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At This Hour

Biden to Address Nation Today After U.S. Ends War in Afghanistan; 1 Million Plus Without Power for Possibly Weeks in Scorching Heat; Louisiana Hospitals Overwhelmed with Hurricane, COVID Patients. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2021 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

Here is what we are watching AT THIS HOUR:

The war is over. The last U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan and the Taliban is declaring victory. President Biden addresses the nation in just hours.

Still without power. More than a million customers in the Gulf Coast are in the dark after Hurricane Ida. Officials say it could take weeks to restore it in the thick of sweltering summer heat.

And escaping the flames. Thousands rush to evacuate as a massive wildfire threatens Lake Tahoe.

Thanks so much for being here.

Developing at this hour. President Biden will soon address the nation after the U.S. ended its longest war. The last U.S. military flights left Kabul one minute before the August 31st deadline.

Here is what will become an iconic image of this chaotic exit: the last U.S. soldier out. Major General Chris Donahue, last U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan as he was boarding the last C-17 out of Kabul. The 20 years of war there costing trillions of dollars but most importantly claiming more than 2400 American lives, including 13 service members killed in the terror attack at Kabul airport last week.

Over the last few weeks, the U.S. and its allies pulled off a major feat, evacuating 123,000 people but it was not entirely complete. Between 100 and 200 Americans are believed to still be in Afghanistan and they want out, along with thousands of Afghan allies that America promised to protect.

The Taliban is celebrating America's departure.

Fireworks and celebratory gunfire could be heard across Kabul overnight. A "Los Angeles Times" journalist captured this video of Taliban fighters roaming an airport hangar after the U.S. withdrawal was complete.

We have every angle of this very consequential moment in history covered for you.

Let's begin with CNN's Jeremy Diamond who is at the White House.

Jeremy, what are you expecting to hear from the president this afternoon?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Kate, when President Biden came into office becoming the fifth -- the fourth commander-in-chief to over sea this U.S. war in Afghanistan, he vowed not to hand it over to a fifth. And so I think we could expect the president to mark this moment in history. The end of America's longest war and but, of course, there are a number of questions and criticisms that the president will also need to address about the way in which he ended this war.

And so, while the president will certainly reiterate his rational for ending the war, so far we have not heard him admit to many mistakes in terms of the chaotic way that this withdrawal unfolded prompting criticism there Republicans and Democrats and he'll have to address the question of why the U.S. left Afghanistan, why U.S. troops left Afghanistan before this mission of evacuating every American who wanted to get out of the country to get them out. Why he did so.

The president less than two weeks ago committed to not letting those U.S. troops leave until that mission was complete and yet that is exactly what happened yesterday as those last American troops got on to planes and left the country of Afghanistan.

But the president will also talk about what is coming forward. We know that while the military mission has ended to get those Americans and the tens of thousands of Afghans who help the U.S. who are likely eligible for re-settlement in the U.S., to get them out, the military mission has ended but the State Department, the diplomatic mission will now continue to try to get them out, and ultimately, I think it is clear that the president and his military advisers decided that it would be safer for American troops to be out by the 31st and also in order to maintain the leverage over the Taliban cooperation and facilitating the safe evacuation. We'll see if that happens going forward.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, a very big question. Jeremy, thank you very much.

This morning, members of Taliban could be seen checking out U.S. military equipment, as we showed you, left behind at the Kabul airport, equipment that the head of U.S. Central Command says has been disable and will be impossible to use going forward.

But what does it look like on the ground now? What is happening now in Afghanistan?

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is live in Doha, Qatar, where the last U.S. military flights landed.

Nick, what does Afghanistan look like today?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: I think there is an enormous sense of in trepidation in the hearts of the average Afghan. Eighteen years old is the most common age in Afghanistan and that means that most people in the country have never known life without America being there. And so, this may be a back to the future for so many individuals who remember the Taliban rules in the '90s.


But the Taliban themselves celebrating as they heard of the final American departure, fireworks, gunshots in the air, extraordinary scenes at the airport today where we've seen them with their sort of Taliban special forces and the Taliban spokesperson giving a press conference, taking up the runway.

They have seemed to have driven up and down with U.S. armored vehicles to show how much has been left behind by the United States as it rushed for the exits.

But all of this is a distraction really from the major challenge that they have which is now governing, which is health care, which is the economy, which is banking. They have been a sort of rampaging and insurgency for 20 years and now they have the task of making ordinary Afghan lives sustainable because they do need to retain some popularity to make this work, I think many assessed.

But there are still signs of the brutal edges that have been emerging and now the Americans have gone and critics fear may become the whole way they handle those that disagree with their behavior.

Certainly, what I saw in the air base here, Al Udeid in Qatar is downstream from this extraordinary evacuation operation; the challenges ahead of that certainly enormous. We saw what we thought the last planes ever to come out of Afghanistan carrying the final U.S. troops. It is remarkable frankly to see this vast sea of aircraft carriers, of air jets just literally lying idle in the desert heat.

But also to see the number of Afghans who now need to be moved further down the system. We asked over the 55,000 that have come through Al Udeid air base here, a remarkable number and incredible achievement, 39,000 have already been moved on.

But they weren't able to give a number as to how many of those were actually SIV applicants. Now that is important because this is the focus of the whole operation, and American citizens too, Afghans who had assisted the American presence there as well. But it was really SIV applicants they were trying to help. That process was fuzzy, it is fair to say.

A lot of people applied for it and not everybody got the case number they need. But it is working out who these 120,000 people were that is so important for the U.S. and they try to find homes for them and the challenge is for the millions of Afghans they left behind and the tens of thousands of SIV applicants they left behind. How do they live under the Taliban, emboldened now they are now. And with a history of being brutal towards those who disapprove of how they want to run the country -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: All right. Nick, stick with me. I want to also add to the conversation CNN's chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, as well as retired Major General Dana Pittard. He served as an Army ground commander in Iraq. He's also the author of the book, "Hunting the Caliphate".

General, I want to ask but some of the video that we've been showing this morning and your reaction to seeing Taliban fighters wearing what appears to be U.S. military fatigues and gear and touring U.S. military aircraft that was left behind. What is your reaction to seeing that?

MAJ. GEN. DANA PITTARD (RET.), U.S. ARMY: My initial reaction is kind of sad, sadness. We all realize just like the rest of the American people that at some point, we need to leave Afghanistan. But not like this, and not with the Taliban completely in control and running around with our equipment. I assume that that was not the vision that President Biden was looking for.

BOLDUAN: We've heard from the CentCom commander. We've heard from the secretary of state, what would you like to hear from the president, the commander-in-chief now that he's about to speak about this historic moment?

PITTARD: I think I'd like to hear a couple of things. One is really President Biden's vision for the future of the region, and America's interest. And how we're going to go after insurgent groups like ISIS-k and al Qaeda and continue that fight and whether or not he truly does trust the Taliban. And then I would like to hear some reflection as far as how this came about, the decision-making for it, accountability.

Does he need to shake up the national security personnel structure in some way on where we are now? And admit to some mistakes and learn from them and then move on.

BOLDUAN: Kaitlan, the White House is making clear that the military operation is over. And getting Americans and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan now is a diplomatic mission, is how it's been described. Have they made clear how they pull that off, what that actually looks like?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, what you heard from Secretary Blinken yesterday, Kate, was revealing, because we should note that before Kabul fell to the Taliban so quickly and much faster than anyone in the administration admitted, they planned on keeping a diplomatic presence in Kabul.


Of course, that diplomatic presence left when all of the troops before the deadline and Secretary Blinken said yesterday they are going to move that to Doha and that is where they're operating out of, as a de facto embassy out of Doha, something that he said they would notify Congress of soon.

And I think that speaks how they change the trajectory of how they would look like right now and the idea that the Taliban could take over. Eventually, there could be issues eventually with the Afghan security services but it reveals how much they did not foresee this coming when it comes to what the diplomatic presence is going to look like.

And that is what they emphasized yesterday. This is shifting from a Pentagon mission to a diplomatic mission. That is a big question for a lot of allies who want to know what is going to happen to the Afghans who helped the U.S. and are still there and were not able to get out. What does this look like for them going forward? An also what is the future of Afghanistan going forward?

Because, of course, the Taliban has taken over so quickly. But questions about how they're going to form a government and whether or not it is ever going to be recognized as legitimate by any international figure in the community. That is still a big one. And, of course, the White House has made clear they do still believe they are going to play a role in that going forward but what it looks like is far from certain.


And, General, you mentioned and raised a question just now that I think is an important one which is after what you've seen and how this what drawl has been executed, you're wondering if there should be a shake-up, changes to the national security team around the president. Do you believe that is a consequence of what we've seen play out.

PITTARD: I think it certainly should be considered. The initial planning and we've talked about this before and in withdrawing American troops, in fact the way they were withdrawn was close to being an abandonment. And then after doing that, then figuring out, oh, we have to go back and evacuate American citizens and the Afghans that helped us. Why wasn't that a part of plan all along? And who approved that, who came up with that, in giving up Bagram air base as an example?

So, accountability for that. Was it within the Defense Department? Was it with the State? Was it somewhere in national security? And how were decisions made? Because this is just a first serve months of President Biden's administration. What is it like for the next three and a half years as he confronts future national security issues and crises?

BOLDUAN: Yeah, absolutely.

Kaitlan, 13 U.S. members killed in the final days of this Afghan mission. There is a lost of new reporting about how tough the meetings were with the president and the families of the fallen soldiers when they returned to Dover Air Force Base.

What are you hearing about this? And, I don't know, how -- what the White House is saying and what the president is saying about it? We know the press secretary said that the president wanted to stay in touch with these families.

COLLINS: Yeah. And obviously, this is always going to be an incredibly tough meeting. When you are the commander-in-chief and you have to go meet with grieving parents who have just found out that they have lost their child in combat, these especially all ranging from ages 20 to 31. Five of them were 20 years old and barely alive when 9/11 happened and when this war started.

And so, you could understand the depth of the grief and the trauma that those parents are going through. And so they did meet privately with president Biden before the dignified transfer happened when the remains were brought back to the United States there at the base in Delaware.

And Matt Viser of "The Washington Post" reported to a piece where some of the parents struggling with whether or not they even wanted to meet with President Biden.

Some of them, one father had decided that he did in the end. But he talked about essentially mixed reviews of how that interaction went with the president where he felt like some of them said that the president was looking at his watch during it. Some of them felt like he talked about his own experience with his own son dying too often and instead of their children and focusing on what happening last week.

But I do think that is often a way that you see that President Biden try to connect with people who are grieving. Because he is someone who is no stranger to it so he invoked his own experience as a way of saying I know what you're going through and I know what you're feeling.

One thing that we should note that one of the parents pointed out that president Biden carries around a card of how many people were killed in his breast pocket every day. He added a plus 13 at the end for, of course, the 13 who were killed in that suicide blast last week.

BOLDUAN: So, that, of course, is an enduring image forever of this evacuation. The other enduring image that we'll have forever is also general petard, this picture, the last American soldier on the ground.

You personally know Major General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne. What do you think when you see the photo that he's the last soldier to leave?


PITTARD: I think of a leader. And I think of Chris Donahue who I have great respect for, when he was a colonel in charge of Delta Force, we worked quite a bit together in 2014 in the fight against ISIS. He's a leader who wouldn't ask his soldiers to do anything that he wouldn't do himself.

And so, I think it is almost fitting having the commander of the 82nd Airborne being the last soldier to walk on, because it was dangerous. It was dangerous to be that last soldier. Because either the Taliban or ISIS-K could take a las soldier but it speaks highly of him. I think of him as a leader as a person and a family man.

BOLDUAN: General, thank you for your time. Kaitlan, it's great to see you. Thank you so much.

Coming up for us, New Orleans could be without power for weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and now there is new threat in the waters.

And tens of thousands are under mandatory evacuations near Lake Tahoe as a wildfire becomes a serious threat almost overnight. The latest in a live report ahead.



BOLDUAN: Hundreds of people are become rescued from floodwaters after Hurricane Ida ravaged the Gulf Coast. The damage is widespread.

Just look at the destruction in Grand Isle, Louisiana, captured by CNN on a flight with the U.S. Coast Guard yesterday. More than 1 million customers are still without power in Louisiana and Mississippi. And they're now being warned that it could be weeks before it is restored in this brutal summer heat that the Gulf is experiencing.

CNN's Nadia Romero is live in New Orleans with the very latest.

Nadia, what are you seeing there today?

NADIA ROMERO, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is really what we're feeling, Kate. And it is the heat you're talking about. We're about 2 million people in this area. It is so hot and then top of that you have people with no power. More than a million and the numbers keep climbing, instead of going in the opposite direction so you don't have a chance to cool off.

There is no AC whether you don't have power. This is why. This transformer fell down during the storm on top of the car, the woman who owns the car here Jill put a funny note on the outside saying low mileage, runs great, new tires, full tank of gas and best offer and that is the spirit of people in this community.

We survived this storm. We remember what happened with Hurricane Katrina. It is going to have the best attitude we possibly can. But they're doing so while sweating in their homes because they don't have A.C. that heat advisory will continue along with the power outages here as well -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Nadia, thank you so much.

Joining me now for more is Mitch Landrieu. He's the former mayor of New Orleans and, of course, a CNN political commentator.

It is good to see you. Some of the pictures from where you are, Mitch, are just truly tragic. I mean, New Orleans and other parts, they're now being warned they could be without power for more than three weeks.

I mean, what does mean for New Orleans and surrounding areas.

MITCH LANDRIEU, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: First of all, Ida was a really big storm. She was powerful and she was relentless and you could see from the picture had untold challenges and that catastrophic events, but one of the challenges is that catastrophic events beget catastrophic events. And one of these could be electrical outages.

We don't have a good sense from Entergy about when the power is going to go back on. New reports indicating that somewhere between a million and a hall and a half houses are without electricity.

If that lasts a long period of time, it starts to create a rolling difficult situation that is hard to get out of because as you can see, power is king. With no power, gas stations are not open and food stores are not open and water supplies are down so that is the next challenge for all of the folks.

We're very thankful that we have so many people coming in, national guardsman and linesman trying to fix, but we're in a situation now where to could get worse before it gets better until the power gets up. So, that's the first order of business for the powers that be.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, and I mean, I know people will remember you were instrumental during your time as mayor in the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. The mayor of Grand Isle called Ida "Katrina on steroids".

What is your biggest concern this time around?

LANDRIEU: Well, I think that is David (INAUDIBLE), a good friend and a great leader. He's been down on Grand Isle through the tough times. He and Timmy and all of the guys from down there, all the parish presidents from there, they caught the brunt of it.

And in many ways, Ida was worse for them than Katrina was. The worst nightmare is to have drowning and life issues, but also massive destructions of property. I have not seen the pictures because I haven't been able to access the TV. But my guess is if you look at everything from Grand Isle up to Laplace, you're going to have some substantial damage and loss of life is the greatest concern.

However, when the storm ends and the rescue begins, then the recovery starts and that can't happen if electricity doesn't get back up and operating.

So that again continues to be the order of the day because it actually can spawn other consequences that we haven't thought about. People normally prepare for 72 hours but not seven days, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks. If it gets into that we're going to have trouble.

But I know they're working as hard as they can and I know they're pushing hard, but we have to be very careful and thoughtful and help each other out. BOLDUAN: What is one thing that is very different is this is

happening in the middle of COVID. How does COVID complicate everything?


LANDRIEU: Well, I mean, it's just unbelievable. We have a massive COVID crisis in the country. Of course, we didn't have great numbers in Louisiana because of vaccination rate was low and hospitals were full. So, when you have one disaster that compounds on another, people need that need hospitals that are not available, our health care works have been working around the clock. They are angels and saints and heroes and done an incredible amount of work.

But if you don't have electricity and you have a COVID problem and a hurricane on top of that, well, things are a little tough. It is not too trite to say that the people of Louisiana have been through tough times before and we'll be again. But the deck is stacked against us at the moment. We're going to dig our way out of it. We always do.

But people shouldn't underestimate how tough this is going to be and how long it's going to take.

BOLDUAN: Yeah, it's really good to see you. Be well. Thank you for coming on.

Coming up for us, a massive wildfire forces thousands to flee Lake Tahoe, a live report, next.