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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Biden: I Stand By My Decision To Withdraw From Afghanistan; Defense Dept. Aims To Relocate 30k Afghan Allies To U.S.; Seven Hundred Afghan Allies Evacuated From Kabul In Last 48 Hours; At Least 1,297 Dead & 5,000 Injured In Haiti Earthquake; Former GOP Rep. Paul Mitchell Dies Of Cancer At Age 64. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 16, 2021 - 17:00   ET


JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: We're the first ones on-scene, so it was something that we absolutely had thought about.

QUESTION: And one last question. This can be for you or the General. You spoke from the podium over the last several days many times saying that the Afghan Air Force was conducting more airstrikes against the Taliban than the U.S. was.


My question is, why was that? Why didn't the U.S. conduct more strikes against the Taliban in these final days?

KIRBY: Yeah, I think, you know, Monday morning quarterbacking here now, I mean, isn't I don't think a helpful exercise. But the -- as we said from a while ago, that as our resources and capabilities in the region dwindled because of the drawdown. And we were ordered to drawdown by the end of August. And we were nothing but honest about the speed with which we had to do that because speed is safety. We wanted to make sure we did this quickly.

And a drawdown means a drawdown, and it's not just about boots on the ground; the drawdown is about capabilities and resources in the region as we wrapped up our advise and assist in combat missions in Afghanistan, which meant we had fewer airplanes, fewer strike capabilities in the region as we continue to drawdown.

And again, we were very transparent about the fact that we would conduct airstrikes in support of the Afghans where and when feasible, fully cognizant of the fact that it wasn't always going to be feasible in every -- on every day, and in every place. But the Afghan Air Force is indigenous, and they are in a country. And they did maintain their presence. And there were days where they flew easily twice as many strikes as -- as we did.

And they were able to often get on scene quicker because they were already there. And because they had tangible connections to their troops in the field.

It also is a healthy reminder, something that I think we forget that in the last year and a half, Afghans were in the lead is almost all -- literally all but just about almost all of their Operations on the ground. I mean, they -- the advise and assist mission was still there. But they were very much in the lead of their own Operations and coordinating with their air force.

QUESTION: I have a question for Mr. Reid.


QUESTION: You said earlier that your crisis Action Group for Afghanistan (inaudible) was set up in early July--


QUESTION: -- the decision of President Biden to end the war was taken in mid-April. Why did it take so long to create a group to take care of your afghan allies?

REID: The Department of Defense enters into this in support of the State Department, and the State Department has for many years, as you know, executed the SIV program. The addition of the U.S. military support to that program was new. And it was generated by guidance to try to accelerate and help the process due to the time delays inherent within getting them through.

So we were asked by the State Department to provide support to their operation. That's not a suggestion that -- that is when SIVs became a priority for the government that has been for many years, it was just that the contributions that the Defense Department could make a EURO "using our installations in United States as an example where we could do this in a very orderly setting free of distractions without them coming individually or scattering to multiple locations.

We could centralize the resources and contribute our resources, our logistics, our medical personnel; Fort Lee, Virginia, is the center of excellence for army logistics. So it was a good example of how we could use our resources to support a program that we all wanted to see, continue and accelerate and help as many folks out as we could because, you know, we value what they did for us, and we want to be reciprocal in that regard.

QUESTION: So, do we have to understand that this group was created because of the slowness of the process at the State Department?

REID: No, that's not what I said. It is a long process and to the extent that the addition of DOD resources and support could make it, again, about bringing them all together. If you're familiar with the process, there are multiple stages and multiple agencies involved within our system.

This gave us, because of our resources, the ability to have a base with a location. We could bring that together and speed up something that may have otherwise taken weeks into a matter of days, and it became more economical; we increase the throughput of that process and create capacity to do more. So that's really the contributions of the Defense Department. KIRBY: I think we need to get to the phones too a little bit. I haven't done that yet.

QUESTION: Thank you, John. To drill down a bit on on the flights out that we've -- we've seen on video. My colleagues at defense one had reported there were in excess of 600, perhaps 640 people on a C-17 flying out. And you -- you also took a question this morning in your first briefing and said you'd try to get back to us on it.


There appeared to be people that fell from that aircraft, likely to their death. Can you confirm those things? Thank you.

KIRBY: On the -- on the -- that video footage that we've all seen of -- of something falling off the wing, I don't have an update for you in terms of specific validity of that. We're obviously just as interested in you and learning more about what -- what happened there. And on the -- on the first question about the -- the -- the C-17 with, you know, fully loaded.

Again, I don't have any additional information about that particular aircraft in that particular flight. But -- but, you know, we'll -- we'll continue to try to dig down and see if there's more information that could have about that. It's obviously difficult from 8000 miles away to -- to -- to have perfect knowledge about everything that's going on on the ground over there. But again, we're working hard to secure, to keep the airport secure and keep these Operations now -- sustained now that they're -- they're back on track.

QUESTION: Thanks so much, John. I'm very upset because Afghan women didn't expect that overnight. All the Taliban killed. They took off my flag. This is my flag. And they put their flag. Everybody's upset, especially women. And I forgot my question. What do you ask?

Where is my president, former President Ghani? People expected that he bide by with the people, and immediately he runs away? We don't know, where is he? And we don't have a president. President Biden said that President Ghani knows he has to fight for his people. They have to do everything, and we were able to financially help them. But we don't have any president.

We don't have anything. Afghan people, they don't know what to do. A woman has a lot of achievements in Afghanistan. I had a lot of achievements. I -- I left from the Taliban like 20 years ago, now we -- we go back to the first step again. Do you have any comments regarding our President Ghani? You should answer to Afghan people.

KIRBY: Well, I obviously can't speak for Ashraf Ghani or where he is or what his views are. I wouldn't do that. But let me say with all respect that -- that I understand. And we all understand the -- the anxiety and the fear and the pain that you're feeling. It's -- it's clear, and it's evident.

And nobody here at the Pentagon is happy about the images that we've seen coming out in the last few days. And we're all mindful of -- of the kind of governance that the Taliban is capable of. So heartfelt respect to what you're going through and -- and we -- we understand that. A lot of us have spent time in Afghanistan; the general mentioned that. Everything that you're seeing in the last 48-72 hours is personal for everybody here at the Pentagon.

We -- we too have invested greatly in Afghanistan and in the progress that women and girls have made politically, economically, socially. And we certainly do understand, and we do feel the pain that -- that you're feeling, probably not to the same extent. We -- we're focused right now on making sure that -- that we do the best we can for those Afghans who helped us.

And to her point, when she was talking to Garry, yes, the action group got stood up in July, but you can go back to the spring and -- and hear the Secretary himself, talk about interpreters and translators and the sacred obligation that we know that we have to them.

And so at this moment, on this day, now that the airport is open, again, we are going to be focused on doing what we can to honor that obligation to all those who -- who helped make all that progress possible, because -- because by helping us, they helped us help you. And -- and we take that very, very seriously. And again, I'm sorry for your pain. I truly, truly am. And I know that the general and Garry share that as well.

QUESTION: Mr. Eagan (ph) said that you guys want to make space for 22,000 Afghans, other helpers to be able to come to the U.S. There are about two weeks until all troops are supposed to be off of the ground in Afghanistan.

Who is going to protect that mission into September, assuming that 22,000 people are not going to get out in the next two weeks? And does that mean that there might be an extension of some of these security forces at the airport after that?

REID: Well, I can't speak to the last part. But I can say that our commitment and the Secretary's task to me is to continue to do everything we can in this department to support this process.


And as conditions change and -- and opportunities change, we will do our very best to make whatever resources this department has to contribute to continued success in that regard. Understanding it can be very difficult; we don't know what's ahead. But we're going to stay in this as long as it takes, as long as we can contribute.

KIRBY: And I would just add, it's up to 22. That's the capacity that we're looking at it three -- at these three installations. It doesn't mean that there are going to be 22,000 people that need that support.

We're just trying to find -- fill out the capacity as best we think we need right now. If -- if we have underestimated that capacity, the Secretary is fully committed to finding additional locations and installations if we need it. And if we've overestimated then, to that excellent point, we've

planned well. We've -- you know, we've -- we want to make sure we're -- we're ready. So it's -- it's a capacity thing of up to 22. We're not being predictive that it's going to actually be 22,000.

QUESTION: So is that to say it's as many people who can get it on in the next two weeks --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, we've been listening to briefings from the Pentagon and before that from the State Department on the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. We heard a top general there confirming that more American troops are about to arrive in the country's capital of Kabul. They're prepared to defend themselves and those evacuating the country if necessary.

I have been told by a White House source that securing the airport in Kabul is priority one. The State Department urged all Americans remaining in Afghanistan to continue to shelter in place, to not head to the airport in Kabul, which is not yet secure.

Let's go to Kabul right now where we find CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. Nick, we just heard an update from the Pentagon on the evacuees -- on the evacuation rather of Afghan allies. These are the special immigrant visas, individuals who helped the U.S. Military during the war, whose lives are now at risk from the Taliban. CNN has learned the Pentagon is helping to relocate up to 30,000 Afghans into the U.S. Tell us more about what you're hearing on the ground.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR (on camera): I have to say the figure of 30,000 sounds extraordinary. And having spent the last few weeks listening to the Pentagon outlying in Afghanistan, it sounds extremely viable to justify their own policy. It often doesn't correlate with the reality here.

So the notion of the 30,000 Afghans here who've worked close enough with the U.S. while they were here to qualify for special treatment, to be allowed to leave Taliban-controlled cities like Kabul and then head through Taliban checkpoints to the airport, we've been hearing during earlier what sounded like gunfire in the direction of the airport, that to me is an extraordinary suggestion to make.

Obviously, you know, we heard suggestions that the Afghan security forces would stand up and fight and had a very strong air force and would essentially give the Taliban the run for their money. Now, here we are standing in a Taliban-run Kabul at this point.

So, I heard all that and I'm sure there are many Afghans here deeply believing that it's feasible that we will see 7,000 U.S. soldiers at the airport, and they will somehow get along with the Taliban who will move back and the Taliban will then decide to let these people who have assisted the U.S. against them out of the country. But that's a big ask and the chaos we saw today, frankly, was startling, Jake, and give no indication that we're about to see order in that part of town.

TAPPER: Tell us about the chaos you saw at the Kabul airport today. PATON WALSH: There are essentially a number of roads towards the airport. What's extraordinary is that the feeling in the city when the Taliban moved in quite so slowly, quite so peacefully was panic amongst so many. They believe maybe they can get on to civilian aircraft. Those civilian flights were cancelled. Then the U.S. started bringing in their cargo.

We've started hearing again flights coming into the airport after a bit of a suspension. But earlier on this afternoon, we saw some extraordinary scenes at the airport where essentially the Taliban are right up against U.S. forces now.


PATON WALSH: This is the only way out for so many. The airport road jammed, chaos, over a trillion dollars spent and this is what the end looks like. Walk when you can't drive. Just ahead of us is the gates into the airport and this is the panic scene of many people still moving there despite how hard it has been.

And the entry to the last bit of Afghanistan-America controls, there is panic.

There sure attacks, right?

UNKNOWN: Yeah, they say that --

PATON WALSH: Tanks, someone shouts.


PATON WALSH: But who is doing crowd control outside America's evacuation spot? The Taliban. Vehicles they've taken from the Afghan army paid for by America now used to keep the desperate crowd back people whose only hope is to get out possibly with American help.

Crowding at gates trying to climb walls originally built to keep an insurgency out. At one time pushing en masse and being sent running. Nearly every gate with a crowd fueled with the idea this is their only way out.

But inside the airport, the great escape was not going, according to script, and check-in security had collapsed. Afghans convinced the promise of a flight out was their only life ahead, climbing over walkways and tarmac the U.S. spent billions on to maintain its presence. And then this startling image, one of the U.S.'s largest cargo planes taxiing laden with Afghans who did not want to be left behind.

Later, a plane takes off from what you're about to see is disturbing. As the plane ascends, two objects or people appear to fall from the fuselage. The sheer scale of those who needed help meant it was even harder to come by. Civilian flights cancelled. Even the Americans had to pause operations till they could regain control. The U.S. always wanted to win hearts and minds here, but their swift unconditional departure has instead filled them with panic. (END VIDEO TAPE)

PATON WALSH: Jake, I don't know how you go from those scenes today to the vision that John Kirby at the Pentagon was outlining there. And it will take an extraordinary act, frankly, of diplomacy with the Taliban here who the U.S. had simply said they will attack with their overwhelming force if they ever come into clashes here.

Those 7,000 troops will be flying into an airport that probably has some degree of chaos. We are hearing the flights starting again but it is a mammoth operation. It is even by their own best estimates probably going to take a number of weeks to get 30,000 people out.

And now that news is in the city, it will fill with hope again, possibly false hope and possibly encourage again the sort of scenes we've seen because this is the process really as you approach that area in which if you do have a proven seat, you can get inside the airport. It is quite startling and I don't really know how they're going to pull this off.

We didn't really understand how they would pull it off when the government would still be in place here. Now the Taliban have taken over, it seems, I wouldn't say farfetched. Everyone here hopes it's viable, but at the same time, I can't see it. Jake?

TAPPER: And, Nick, we've been covering on this show for months this idea of these Afghan allies, interpreters and others trying to get out of the country. People warning the Biden administration this needs to happen before the Taliban control the roads, before the Taliban control the towns and villages.

Biden --- President Biden addressed that in his speech. He said one of the reasons they didn't get them out is because some of the Afghans decided that actually they wanted to stay because they were hopeful for a future in Afghanistan.

The other reason he said is that the Afghan government such as it was at the time, told them not to cause a mass exodus for fear that that would cause a crisis in confidence in the Afghan government.

What's your reaction to that? How credible do you find those claims?

PATON WALSH: I actually have to say I have heard both those things before. Although the point you have to realize, Jake, is that over the past years, people who felt threatened, people who felt they had the capacity have already left. So it has been people either heavily devoted or lacking the resources who still stayed in Kabul, who wanted to get out.

The idea of this being a real problem for the Afghan government seeing a mass exodus, I did hear that from now former Afghan government official. They were deeply concerned that if they were going to have to fight a war against the Taliban and all the people that the U.S. had trained over their time here were all trying to get out in planes, it would sap their manpower. But that's been happening frankly for years, too. So it was extraordinary to hear him essentially say, well, they just didn't want to leave yet because it is frankly hard now to find Afghans who would jump at that particular opportunity. I've heard someone say I'm going to wait and see what happens a couple of times, maybe.

But the other extraordinary thing to hear today was the Pentagon where they essentially threw the State Department under the bus, saying these programs being around for a while, pretty slow, we had to get involved. That was extraordinary to me.

TAPPER: Yeah. Nick Paton Walsh, stay safe. Thank you so much for your excellent reporting as always.

Let me bring back in some of my panelists, Kaitlan Collins at the White House. President Biden, he has left the White House, we're told. He's on his way back to Camp David. What are you hearing from his closest advisers about how they feel the speech went?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they're not surprised that this is the tone that he took, defiant in his defense of his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, though of course the crux of it did not address the criticism which is how the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan.


COLLINS (on camera): And this is something that even democratic lawmakers have said they have questions over just how this was executed and what the intelligence had actually shown behind what happened given it was just six weeks ago that President Biden himself was pretty confident that he did not believe a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was highly likely. He said it was, quote, highly unlikely. But today he defended his decision overall to withdraw, saying this.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I always promised the American people that I would be straight with you. The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what's happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.


COLLINS (on camera): Now, he did say there that this did happen faster than they anticipated. He did not say why. That has been a big question, Jake. Is it the intelligence, was it intelligence that they did not believe was incredibly likely to happen given what we've seen transpire over the last several hours?

And of course, Jake, he was talking about what has happened. There are still questions of what remains to be done, given there are still Americans there. There are still a lot of those vulnerable Afghans, a lot of those who are qualifying for the special immigrant visas. Those are big questions that are still facing this White House over what this is going to look like as they are trying to secure the only airport they have left to get out of.

TAPPER: Jeff, most of Biden's staff, most of his aides staying at the White House even as he heads back to Camp David. Behind the scenes, any second guessing, any questions about the president's position, his speech, tone, anything?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Jake, there is no doubt from the moment that President Biden assumed office this has been one of his chief goals trying to end this war. So of course he surrounded himself by advisers who shared that view.

I have been talking with several of them as well as officials in previous administrations and heard a very interesting thought from one former official, Jake. He said this. No one disagrees with this decision to leave Afghanistan, almost no one. But executing that decision was their responsibility and they were blindsided.

So this, of course, is something that is important going forward into how they are viewing the rest of this crisis. Everyone surrounding the president was essentially trying to execute his wishes without anyone essentially putting up some caution flags here that this might unfold in the president's words too quickly.

But as Kaitlan said, he did not say why this unfolded too quickly. So there are going to be recriminations. There are questions coming from Capitol Hill. There will be. But as of now, we cannot hear any, you know, any sign of the president being angry or asking tough questions of these advisers.

So that is something to keep an eye on going forward here. Will anything be changed in his national security team or the people who are advising him? But optics, as you know, Jake, are very important for any president. So the president is going back to Camp David, very important optically as well. They are trying to show they have this crisis under control. We'll see, of course, if he comes back to the White House and has to speak again.

TAPPER: And Nia-Malika Henderson, President Biden's strategy seems to be to, in many ways, tune out the criticism and to strongly defend his decision to withdraw U.S. troops. He, in fact, said that he stands behind it where he was before and, in fact, the events that have unfolded in the last three days only reaffirmed to him his commitment to have U.S. service members leave.

How much do you think this is a political calculation? He has never, since the mission in Afghanistan, changed from defeating al-Qaeda to nation building and more counterinsurgency, et cetera. He has not supported that for years.

Ending this war, as Jeff points out, has been one of his priorities for a long time. But how much do you think that is rooted in politics and how much do you think is rooted in his actual belief that the experiment in Afghanistan is a failure?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Listen, I think it's rooted in his actual belief. And if you look at polling on this, he's with the American people on this. If you go back about a decade, Americans by majorities started to believe that the efforts in Afghanistan just weren't worth it.

If you look at his speech today, those are the folks he was talking to. Americans who basically have judged this war, judged the people who made promises over the last 20 years about this war, judged them as not being honest with the American people about the situation on the ground.


HENDERSON: He has this remarkable ability. I think it's one of his greatest political skills. He can meet Americans where they live and essentially reflect what they believe. And that's what you heard in his speech today.

There is the chattering class of people who talk on TV and in some ways I think folks in government are obviously a part of that and lawmakers. And there will be lots of criticisms from Democrats and Republicans about his decision. But, by and large, Americans are with him on this decision.

And so that's why he was, I think, focusing on the big picture of this was a messy war, it was the wrong war for Americans to fight, and it's not worth the time of men and women, generations of men and women to go over there and fight a war that Afghan people weren't even willing to fight in these last days.

Sure there will be more questions and I thought Barbara Starr's questions about what failed and who is responsible, those will be questions. But I think, by and large, average Americans won't necessarily be asking those questions. They will be glad that this war is coming to an end.

TAPPER: All right. Thanks one and all. Joining us now is retired General H.R. McMaster, President Trump's second national security adviser. He discusses Afghanistan in his book "Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World." General McMaster, good to see you as always. What should President Biden have said to the American people today and what did you think of what he did say?

H.R. MCMASTER, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think he should said exactly the opposite of what he said, Jake. I mean, I think the speech is based on really three things the president wants us to believe that are just fundamentally untrue, right? First of all, that this was inevitable. I mean, his illusion that this could have happened five years ago or 10 years from now.

But the reality is going back to the Trump administration, this capitulation agreement with the Taliban and then the series of psychological blows that we delivered to the Afghan government and the Afghan people, I mean, gosh, Jake, remember when Secretary Blinken, you know, wrote a letter to Ashraf Ghani to ask him to do more for peace as the Taliban were assassinating Afghans and committing mass murder attacks across the country.

The second thing that he wanted, I think, us to believe, that this wasn't predictable. I think this was utterly predictable based in large measure on our behavior, the capitulation agreement which I mentioned, and the way that we emboldened the Taliban while we weakened the Afghan government and security forces on our way out by not insisting on a ceasefire, by forcing them to release 5,000 of some of the most heinous people on earth.

And then a third thing that I think everybody wants you to believe and us to believe is that it just wasn't worth it, right? That we hadn't accomplished anything, we had wasted so much in Afghanistan. But how can you say that and see what the Afghan people are losing now? It's apparent in their loss of their freedoms, in the loss of their security, and what's happening to women across the country that we did accomplish quite a bit.

And what's so sad, Jake, it was a sustainable level of commitment, right, this end the endless wars mantra. You're talking about 3,500 troops or maybe 8,000 troops. I mean, it really doesn't matter that were enabling the Afghans to bear the brunt of the fight. I think what was most disheartening for me to hear today is to lay this at the door of the Afghan leadership and the Afghan security forces, which, as you know, tens of thousands of Afghans have given their lives to preserve the freedoms they have enjoyed since 2001.

So, Jake, and also, I just want to say one last thing. And I'd love to hear where you want to take the conversation. I think also there is a sense now that we can't do anything more. We can just evacuate these 30,000. What about the rest of them, Jake? Where are the humanitarians in the Biden administration now?

There are tons of civilian flights, charter flights that have been donated. There are third countries that are willing to take Afghans, to take Afghan women and Afghan university students, and they're lined up ready to go. If we give a damn about human rights, I mean, I can't believe that the president mentioned human rights in his speech at the same time as he was --

TAPPER: Right.

MCMASTER: -- talking about the very narrowly circumscribed mission. As your reporters have said on the ground, you need safe quarters. You need areas that people can come to.

TAPPER: You talked about the capitulation agreement with the Taliban. That was negotiated by the previous administration, the capitulation agreement.

MCMASTER: Absolutely. That's right.

TAPPER: I wonder --

MCMASTER: And then --

TAPPER: Let me just ask you because I want to -- MCMASTER: Plenty of blame to go around.

TAPPER: Yeah. I know you're criticizing both Trump and Biden. I wonder how much you think the Taliban played the Trump administration by negotiating this peace agreement that they ultimately were not willing to make any concessions in.


TAPPER: And then also the political leader who went on social media, the political leader in Taliban who went on social media, I think his name is Abdul Baradar, I believe I'm pronouncing that correctly, I might not be.

MCMASTER: Baradar, yes.

TAPPER: Baradar. So he was captured by the Pakistanis in like 2010. He was freed in 2018 during the time that the Trump administration was pushing forward this diplomatic agreement. He went to Doha, he became part of the Taliban negotiating team. And now he's, you know, in Kabul, he's in the presidential palace. How much of this --


TAPPER: Obviously, the buck stops with Biden, but how much of the stage was set by Trump?

MCMASTER: No, it were set by the Obama administration, you can say right? Those -- that's the administration under which the Taliban political commission was opened. It was always a pipe dream. It was always giving you a stage to some of the most odious people on earth, right? Terrorists, who are, I think, the enemies of all civilized people, Jake.

I mean, I think that, you know, the Trump administration doubled down on the mistakes of the Obama administration after the President abandoned what had been, I think, really the first reasoned and sustainable approach toward Afghanistan in 2017.

And then the Biden administration double down on the flaws of the Trump administration and the self-delusion, really. We're seeing an end of that delusion now but people are still clinging, you know, to the same sorts of arguments about the war.

TAPPER: But you know, we only have a minute left, so I just want to just ask you quickly. Polls indicate that the American people don't want a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and they look at people like me and the media and you, retired general, and they think you're the numbskulls that got us in this -- into this to begin with. We don't want our servicemembers dying over there for Afghans who are not even willing to fight to defend themselves. That's a very prevalent view. What do you say to that?

MCMASTER: What would you say? Do you expect the President to lead or do you expect the President to, as one of your panelists said, meet the people where they are? I think it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of Americans don't support the war because three presidents in a row have told him it's not worth it, right?

And so, I think that this fundamental misunderstanding of the war and a failure to communicate to the American people, what they deserve to know, Jake, right, hey, what is at stake there? And what is a strategy that can deliver a favorable outcome and an acceptable cost, right, that's what the American people deserve to know. And I would say across the last three administrations, the American people haven't heard that from their leadership.

TAPPER: All right, I have more questions for you, so please come back later this week, because I want to ask them. Retired General H.R. McMaster, thank you so much. Good to see you again.

Coming up, we're going to talk to a Republican senator who says the bloodshed in Afghanistan was not only predictable, it was predicted. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our world lead, Afghans so desperate to escape. They are clinging to U.S. evacuation flights, but some Afghans might have a different way. About 60,000 Afghans could theoretically qualify for evacuation either for human rights reasons or Special Immigrant Visas, a life-saving pass to leave Afghanistan meant for Afghans who helped the U.S. with crucial services during America's longest war.

The Pentagon says the U.S. will help evacuate 30,000. Officials say this does not include their family members. So far, only 2,000 Afghans and their family members have landed in the U.S. We have just learned 700 have been evacuated from the Kabul airport in the last 48 hours.

CNN State Department Correspondent Kylie Atwood now tells the harrowing stories behind these numbers.


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Afghans chasing down an American plane, revealing the desperation to escape. Tens of thousands of Afghans who helped U.S. diplomats and U.S. troops in Afghanistan have applied for Special Immigrant Visas or SIVs and they are currently trapped in the country, terrified that they and their families will be targeted by the Taliban if they don't get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm under the threat, and the threat following me. I'm like a prisoner. I'm just staying at home.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Today, we spoke with one SIV applicant, Ismael (ph), whose full name we are concealing to keep him safe. He worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Bagram Air Base. Ismael (ph) was denied a visa in the past and has tried to reapply. He says with the Taliban now in control of the country, he doesn't believe there are assurances that people like him will be safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Taliban are the people that they never keep their promise. They are promise breakers.

ATWOOD (voice-over): While the U.S. has evacuated 2,000 Afghans and their families in recent weeks to the U.S., it's only a small fraction of the 60,000 who would qualify for SIVs or refugee status, and that number does not include their families. Last week, the top U.S. diplomat in the country urged the department in a cable back to Washington to include a wider swath of Afghans in its evacuation planning.

And now as pandemonium overwhelms Afghanistan, the Biden administration is coming under fire for not getting these Afghans out of the country more quickly.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We are doubling down on efforts to get them out if they want to leave.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Biden administration officials have threatened severe consequences if the Taliban interfere with Afghans heading to the airport. But right now they won't assist Afghans who are trying to get there safely.

JONATHAN FINER, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The United States is not in the position now and will not be in a position going forward to provide security throughout the city of Kabul and throughout the nation of Afghanistan. We are focused on the airport.

ATWOOD (voice-over): The U.S. has the capacity to move 5,000 people a day out of the country. But with the chaos at the airport, it's not clear when the U.S. will be able to start moving that many people out of the crumbling country.



ATWOOD: Now, when asked at the State Department briefing just now, how many of these Afghan interpreters the U.S. is going to be able to get out of the country? The State Department wouldn't exactly say, they say they're working around the clock on this effort. But time is of the essence. As you well know, Jake, it's unclear just how long the U.S. military will have a presence to secure the airport there. And that is one of the key essential elements that gets these flights out of the country that these Afghans are on. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Kylie Atwood, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's bring in Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse. He's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator Sasse, good to see you again. So CNN sources tell us that the Biden administration still plans to get out 30,000 Afghan allies, interpreters in such out of the country not including their family members. From what you're hearing, is that realistic?

SEN. BEN SASSE (R-NE): Well, first of all, let's just say, Jake, that that whole last segment should make every American want to vomit. Because the 60,000 number that she's naming is right, and all of their families. They're not some abstraction. These are moms and dads with little kids at their knees, some of them at the wire (ph) at the airport, and every one of them should be gotten out by us. And what should be realistic is that we should do what is necessary to keep our word that we've given to these people. It's a shameful day in America.

TAPPER: I don't disagree with you. I'm seeing a lot of voices on the right though saying this is all part of Biden's plan to flood the United States with immigrants. People like Stephen Miller, his former immigration adviser, and others on the far-right, people like J.D. Vance, criticizing the idea of bringing these people into the country. Are you going to -- is their political will among the Republicans in the U.S. Senate to help these people?

SASSE: So first of all, I don't give a rip what Stephen Miller has to say about anything. But the significant point here is the United States gave our word to people and the United States has to be the kind of nation that keeps our word. President Biden's speech was shameful today, it was a campaign speech. Everybody knows what he campaigned on. Everybody knows, to quote Bob Gates, the President Biden has been on the wrong side of almost every major foreign policy issue for 40 years.

The fact that he ran on withdraw isn't the point. What the American people needed to hear today is that he has a plan for the ongoing national security crisis that's happening at the Kabul airport. It involves Americans, but it also involves a lot of people who fought alongside Americans so that we wouldn't have another 9/11 on our soil, we would take that fight to the Taliban. And so the fundamental misunderstanding that the American people have is not because of any place that the military is failed. Obviously, the military failed in the planning for this.

But the fundamental problem we have is that the troops haven't failed over the last 20 years, politicians have failed to explain to the American people what we were doing in Afghanistan, and how we were being successful. There's this false choice that comes out in every Biden speech right now, when he just resurrects all these old talking points that we've heard for months and months and months. This false choice of zero troops, immediate withdrawal, precipitous with no clarity, no planning and isolation is nonsense. Or we need 150,000 occupying ground troops.

We've had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in a decade. The truth is what we had, not a month ago, but what we've had and why we've been successful at decapitating terror organizations was a small forward deployed asset light but impact heavy group that was sustaining Intel in Special Forces operations. So we could take decapitate a lot of folks who are like bin Laden, except that Americans never know their name, because they never took down the World Trade Center building.

Politicians have failed to explain this to the American people. And I think the American people when they understand this, when they talk to troops who've served in Afghanistan, they want something very different than what they're seeing on their TV screens today, these images of weakness and betrayal. TAPPER: What do you make of the Biden argument that what has happened in Afghanistan in the last few weeks, you know, with Afghan leaders fleeing, like Ashraf Ghani, the President, former president, or Afghan military leaders surrendering, collapsing, that that underscores the fact that the point, the argument that the mission of building up the Afghan army, of building up Afghan democracy has failed.

He's made that -- he made that argument today. So as to underscore that he made the right decision, removing for a second -- the issue of this calamitous exit, just talking about a continued presence because that's what you're talking about, what do you make of that?

SASSE: Yes, on the Senate Intelligence Committee for months going back to probably mid-April, you've had a loud chorus of Republican and Democratic voices screaming at Biden administration officials, what is your plan?


They have told us that they were sure that everything would be fine through the pause and fighting season over the winner. And if the Taliban ever mounted some significant offensive that moved toward Kabul, it wouldn't happen until next spring.

And we repeatedly -- again, we, I mean, Republicans and Democrats raised voices at Biden administration officials saying, why are you so sure of this and what is your contingency plan? And they would sort of murmur and say, well, we don't want to embarrass the President, so we want to -- don't want to go into great detail. But clearly, you're being too pessimistic. But, of course, we have a contingency plan.

They didn't have a contingency plan. And the reason so many of the Afghan security forces melted is because the Biden administration messaged over and over again, this nonsense about a negotiation with the Taliban, often some Belgian restaurant somewhere, and they message repeatedly that they were not going to support our allies in the moment of crisis. And so you had the Biden administration actively undermining the confidence of the commanders in the Afghan security forces.

President Biden tried today and that speech to blame a lot on the former administration. And I've been very clear, I fought with President Trump many, many, many times about his plans to withdraw from Afghanistan. And so, there's a lot of blame that this administration puts on the last one, because they began negotiating with the Taliban. I get that.

But today, what the President did is he pivoted and started attacking Afghans, including moms and dads who are at the edge of that airport with their kids. Why are they there? Why did they come to that airport? Because our troops promised them that the U.S. would never just turn tail and cowardly have another Saigon like event. This is worse than Saigon. What is happening at the Karzai International Airport today is a more shameful lower moment in U.S. history than 1975 in Saigon. And Biden comes out of his bunker, he comes back from Camp David trying to do a campaign photo op speech. And he attacks the Afghan people who are at the edge of that airport, because we promised them security. They fought with us, and we said they would be secure.

And his administration undermined the confidence of those people fighting and they didn't believe they were going to have air support. And then we bizarrely, and one of the great blunders in military history, evacuated Bagram Air Force Base in the night. Why? Why would we have evacuated Bagram Air Force Base?

The Biden administration undermine the confidence of the fighters in Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, good to see you again, sir. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

SASSE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Coming up, more than 1,000 people killed by an earthquake and now a major storm on the way. We're going to go live on the ground to Haiti. That's next.



TAPPER: In our world lead, close to 1,300 people are dead and at least 5,000 more injured after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti on Saturday morning. This tragedy comes 11 years after an earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians. CNN's Matt Rivers joins us now from Port-au-Prince. Matt, to make matters worse, of course, a tropical depression is now headed (ph) straight for you.

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's really arrived, Jake, in the last hour or so. I'd say, the wind is picked up. You can see it's obviously raining quite strongly here. And we're about 60 miles or so west of -- or maybe about 100 or so miles west of where the epicenter of this was. What this is going to do, obviously, is complicate the search and rescue efforts that are ongoing as we speak.

What we're hearing from the CNN weather team is that as this tropical depression moves over where we are, the place in Haiti that is set to receive the most amount of rainfall from this, just happens to be the place where the epicenter of this earthquake was. This is a place where there is a lot of damage.

And this kind of rainfall anywhere from 5 to 15 inches in localized areas, it talked -- it brings up the risk of flash flooding and mudslides. It makes the job of rescue workers right now that much harder, Jake. It's already been complicated given the tenuous state of infrastructure here in Haiti. But, you know, you add in a tropical depression, it doesn't make things any better.

TAPPER: Matt, what did you see when you went to the epicenter? RIVERS: Yes, I mean, if you think things look bad now, you know, and they are, they're just going to get worse. But when we went to the epicenter yesterday, even when it was sunny out, you can see the damage left behind by this earthquake. We actually managed to make our way to a hotel, as multiple storey hotel that had collapsed in on itself as a result of this earthquake. And it was just devastation.

I mean, we were told by authorities that bodies remain in that rubble, people from the community both were there to help. But it's also a desperate situation. People actually going into the rubble and taking away, you know, metal rebar and air conditioning units that they found. It's a desperate situation in this part of Haiti, it goes to the chronic poverty that has forever plagued at least in recent years, these -- this country it has dealt with an earthquake in 2010, a hurricane in 2016.

We were here a month ago talking about the president being assassinated. Now it's another earthquake and a tropical depression at the same time, Jake. This country cannot catch a break. And unfortunately, these death toll figures that we've seen so far, roughly 1,300 at the moment. It's almost assuredly going to climb.

TAPPER: All right, Matt Rivers with the grim news live from Port-au- Prince. Thank you so much.

Coming up, the loss of a congressman who left a legacy have standing up for democracy. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Some sad news in our politics lead, former Republican Congressman Paul Mitchell of Michigan has died of cancer just two months after announcing his diagnosis. He was 64 years old. Mitchell served two terms in Congress, ultimately retiring in December than leaving the Republican Party because of the direction it took under Trump after the election.

Mitchell's wife Sherry saying in a statement that, quote, Paul stood up for what matters most. It had nothing to do with political ideology, and everything to do with keeping our humanity for everyone. And while Mitchell's time in office was short, his fight to preserve a fair and functioning democracy will be his legacy. May his memory be a blessing.

You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter at JakeTapper. You can tweet the show at TheLeadCNN. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."