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Don Lemon Tonight

President Biden Plans to Retaliate Against Terror Group; Evacuation Effort Will Not be Stop; Threat is Real and Risk Escalates Daily; Technology Can Help to Track ISIS-K Camps; GOP Points Finger to President Biden's Decision. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired August 26, 2021 - 22:00   ET



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Don Lemon Tonight starts right now with its big star, D. Lemon.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: No way else to put it, sad day, awful day, awful, awful, awful.

CUOMO: Yes, it doesn't get much worse. We haven't seen anything like this in 10 years. And --

LEMON: It's a helicopter crash.

CUOMO: We have not been told what will make it any safer. How will they do it any better than what exposed these marines and others? And remember, also on the Afghan side, who knows how many of these people were allies? But they have -- they counted 60 dead, and over 100 injured. This was really bloody and bad, and the biggest and scariest aspect, Don, is, why is it safer tomorrow?

LEMON: Yes. Well, that's true. The worst-case scenario, when I saw it popping up on the phone and across the wire it said worst-case scenario. This is why the president was trying to get everybody out as quickly as possible. But this is the worst thing that could've happened, you know, while we were trying to disengage from Afghanistan.

But he's got that as you said. He just lost a court case. He's got COVID he's dealing with. He's got Afghanistan. He's got voting rights. And he's got infrastructure, a lot on his plate. That's what it means to be the president of the United States.

So I'll take it away and continue with our breaking news, Chris, and we'll see you back here at midnight. Thank you, sir. I'll see you soon.

This is Don Lemon Tonight.

And this is our breaking news. United States and the world grappling with the nightmare scenario of the deadly terror attack in Afghanistan, twin suicide bomb blast in Kabul, taking the lives of 13 U.S. servicemembers, including 10 marines. Wounding 18. And officials in Kabul say more than 60 Afghan men, women, and

children were killed, 140 wounded. President Joe Biden tonight calling the fallen servicemembers heroes and bluntly warning that terrorists who carried out the attack will pay.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this, we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interest and our people with every measure at my command.


LEMON: The president directing military leaders to draw plans to strike ISIS-K, and vowing the mission to get Americans and Afghan allies out of the country will continue. But what does this mean for his exit strategy? American troops are supposed to be out in just five days. The White House says that and no point today has the president

considered keeping them their past August 31st. Roughly 1,000 Americans are still in the country.

Today's suicide bombings coming after repeating public and private warnings from the president of a potential attack. The top U.S. general for the Middle East warning of more imminent threats from ISIS-K in Afghanistan.

I'm going to show you some video now. It is of the immediate aftermath of the blast at that airport. It is graphic. It is hard to watch. But it is the reality of what U.S. troops and the Afghan people are facing. The inhumanity of what's happening in Afghanistan. Here it is.

This is the chaos in the moments after the blast, bodies everywhere, people screaming, those who were still standing, trying to help the wounded while they are surrounded by the dead, crowds of bloodied bodies, running, carrying wounded children.

This is the nightmare scenario President Biden warned about. This is why he decided to leave. What he wanted to get out of Afghanistan and fast.


BIDEN: I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government enough can stand. A country that has never once in its entire history, been a united country, and is made up, I don't mean into the derogatory -- made up of different tribes who have never ever, ever gotten along with one another.


LEMON: How many lives have been lost over the past 20 years? How many American troops? How many Afghan men, women and children? There are no good choices right now, but this is not how anybody wanted it to end with more bloodshed.

I want to bring in now CNN's chief White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, our Pentagon correspondent and Oren Liebermann, and our senior international correspondent Sam Kiley.

Good evening to all of you. Thank you so much.


Kaitlan, I'm going to start with you at the White House tonight. The president vowing revenge, saying the U.S. won't be intimidated with just days to go Biden to -- Biden's deadline. What is the White House saying about the exit plans now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: well, I think it's of great concern, Don, because of course given what happened today, that is exactly what they feared could happen as this evacuation draws to a close.

But what President Biden and the Pentagon made clear today is they are sticking with this August 31st deadline. That means there are still five days left in this exit, evacuations are still expected to continue as you saw some of the numbers being put out by the White House today, of those who are still evacuated.

And so, one of the big concerns before this attack could even happen, was that the number of forces who were there on the ground right now, which is still in the thousands, draws down. The concern was that the threat could be even higher because it's a smaller contingent of troops. It could be a higher chance of risk.

And now of course given what we saw happened today, that is even a bigger concern inside the West Wing tonight. And so, I think that's what they're focusing on for the next several days. Of course, the other question is what happens once the U.S. has left and those troops are gone?

Because the president and his aides talked at length today about continuing those evacuations, continuing to bring people out of Afghanistan after that, but the situation becomes a lot more dicer once the U.S. is no longer controlling that airport or that air traffic control.

And so those are the big questions facing them in addition to the president saying they are going to -- they are vowing retribution for the deaths of these 13 U.S. servicemembers. Of course, the question of the intelligence and how they find ISIS-K is going to be another big one facing them. Though he did say today they believe they have some good indication of where some of the leaders of ISIS-K are, of course, airmen is far from certain how this actually ends up.

LEMON: Oren Liebermann, let me bring you in now, because Biden is asking for plans to strike ISIS-K. But we are in the middle of a withdrawal now, if he decides to attack, how that something like that happen as we move out of our military, move out our military assets? OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So first, in terms of the

equipment that might be used, there are aircrafts flying above fighter aircraft, as well as gunships above the U.S. presence at Kabul airport. There are patches on the ground, those probably wouldn't be used. There's also drones that could easily reach Kabul in Afghanistan.

So, the capability is certainly there and the Pentagon has emphasized repeatedly that it has the ability to strike over the horizon. The bigger question is when and how? Does that strike happen while there are still U.S. troops and U.S. citizens on the ground? Or does it wait until there are no more U.S. personnel on the ground simply from the perspective of risk.

Of course, there's the other question of how do you find your target? There are more no more U.S. troops and personnel who are able to gather intel and pick out what's necessary and giving the information necessary to carry out a strike. So, you're either relying on intelligence you can pick up from above, from drones as well as from satellites, or you are relying on the Taliban to pass you some sort of information or some sort other covert stream of getting that information.

It becomes logistically very difficult, but certainly within the capability of the military to find the target that it's looking for, the bigger question is when and how. And that's where President Joe Biden said it would be a time and a place of the U.S.'s choosing.

LEMON: He also says, Oren, that the evacuations will continue, but CENTCOM Commander, General Frank McKenzie says ISIS-K threats are still imminent. So, what is being done to prevent another attack?

LIEBERMANN: There were a number of different steps that have been taken, the first as the threat increase over the last few days, military commanders on the ground boosted the portion of the U.S. troops there that were aimed and working for security of the compound.

Following this attack, President Joe Biden, as well as General Frank McKenzie said there were contacts with the Taliban asking the Taliban, urging them to expand the perimeter of the security corridor, essentially creating a bigger buffer around the airport, they acknowledge this certainly isn't a perfect solution.

There are some Taliban fighters who are good at working with the U.S. and other were not good at working with the U.S. But this is part of a broader solution to try to secure U.S. troops. Here is General McKenzie speaking earlier today.


KENNETH MCKENZIE, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Very, very, what we would call tactical. that means eminent. It could occur at any moment. And they range from rocket attacks. We know that they would like to lob a rocket in there if they could. We also know they aim to get a suicide -- a vehicle borne suicide attack and if they can from a small vehicle to a large vehicle. They are working all those options. And then we've just seen their ability to lure a walk-in, a vest wearing suicide, suicide attacker. All of those things we look at.


LIEBERMANN: In terms of the ability to stop vehicle borne improvised explosive device, as McKenzie said it asked Taliban to shut down some of the roads leading to the airport so there aren't so many avenues for attack. And in terms of stopping something from the air, there are systems that can shoot down rockets or mortars or attacks like that.

The hardest perhaps is a suicide bomber who is able to sort of meld into the crowd and work his way towards security. It is no doubt and will remain a very challenging question.


LEMON: To our man on the ground now, Sam Kiley. Sam, you are just in Kabul at the airport. You are very familiar with the area where the attack happened. I want you to walk us through how this unfolded. Why the area outside the airport is so incredibly dangerous?

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, where this located is the Abbey gate which is probably the principal chokepoint for people trying to get into the airport. It's next to the Baron hotel, which is the headquarters for the British operation there.

The Baron hotel is slightly outside the main airfield compound but a very important location for filtering people through that camp and into the main airfield. So, essentially, there is a magnet there of two potential access points for people.

When they go north up the road or more or less north up the road, they are bounded on either side, as they get closer to the airport perimeter, by blast walls. There's also a sewage or a ditch, a concrete ditch off to the left as they're walking up.

Now, there are tens of thousands of people sometimes, but many thousands at any time pressing up against that Abbey gate, desperate to get in, Don. Now, the marines, the only way that these people can get in, particularly at this urgent end of the evacuation process, is for the marines.

There used to be Afghan Special Forces doing the filter there doing the initial search of people and bringing them in. Now it was marines, and there will be other 82nd Airborne will be at other gates. They have to go forward and engage directly with the people that they're searching, in the words of General McKenzie, to feel, to feel their breath. They've got to get that close. They've got to frisk people. They've got to go through their luggage. So, they are coming straight up against them.

By the way, they're probably within six, 10 feet of the last line of Taliban security also trying to control these crowds. That is the point at which at least one of the suicide bombers struck in this very dense environment in which local Afghan health authorities are saying at least 60 Afghans were killed, and we know of course we've had this mass casualty among U.S. forces. So, it is a kind of a horror story waiting to happen. Those of us who

have been covering Afghanistan for a long time, I took one look at that before I even got there and realized that this would be an absolutely dead certain target for the Islamic state. And sure enough, a few days later, --

LEMON: Here it is.

KILEY: -- that exactly that intelligence started coming out.


KIELY: And there it was the night before, the active intelligence telling people to get away from that gate. And still the marines were still trying to get people in because that is their -- that is their principal mission, and they've been told, and they do not want that mission to fail, Don.

LEMON: Well, Sam, you know, the president mentioned -- he talked about tribes, right? But there are so many factions in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, the Haqqani network, the Taliban. Some are fighting each other, so how does this complicate the security situation for the U.S. on the ground there?

KILEY: Well, there is an advantage actually for the U.S. there. And that the Taliban are absolutely mortal enemies with the so-called Islamic state. The one thing that the both -- the Americans and the Taliban can agree on is that ISIS-K needs to be annihilated.

The Taliban have worked hardest than any other military group in Afghanistan to do just that. They've had many, many battles against them, having suffered a series of atrocities in the early days when ISIS-K was trying to get itself established.

So there could be some synergy there and the bizarre situation in which the United States may well have received the initial intelligence about these attacks frankly from the Taliban, but there is equally a suspicion -- and this is where it gets complicated -- that groups like the Haqqani network, which historically are close to Al Qaeda, they are the pioneers, the leading terrorist organization up until they became part of the government in terms of attacks, terrorist attacks on civilians and military targets over the last 20 years in Kabul.

They are dominant on the eastern corridor out to Pakistan. The military commander of the Taliban is also the head -- not the head, but he's a key member of the Haqqani network, and he's a member of the Haqqani family, and they are close to Al Qaeda. So, it's very unclear as to exactly how they stand, but they're pretty efficient and rather disciplined group.

So, if they decide that they're going to play ball at least for the time being with the Americans, that could be to the American advantage although ideologically they're closer to Al Qaeda. But again, Al Qaeda is an organization that's largely been crushed in Afghanistan, and ISIS is trying to fill that super extremist vacuum. [22:15:01]

So, it's a very complex environment, making very strange bedfellows. I think any immediate attempt by the United States is a pipe dream to get the ISIS-K operatives unless they get some instantly intelligence. These are people who have been operating in this urban environment, committing the most appalling atrocities.

You'll recall recently that bomb attack, multiple bomb attack at a Hazara girl's school. that was ISIS Khorasan. They particularly pick on these groups where they can try to sow sectarian discontent. They're all about creating friction, and that's exactly what this attack was about, trying to create friction between the Taliban and the Americans at this very, very dangerous time during the withdrawal.

LEMON: Yes. Well, Sam, Oren, Kaitlan, thank you very much. More with these our reporters, our correspondents on the ground there live in the coming hours here on CNN as we have been watching them do their work all day. We'll continue on.

U.S. officials warning of more imminent threats from ISIS-K in Afghanistan. So, can U.S. intelligence stop them from attacking again?



LEMON: The president vowing to retaliate against the terrorists who killed 13 U.S. servicemembers outside Kabul's airport. The president saying the attack will not stop evacuations or change the withdrawal date of August 31st.

Joining me now, CNN military analyst and former NATO supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark, and CNN counterterrorism analyst, Philip Mudd.

Gentlemen, good evening to you.

General, I'm going to start with you. Biden telling the terrorists that we will hunt you down and make you pay. That's a direct quote. But the U.S. withdrawal is supposed to be done by Tuesday. How does the U.S. retaliate without creating a more volatile situation on the ground than there already is?

WESLEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: First of all, if we can identify where they are before Tuesday and we can strike them, we will provide that much more assurance that there won't be more violence before Tuesday. So, there's no point in holding back if we know where they are, we should strike them immediately.

LEMON: So, what form could that retaliation take? You mean, obviously air strikes, or you're not talking anything on the ground. What do you -- what are you saying?

CLARK: Yes, sure, air strikes. I mean, if we don't have aircraft orbiting overhead right now, we should. We no doubt have predators that are armed, that can do the strikes against a small target. We should have other drones that can collect information. We're getting reports from our allies, and here's the other thing, Don.

Afghanistan's not the way it was 20 years ago. There are people there with a lot of mobile phones, and they don't like ISIS-K. A lot of these people want to get out, they're reporting rumors. They're talking to their neighbors. There are many more sources of information now than when we entered in 2001, I can tell you.

LEMON: Phil, ISIS-K is taking credit, and officials say that more threats from ISIS-K are imminent. What are intel officials doing right now to try to track down these people and prevent more attacks? I mean, you heard the general say folks are turning them in, but what are we doing?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: There's two ways that you can get intelligence. Those two ways are human beings and technical, that is stuff like e-mail and phone. You've got to look at stuff like, do you have what we would call chatter on the line? That is ISIS -- ISIS-K people on the line now talking about what just happened. Does that chatter give you an indication who did that?

You also obviously have potentially informants on the periphery of the organization who could say these are the people who are talking about that organization. That chatter increases because people want to brag about what they did.

So, you look at all that information, technical, human source information. I would bet a paycheck we're not going to get enough to act before Tuesday. But over the next, let's say, 90, 180 days, we'll get enough to act.

I tell you one of the challenges we have here is in the past, you'd go to the Afghans. Afghan intelligence or the Afghan National Army and say, what are you hearing? Obviously with the Taliban there, Don, that is not happening.

LEMON: General Cark, you know, we -- I was speaking to Chris earlier and I, as I -- as he tossed to me and said it was sad. that's the only way to describe. You and I were talking on a commercial break, sad. That's the only way to describe it. Americans are reeling tonight. This is a heavy loss. Thirteen service members were killed. As a general yourself, how much is this weighing on the military tonight?

CLARK: Tremendously. Everyone in that chain of command, from the lowest platoon leader down there who had those men and they'd be -- we don't know who they work that were killed. Maybe he was one of the casualties. But all the way up through company battalion, the regiment, and into the Pentagon, you can be sure that everyone in that chain of command and all the people associated with them are heavily burdened.

It's a very sad day, and I want to express my sympathies for the families as well. These men were heroes. They did go on a mission that was a selfless mission. They went there at the request of the President of the United States. It was a well-defined mission. They did it to the best of their ability, and they fell in the line of duty. And we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. Those people who are coming out will never -- they'll never forget what we tried to do there for them.

LEMON: General, I want to go back to something you said that struck me because you said that if there is a strike, right, if we strike now, meaning America, then chances are there won't be another attack. Biden says he's going to OK more troops if needed but that military leaders have told him they want to continue with this mission as planned. If there's another attack, does that change the calculus?

CLARK: I don't think it changes the calculus. I think, you know, this is an important point not just for the mission, Don, but this is about U.S. credibility. Remember when this first happened, China was saying, the Americans won't defend Taiwan. Putin was laughing. Our European allies were a little bit shaking about this thing. What happened to the United States, this great superpower? What's the matter with America?


Well, President Biden in his remarks today set that right. He said we will finish this mission, and we will hunt them down. That's the kind of strong leadership that America needs, and it's what our allies need to hear. So, we're not going to pull out, and that's clear.

But the more that ISIS tries to do, as Phil was saying, the more we'll pick up, and the greater the likelihood we'll strike sooner. If I were an ISIS leader, I'd be really worried right now because they don't have the discipline. They don't have the control, and they can't stop that chatter.

Instead, what they expect to get is a lot of money and a lot of support and international adulation from this strike at the Americans. And all of that that's picked up and our allies feeding us information from the gulf and other places and even some of our friends in Pakistan are feeding information on this.

Remember, the Pakistanis, they have a -- they have big stake in this. They supported the Taliban from the beginning. Now they've done their deal with the devil, and the question is what happens to Pakistan? So, they don't want ISIS running loose there either.

LEMON: Phil, you want to respond to that because we did have advance intelligence that this was coming. The warnings were imminent at the airport that went out last night. Could more have been done to prevent this?

MUDD: I don't think so. Look, there's two kinds of intelligence. There's intelligence that gives you warning, let's say strategic intelligence. This is a step below that. Somebody at the periphery, for example, of the ISIS-K organization, whether to an informant or on the airwaves says something like, Don, for example, there's a big one coming at the airport. What do you do with that?

That's not specific enough to secure every location. You don't know what type of attack that is. So, you get that generic type of information, you can defend generally. You've got to move on from that and say where did that information come from? Can we go up the vine to figure out where the heartland of the ISIS-K planning was and take those people out?

I'm going to tell you based on what I witnessed in the six, eight months after 9/11, that's going to happen. I agree with the general. Within, I don't know, 180, 360 days, the people who plotted this -- and that's at the outside -- they're going to be gone, Don. They're going to be gone.

LEMON: All right. Phil, General, thank you both. I appreciate it.

MUDD: Thank you.

LEMON: Thirteen U.S. servicemembers killed today, including 10 marines. I'm going to speak with a former marine who is friends with the commanding officer of the marines at the airport in Kabul right after this.



LEMON: Tonight, President Biden ordering military commanders to draw up plans to strike the militant group ISIS-K, which claims responsibility for the suicide attacks that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and wounded at least 18, vowing to hunt the terrorists down and make them pay.

I want to bring in Elliott Ackerman now, a former Marine Corps captain, who also is a former CIA case officer. Thank you so much for joining us, Elliott. I really appreciate it. And thank you for your service right off the top. So, good evening to you.

Thirteen U.S. servicemembers were killed, 10 of them marines, 18 were injured. You fought with some of the marines who are there on the ground right now. What are they saying?

ELLIOT ACKERMAN, FORMER MARINE CORPS CAPTAIN: Well, up until recently, they were completely overwhelmed trying to execute this evacuation, which has been, I mean, nothing short of, you know, disastrous. I have never seen -- I fought in two wars and five deployments. I have never seen anything like I've seen in the past 12 days in which I've been inundated, veterans I know have been inundated.

Journalists have been inundated with our Afghan colleagues begging us for help as they try to get to the airport, as well as our American citizens begging us for help as we get to the airport. And the reason I've been in touch with many of my former comrades, ones who were serving on the airfield, is that that's the only way we've been able to get these people help, is to reach out and say, I hear you're at the north gate. Can you get 15 Afghans in for me?

I mean, listen, if you get to the airport, if you're an American, it's the equivalent of being at the Rolling Stones playing Madison Square Garden, at the back of a rock concert like that, trying to get to the very front and then get the band to pull you up on the stage. That is how bungled and mismanaged this whole thing has been over the last 12 days.

And what the marines have been doing at the airfield is nothing short of heroic. The last group of marines I was in contact with was today, and they were helping me get 29 Afghans through Abbey gate, and they got them through 20 minutes before that bomb went off.

And I'm looking at my text messages right now, and I'll read this to you. This is from Gunnery Sergeant Lou Martinez (Ph), who I've never met, but was working with me on signal to make this happen, and he's coordinated he finally says, I'm going myself. And that's the last message I have --


LEMON: Yes. Elliot, I want to put up this because you're talking about you helped this group of Afghans. This is right before the explosion, you said. And you were sent a photo by your contact on the ground at the airport, OK? This is that photo. It's up now. We've blurred their faces. So how did you help get them out? Take us through this process. What happened?


ACKERMAN: This is -- this is a group of 29 people. It's really comprised of three different groups, all of whom were brought to my attention by other veterans and activists who have deep ties in Afghanistan, saying these people need help. And they had heard through word of mouth that I had contacts inside the airport, which I did because the battalion that's in the airport is my old infantry battalion from when I fought in Iraq, and its commander is a classmate of mine that I served within my 20s going through training in Quantico.

And so, on basically signal, we have been coordinating for 12 -- I and many others have barely slept in 12 days trying to get people contacts and get them into the airport. That's how this evacuation has occurred.

LEMON: Yes. Listen, you're still trying to help others, Elliot. I just want to play -- this is part of a voicemail you received from someone that you've told us in Afghanistan is an Afghanistan interpreter who you're trying to help get out of the country. Let's play it, and then we'll talk. Here it is.


UNKNOWN: Hello, sir. Hope you're doing good. I wish you OK. It's all right, sir. We just moved back to go somewhere else because except that -- just -- we don't want to get caught with the -- by Taliban because they are looking everywhere, place by place, home by home. Street by street looking for us. We don't want to be recognized by them. I will send you a picture of myself that when I was also close to that

explosion and the mark of blood is all over in my clothes. So, except me, all the family is so scared. I can't get to the airport, but I can come close or near to the airport. If it's possible to pick us up, it would be good because for now, all the family is in a very bad condition. They are so scared. Kids are so scared. Everyone is in a very bad condition.


LEMON: So, Elliot, this person is dealing with the threat of the Taliban plus a threat of ISIS-K. They're obviously scared. What will getting out look like for them?

ACKERMAN: At this point I don't know. I mean, this is a message I received earlier today right after that bomb went off and the airport shut down. I mean, perhaps overland routes. I don't know. And the administration has made a lot of pledges of things they're going to do. I have no idea how they're going to do it.

LEMON: What should be happening?

ACKERMAN: We should never have been in this situation in the first place. There were people as far back as April, congressmen like Seth Moulton, Jason Crow, Peter Meijer. I'm a writer. People like myself also writing, saying that a mass evacuation needed to occur. I mean. People have drawn comparisons of Saigon. This isn't Saigon. Look at a map. Vietnam had hundreds of miles of coastline.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country. We shut down all of our air bases down. Bagram, Kandahar airfield, Herat, they're all shut. Now there's one place to get people out of. This is -- this is -- I'm sorry. This is a collapse of American competence.

And for an administration that ran and packages itself as understanding empathy and service, what we've seen in the last few days, it understands neither. It does not have empathy for the Afghan people to say nothing of the veterans across this country who are organizing to get their Afghan colleagues out, and it doesn't understand service because it is squandering the service not only of all the people who fought in Afghanistan.

I've never seen so much squandered so quickly since April -- but also is squandering the service of the marines in that airfield right now because it has put them in an impossible position.

You know, Don, I earned a silver star, a bronze star, and a purple heart in my service, and one thing anyone who has ever earned an award for valor, I sure hope those marines at this airfield get a lot of awards for valor is that they only hand out the medals and they only start talking about valor when things go really bad.

And a lot of stuff has gone really, really bad the last few days, culminating in these dead marines that we've lost.

LEMON: Elliot Ackerman, again, thank you for your service and thank you for appearing. We will have you back. Please keep us updated on the folks you're trying to help. Thanks so much.

ACKERMAN: Thank you.

LEMON: president Biden standing by his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, saying he takes responsibility for everything that has happened, vowing to hunt the attackers down. Stay with us.



LEMON: Well, tonight President Biden vowing to continue the evacuation mission at Kabul's airport ahead of Tuesday's deadline to withdraw, saying the U.S. will not be cowed by the terrorists who killed 13 servicemembers in today's bombing attacks, but also saying he stands by his decision to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that he would not send more troops into harm's way, and it's time to end a 20-year war.

Joining me now is CNN's senior political commentator David Axelrod. David, thank you. I appreciate you joining us.

Man, we've got a tough talk ahead of us and tough times. This is a difficult spot to be in. Is this the kind of scenario that every president dread?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, every commander in chief. I will tell you that having served in the White House, Don, on difficult days like this, no one is sitting there thinking about politics right now. You know, the most somber and solemn days I spent there were days when, for example, President Obama spent the night at Dover receiving flag-draped coffins from Afghanistan and comforting families.


Every president feels -- or should -- a sense of responsibility for those men and women under their -- under their watch. And I'm sure, and you could see it in President Biden today, how moved and how somber he was as he addressed the nation.

So, yes, it's really, really hard, and it's something that transcends politics. Not to say Washington being what it is, that there aren't people all over that town, you know, making craven political calculations right now.


AXELROD: They shouldn't. We don't really know how this plays out in the long term, and it's really not important right now. What's important right now is what happens in the next five days.

LEMON: Right on. Biden is scheduled meetings today -- I want you to take us inside. His scheduled meetings have been canceled or postponed including this very much anticipated first meeting with Israel's new prime minister. So, take us inside the White House. What happens in a crisis like

this? You mentioned the former president and getting the bodies of servicemembers coming back to Dover. But what happens inside the White House now?

AXELROD: Well, first you try and gather as much information as you can. Apparently, he was in the situation room getting briefed when the first bombing happened, and then it's a matter of gathering information as quickly as possible. You know, how many people were injured? What were the circumstances? And so that's job number one.

You know, are there going to be additional attacks? There was an additional attack. You know, was this part of some larger scheme that was going to play out over -- over hours? So, all of those things are primary when you first get the news.

I think the other thing that you're interested in is who did this? Where are they? How do we find them? How do we hold them accountable? And you heard that in the president's presentation. that's really important. It's important that he follow through on that. So, I'm sure he was getting some intelligence on that as the day went on today.

But, look, I'm sure their information wasn't perfect, and it was coming in, you know, in stages, and he was the most eager consumer of that information. And I'm sure as the depth of this crisis, of this tragedy set in, you know, I think that the mood of the room probably reflected that.

LEMON: The press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Biden's mood today, and she said that he was somber yet outraged at the terrorists taking the lives of the servicemembers.

She said any day where you lose service members is maybe the worst day of your presidency.


LEMON: I mean he, himself, got into a bit of that today, talking about his son Beau who served overseas and then lost his life to cancer. Let's play some of it.


BIDEN: Being the father of an army major who served for a year in Iraq and before that was in Kosovo as a U.S. attorney for the better part of six months in the middle of a war, we have some sense, like many of you do, what the families of these brave heroes are feeling today. You get this feeling like you're being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There's no way out. My heart aches for you.


LEMON: Empathy has always been one of Joe Biden's, before he was president, strong suits. Did he set the right tone here?

AXELROD: Well, I think he did, and more than anything, I think that's authentically how he felt. He knows -- he knows what it's like to lose a son or a child too soon. He's lost two in his life, and we know -- we know what an emotional tug that has on him, and I'm sure he's also thinking about the fact that he's going to be talking to families in the next many hours of those who gave their lives in this mission, a mission that he command -- that he ordered.

And so that's a very heavy thing for a president. I remember when President Obama made his speech announcing that he was sending more troops to Afghanistan, and he made that speech at West Point, Don. And he plunged into the crowd of cadets after his -- after his speech, and when he came back, he was very, very sober. And he said he knew that there were young men and women in that crowd who might not come back because of the order he was giving.


Anyone with a beating heart has to feel that. And Joe Biden, certainly does, given his history.

LEMON: David, thank you. I appreciate you adding some perspective for us. Thanks so much.

AXELROD: Good to see you.

LEMON: President Biden withdrawing from Afghanistan. But it was his predecessor who started negotiating with the Taliban. Stay with us.


LEMON: You're hearing a lot of Republicans outraged over President Biden's handling about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. During a call with the House GOP members tonight, Kevin McCarthy vowed the president will face what he called a reckoning over the Afghanistan exit.


But let's remember it was the previous administration that began the process of negotiating with the Taliban. It was the then president who secretly planned to meet with the Taliban at Camp David right before the anniversary of 9/11. It was the then president who signed a peace treaty with the Taliban.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I'll be meeting personally with Taliban leaders in the not too distant future, and we'll be very much hoping that they will be doing what they say they're going to be doing. They will be killing terrorists. They will be killing some very bad people. They will keep that fight going.


LEMON: Who bragged about his phone call with the man who now leads the Taliban in Afghanistan Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who was released from prison at the request of the Trump administration.


TRUMP: We had a very good conversation with the leader of the Taliban today, and they're looking to get this ended and we're looking to get it ended. I think we all have a very common interest.


LEMON: Whose secretary of state met with Baradar last fall and that's who is running the show in Afghanistan now, 13 U.S. troops dead. Eighteen more wounded? The latest on the deadly attacks in Afghanistan and the threats that remain after this.