the bombers. So there may be a very good indication that somewhere in the urban area of Kabul, there is a suicide network of which this particular bomber came from and targeting that is -- you think it is very easy. Send an F-18 over the scene and just bomb the house where they're making the vest.

But, unfortunately, it is not always in a certain location that you want it to be. So then the issue is tracking those cells. And that is what an intelligence network does, is it provides you information, on the movement, the capabilities, the actions of those kind of cells and that is unfortunately, what I think we've lost a lot of it as we move forces out of Afghanistan.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Let me get over to Jeremy Diamond, who has been standing by at the White House for us. Jeremy, what are you hearing from the White House about this today, about the president's promise of retaliation?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, the president made very clear yesterday that the United States will strike back at those responsible for that attack at a time and place of the U.S. military's choosing. He said they would strike with force and precision. We don't have any more details from the White House about exactly when that would take place nor do we have that official full and complete confirmation from the intelligence community attributing this attack to ISIS-K.


One thing that I think was notable from this briefing was how direct and how specific Admiral Kirby, Retired Admiral Kirby, as well as the general, were about the ongoing terrorism threat. He talked about it being specific and credible threats and he also said we are prepared and would expect future attacks, which is really remarkable when you think about the fact that these thousands of U.S. troops are expected to remain at the airport for the next four or five days until that final withdrawal on August 31st.

And I spoke with a senior White House official this morning who also emphasized this point, saying that the threat is still out there. It is heightened and it is certainly something that the president is being updated on constantly throughout the day and something that he's very concerned about. And it is eerie almost the extent to which those warnings are so similar to what we heard from the president and White House officials in the days leading up to yesterday's terrorist attack.

And so, obviously, there is a sense of heightened concern. And, again, John Kirby saying, we are prepared and would expect future attacks.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I think he even said something about this specific -- how specific threat is that they are picking up on the intelligence. Jeremy, thanks so much. General Hertling, I appreciate it. Nick Paton Walsh, as always, thank you so much, guys.

Here is the very latest understanding of how the attack played out at the Kabul airport. And, again, as we just heard in that Pentagon briefing, there is a lot that they still don't know. According to the head of U.S. Central Command, an ISIS attacker wearing a suicide vest apparently passed first through a Taliban checkpoint and then gained access to the airport gate manned by U.S. service members when detonating the vest.

And I want to show you video of -- this is the interface point where U.S. personnel, they are -- this is where the gate that they were talking about, where U.S. personnel kind of have this very dangerous moment where they have to do a physical search of each person before they are allowed to pass through and enter the airport.

And here is why yesterday General McKenzie explains that point is so dangerous.


GEN. KENNETH F. MCKENZIE, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: This is close-up war. The breath of the person you are searching is upon you. While we have overwatch in place, we still have to touch the clothes of the person that is coming in.


BOLDUAN: This video that we're showing right here shows just what the general is describing. Video taken by PBS Correspondent Jane Ferguson at Abbey Gate outside Kabul airport just days before the blast, you can see just how close, how dense the crowds of Afghans and U.S. troops are. They are literally touching each other.

Joining me right now is award-winning correspondent for PBS NewsHour Jane Ferguson. Thank you, Jane, for coming in.

That video -- the videos that you've shared and you've taken are really important, I think, to kind of understand what has happened. The area where these expositions happened, you know it well. We can see it from your videos. Can you describe first for me what we are seeing, and hopefully we can play the video again, of the marines at that kind of chokepoint, literally touching and holding back a group of Afghans trying to gain access to the airport. What are they doing there?

JANE FERGUSON, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: It is hard, Kate, to over state just how chaotic the scene was in terms of security. People talking about it having been secured by the Taliban and was basically not really a reflection of how the chaotic the scene was with in terms there of their checkpoint.

So in that footage, you can see the soldiers trying to control crowds of Americans or crowds of Afghans, rather. And they have come in already past the Taliban checkpoint. Now, as a checkpoint, it is really not a check by the Taliban. They've essentially sort of started to try to filter women and children through at the front. They attempt to prioritize them, but they don't really check people entirely. In fact, very often, they're just harassing people. So, whenever the Americans and there were also many other soldiers there from Britain and other allied nations first come in contact with the Afghans as they come through, they are essentially standing face- to-face with people who haven't been checked and it is not possible to. So this is after all an open road. It is a road to the airport. So people just drive as far as they can, then when the traffic becomes too bad, they get out of their cars and they walk and they meet with American soldiers there. So it is completely exposed.

And it's also a very panicked situation where people are really pushing, they're pushing very hard to try to get in and, essentially, you know, the American soldiers are simply trying to prevent a stampede. This is hardly like an orderly checking.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I want to show another video that you posted what it looked like at the entrance of the Abbey Gate, kind of the beginning of this process we're now discussing. This is also video from just days before the attack. Tell me more about that area, how you would describe this.

FERGUSON: Well, the Abbey Gate, you can possibly see some of that footage, these containers. They had eventually taken these containers and put them just to try to put the crowds back so they could funnel them in very slowly.


Now, this was largely manned initially by British soldiers, because this right by the Baron Hotel, which was taken over by British soldiers and turned into something of a garrison, almost. And that was one of the worst chokeholds.

When we first arrived there immediately after the Taliban took over the city, and people started to come in for these evacuation flights, you had Taliban firing off rounds in the air, trying to keep the crowds back. I mean, you heard it all day long, automatic gunfire in the air as the Taliban would try to sort of intimidate the people into keeping back. And it's that spot where you saw people killed over the weekend, there were seven over the last weekend, there were seven people crushed to death right around there where those containers were and where the entrance to Baron Gate is.

And so, basically, like this was one of the most painful spots for Afghans trying to get through. Many of us were getting calls from contacts and friends and their families who were trying to get in touch with us and say, can we come to the airport, should we come to Baron Gate, and it was the one place many said don't come, it's simply too dangerous.

BOLDUAN: The U.S. CENTCOM Commander, he also said that the working assumption is that the attacker first made it through a Taliban checkpoint. We heard from this Pentagon briefing just now they're not really sure what the breakdown was and how that attacker was able to get so close. And how General McKenzie put it yesterday when it comes to the Taliban checkpoints is that sometimes the searches are good, sometimes the searches are not. What has been your experience with that Taliban perimeter?

FERGUSON: From what I could see, the Taliban weren't necessarily there searching for security. They were helping to try to prevent surges of people. Now, many observers and soldiers I spoke to felt that the Taliban had been almost sort of filtering people through but at times applying pressure by allowing more people through, so applied pressure, released pressure.

There was a little bit of that going on because it was quite on and off. But the Taliban soldiers that were there were not necessarily searching people. They certainly weren't looking for -- clearly, from what we could see, for weapons. They were essentially trying to prevent a stampede. And this wasn't so much -- I mean, to actually pat people down and go through them would have been impractical, given the crush of human beings that were coming toward them.

And so it's not actually surprising to me having seen the area that someone with a suicide vest could have gotten through, because this was an open road safe for a small funnel where people were coming through, but they were funneling people so they didn't rush the scene, not so that they could do a thorough check of people. And many people were just wandering around freely, and there was no real barrier between any of the soldiers of any nationality and individuals who were able to walk through.

BOLDUAN: You know, a journalist working with CNN who is in Kabul still reports that now, today, what they've seen are very few people gathering at the airport. And the way this has been described to CNN is that people are not allowed to go to the main gate at the airport. And now, almost 500 yards before the gate, the Taliban is blocking the road with their cars.

I'm curious what you think how different that is, and how it's been described to us. It's becoming kind of the situation right, where most western reporters have had to get out and go to Doha because of security situation. And so what do you think that actually means in terms of evacuation efforts and what the security could be there now?

FERGUSON: Well, in terms of the crowd diminishing, it's likely a number of things. The Taliban had announced well before this explosion or these series of explosions that they were going to stop Afghans getting to the airport. They had announced that it would be for foreigners only, that they really didn't want this atrocious brain drain that was happening. I mean, the country's most educated were showing up at the gates of the airport. So, the Taliban had already started to really restrict movement. But also, of course, the blast is going to scare people off.

I mean, you have to remember that Kabul has been menaced by ISIS for several years and ISIS attacks are notorious for their brutality and for their absolute determination to kill civilians. These are the attacks that hit girls' schools and wedding halls. So, in terms of the psychological impact on residents of Kabul, this definitely has an impact, you know, as to whether or not they're going to go to a certain area or avoid something or avoid an event. This has been going on for years. BOLDUAN: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it's hard to understand how you can expect anyone after the carnage that we saw from yesterday why they would even contemplate rushing back to the same place today without a completely dramatically different security apparatus in place, which we know is not happened. Jane, thank you for your reporting. I really appreciate it.


FERGUSON: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Joining me now for some more perspective on what we've learned and just what we have seen in the last 24 hours play out in Afghanistan is John Negroponte. He's a former ambassador to Iraq, former director of National Intelligence. Ambassador, thank you for being here.


BOLDUAN: We heard from the Pentagon an update, but still there's a lot to understand about how this attack played out. But just your reaction to this attack, the death of 13 U.S. service members, still -- and many, many more Afghans. I mean, the White House has been warning of an attack that they -- a threat, they called it, that has been acute and persistent, and, today, they said specific even. Was this not -- if this -- was this not a matter of if but when?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I mean, it was -- the security situation just looks very, very dangerous. I mean, you don't, I think, have to be an expert to look at the images there of people crowded up against walls, trying to press into through narrow passageways, getting inside the airport, so on and so forth. I think it was something -- it was a risk that always existed as long as this evacuation is taking place. And I think it will exist right until the very end.

BOLDUAN: You know, President Biden has said in his remarks that he is sticking with the deadline. That is how the Pentagon is operating, as we just learned this hour. They're still sticking with the deadline. But by leaving the president may not be able to bring every American and Afghan ally out on time and safe from Taliban control, but staying longer would almost certainly expose U.S. troops to even worse danger. How do you choose, Ambassador?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I mean, the president made that point yesterday. And if we decided to prolong our stay indefinitely, I think he felt that that would ensure resumed conflict of some kind.

First of all, I think getting 100,000 people out in the short period of time that we've done that is quite an accomplishment, no mean feat. I think we've accomplished the bulk of our mission. There may end up being some people left behind. Certainly on the Afghan side, there will be.

But even if there are Americans left behind, I think there will be other ways of getting them out. They'll be able to come out over land, across into Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan. I don't know. There may be some arrangements that can be negotiated later on with the Taliban or the government that is running Kabul to come back in and take some more people out.

But for the time being, I think we should expect the president to stick to the deadline. I think that's probably what he ought to do and get our military and the people out of that airport by the time he said we would. And I think it's -- it's very dicey proposition as to whether or not we'll have another terrorist suicide attack or not.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Ambassador, I'd also like you to reflect on just the striking parallels between an American president yesterday vowing to avenge the deaths of Americans at the hands of terrorists and an American president 20 years ago vowing to do the same. Here's Joe Biden yesterday and George W. Bush 20 years ago.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, in the moment of our choosing.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: This nation is peaceful but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing in terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.


BOLDUAN: How do you reflect on that, Ambassador?

NEGROPONTE: Well, my first reaction when I heard him say it yesterday was what he is saying is, we have our eyes on these people. We know -- we have information that gives us some pretty good sense of where they are and where they're operating from, and that we will not hesitate to use that knowledge and our counterterrorist capability to go after them at some point in time.

And so I'm quite confident that we'll do that. But it's going to be after our troops have gotten out of the country. And it will be with some standoff capability or some other resources that we have available to us. But it won't be the troops that are stationed at Kabul airport at this particular point in time. So I think the president will do what he said he's going to do.

BOLDUAN: It is striking to hear that same wording 20 years apart as we're trying to get out of Afghanistan as we were just about to enter Afghanistan as well. Ambassador, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you all so much for being with us today. I'm Kate Bolduan. Anderson Cooper is going to pick CNN's coverage right now.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers.