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London Police Arrest 36 In Anti-Lockdown Protest; AstraZeneca Vaccine Still Suspended In Majority Of European Countries; The Reality Of Long-Haul COVID-19; Major Flooding In Australia; New Pipeline Battle In Minnesota; Women Protest After Erdogan Withdraws From Treaty; U.S. Rallies Against Asian American Violence; U.S. Troops In Afghanistan; World Down Syndrome Day. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired March 21, 2021 - 00:00   ET



MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, welcome to our viewers around the world, I'm Michael Holmes, appreciate your company.

Coming up on CNN NEWSROOM, thousands evacuating, right now, as torrential downpours batter Australia's East Coast. Officials say it is only the beginning. We will be live at the CNN Weather Center.

BioNTech says it is doing everything it can to produce more COVID vaccine doses. Hear our exclusive interview with the CEO.

Imagine getting COVID and keeping it. We speak with a COVID long hauler. The one thing that has finally stopped her symptoms.


HOLMES: The virus, now shutting down parts of Europe but thousands of protesters won't hear of it. We've been seeing protests against coronavirus measures across Europe. The largest ones, in months. People have gathered in Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Germany, just to name a few, sometimes, clashing with police.

The region is dealing, of course, with a third wave of infections, though, some countries have ordered new restrictions. In London, police say they have arrested at least 3 dozen people. Some scuffles breaking out as they try to get the crowds to go home.

Now Europe is relying on AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine for its rollout but the shot is, once, again under scrutiny. Denmark investigating 2 new places of blood clots that could be linked to the vaccine. Phil Black, following the story.


PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These cases involve health care staff in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. They say both were admitted to the hospital with blood clots within 2 weeks of receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. One later died.

They are now investigating 3 suspected cases involving blood clots and bleeding, out of more than 150,000 people who received the first dose of the vaccine. Along with Norway, Finland and Sweden, they've suspended use of the vaccine, while it investigates what it describes as rare blood clots in younger, healthy people.

A review by the European Medicines Agency found that the vaccine is generally safe and effective and there is no increase in the overall risk of blood clots. But it cannot rule out an association with very rare cases. More than 20 million people across Europe, now receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, many in the U.K.

The U.K. government has now announced that it has achieved a big milestone in its vaccination program, a first dose, having been given to half of its adult population, almost 27 million people. Its next goal, is vaccinating everyone over 55 by mid-April and the whole adult population by the end of July -- Phil Black, CNN, Essex, England.


HOLMES: Now the U.K. is counting on the AstraZeneca vaccine to help it reach that goal. But trust is hard to earn and easy to lose. People are hesitant to get it, even though experts say the benefits far outweigh any risks. CNN's Scott McLean, reporting, from London.


SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some 28 million doses of coronavirus vaccine and counting, pushed into arms across the United Kingdom. But in this clinic, in east London, the Oxford AstraZeneca shot is sometimes a tough sell.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Some people say no, some people don't even want that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you tell me what you are worrying about?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Previously, about 19 years ago, I did have a blood clot problem. So it's a little thing in my head.

MCLEAN (voice-over): More patients, coming in looking not just for the vaccine but also, for a bit of reassurance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just think the risks of COVID itself, far outweigh any risk of a vaccine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's on my mind. You do worry.

MCLEAN: Do you think the AstraZeneca vaccine has a bit of an image problem?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it does now, yes. I think it definitely does now.

MCLEAN: The U.K. has seen the numbers of new cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, fall sharply in recent months, thanks in part to its successful vaccination campaign, which is both the Pfizer BioNTech shot and the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. But it is a much different picture in mainland Europe.


MCLEAN (voice-over): This week, more than a dozen countries temporarily stopped using the AstraZeneca shot after a very small number of people developed rare forms of blood clots.

An urgent review by the European Union vaccine regulator could not, definitively, rule out a link between the clots and the vaccine but found that its benefits far outweigh its risks. Britain, never stopped giving the vaccine but, even here, its reputation could use a shot in the arm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are seeing people not turn up for their appointments and our appointment levels are down. So not all our clinics are full this time this week.

MCLEAN: Have people been asking for the Pfizer vaccine more often?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They have. And that is a change. Earlier, we had people who wanted the British one.

MCLEAN (voice-over): Most European countries, resuming their AstraZeneca vaccine rollouts. The challenge now, convincing people to take it. A recent poll, finding only 20 percent French people trust the AstraZeneca vaccine. In London, many are still happy to have it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it was unwise of the E.U. governments to do what it did.

MCLEAN: If you are offered it, tomorrow you take it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was offered it on Tuesday and I took it.

MCLEAN: You have trust in it?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've already taken my jab. So I have no problem with it.

MCLEAN: Would you prefer the Pfizer?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, sure, 100 percent.

MCLEAN: But you would both would take either one?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Preferably Pfizer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If those specialized fields feel it's safe, who am I to say it's not?

MCLEAN (voice-over): On Friday, British prime minister Boris Johnson got his first dose of the vaccine, made sure to point out, it was the AstraZeneca shot -- Scott McLean, CNN, London.


HOLMES: The second hardest hit country in the world, seeming to reach out now for help in protecting its citizens from the virus. Brazil, claiming to be negotiating with the U.S. to buy spare vaccines.

The AstraZeneca shot, currently sitting in warehouses in the U.S. since regulators have yet to give it the green light. CNN's Matt Rivers, in Rio de Janeiro.


MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rio de Janeiro is known for one thing, it may be here. Copacabana beach, which on a normal weekend, is packed with people. But as you can see behind, me it is empty right now. That is because Rio de Janeiro authorities have closed the beach, due to the surging number of cases and deaths, from the coronavirus.

There are other closed beaches in the area and what's happening here is playing out all across the country, with a terrible situation ongoing with the COVID-19 crisis in the country. According to a CNN analysis over the past 2 weeks, of all of the coronavirus deaths recorded, in the entire world, nearly one quarter of them have come from Brazil. From March 5th, to March 19th, nearly 30,000 deaths registered as part of the coronavirus here.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like things will get better anytime soon and in every other state across Brazil, ICU occupancy rates are at or above, 80 percent. Some of them are at or above, 90 percent. The vaccine situation doesn't look great, either.

Health ministry data says that roughly 1.5-1.6 percent of all Brazilians have been fully vaccinated against this virus. And to that end, Brazil's foreign ministry said on Saturday, they have been negotiating with the United States since March 13th to try and get their hands on any extra vaccine doses the United States may be willing to share with this country.

No word yet on any progress from those negotiations but what is clear is that those vaccines, are desperately needed in this country, where the situation with COVID-19 is, truly, horrific -- Matt Rivers, CNN, Rio de Janeiro.


HOLMES: High honors for the founders of the German company BioNTech. They developed, of course, the first COVID-19 vaccine produced with U.S. partner Pfizer. The founders were awarded Germany's highest honor, The Night Commanders Cross. CNN's Fred Pleitgen has an exclusive interview with the cofounder and chief medical officer, Ozlem Tureci.


DR. OZLEM TURECI, BIONTECH: This marriage is a great honor for us and it also is a celebration of science as a problem solver for, in this case, a global health crisis. It also honors the fact that, when we work together internationally, in partnerships and across private- public borders, that important differences can be made.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There's a lot of concern about variants of the novel coronavirus, mutations.

How confident are you that your vaccine will continue to be effective against those mutations?


TURECI: From what we know, based on the scientific data, the current variants, for example, the U.K. variant and the South African variant, we are protected against those with the current version of our vaccine. However, what we also prepare is -- and this is basically to be prepared for tomorrow, in case such a variant of concern would occur -- the process with which we can adapt to a new variant.

The other is that you have to pre-discuss with regulators the process with which you do this. And which basically means we exchange the new sequence against the one we have now and use our RNA platform technology.

PLEITGEN: Of course, right now there's a lot of demand for your vaccine and other vaccines as well.

What of the plans to even further upscale the production to make sure you can meet that global demand?

TURECI: This is new technology. You cannot just repurpose vaccine facilities which are there and you can also not train people very fast. So we are working and turning every stone basically to upscale and roll out our capacities. And continuously we are evaluating. The target we have already set could be overperformed.


HOLMES: Fred Pleitgen there for us.

Now there is anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine can help coronavirus long haulers. Those are the people who are still suffering symptoms many months after their diagnosis. It's not yet clear exactly how many people developed long COVID but some of them only had mild cases.

Doctors say the condition goes way beyond the standard post viral syndrome.

Let's talk more about this with Amanda Finley, a long hauler herself. She started a digital long haul discussion group that now has more than 12,000 members.

Amanda, you have had such a long and difficult journey with long COVID.

Along with others, you feel getting the vaccine actually helped you deal with it?

AMANDA FINLEY, COVID-19 LONG HAULER: Yes, surprisingly, we have been telling our members, it's a research and science based group. It's moderated by researchers, physicians, public health workers. We have been telling them, the vaccine will not fix your symptoms but when it started to, we were taken aback.

When it happened to me, I had to accept that this is actually happening to about a third of. Us

HOLMES: That's extraordinary. We should point out, it's anecdotal at the moment, we have to say there is not definitive evidence that the vaccine helps with that.

We all hope it does and you are by far not the only one that it has helped. I read you said you carry with you 12,000 stories because of this Facebook group that has 12,000 members. Although you got professionals in it, there are just a lot of ordinary people who seem to be crowdsourcing information while the scientists are getting to the bottom of it.

Tell me how important the group has been to the members.

FINLEY: Well, I thought I was alone at first. And every single person who joins the group, they say the same thing. They just assume that their symptoms are taking longer and it's not until we start comparing notes online that we realize we are not alone.

When I formed the group, I thought maybe I would find 50 people.


FINLEY: I wasn't expecting 12,000. But it's so important because we have been bringing in all these -- and like you said, it is anecdotal at this point. But because we do have researchers in the group, we are now actually applying for grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources so we can have a solid base of research to start from.


HOLMES: Hopefully it is real. And bear with me, for people who don't know about long haul COVID-19, I want to read some quotes from experts.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, he said this, quote, "I worry that we are really just seeing the tip of the iceberg when we think about long COVID-19, that there is going to be a lot of disability, a lot of suffering that's going to be with us for a long time."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who everyone knows, he said, quote, "This is real, this is not imaginary, these are people whose symptoms are real, profound fatigue, muscle aches, temperature dysregulation, unexplainable tachycardia and what people refer to as brain fog."


HOLMES: Do you feel now, because on this program, we've covered it from very early when people started to recognize this, do you feel that now the recognition is there for the condition?

Because a lot of people thought they were treated like they were crazy.

FINLEY: Oh, yes. I think we have a certain tagword, that if someone says it, it automatically sends an alert to people. Anxiety it's just -- so many have been told anxiety.

I had to send a message to my own cardiologist when he casually brought up anxiety and I said, well, professionally speaking, you should never use that in reference to a long hauler.

Going forward, no, that is not what is going on. I know you don't know what's going on. But let's keep digging until we figure it out.

HOLMES: It certainly is real. That seems apparent to me. I saw one infectious disease expert saying, we know the questions; we have no answers. The illness, in terms of the long haul, still has so many unknowns.

What more do you want to see done to help long COVID sufferers?

FINLEY: The big thing right now, especially for long COVID sufferers, number one, we really need to re-examine some of the post COVID clinics, many require you to have a positive test to have access to that clinic.

But what about the thousands of us who were sick before there was access to testing?

That was me. I was sick on March 6th of 2020. Here, in Kansas City, we didn't have tests available until March 26th. I had a lot of people who didn't believe me. I shouldn't be happy about having had it a second time, because now I have a positive test. So if I need access to a post COVID clinic, I can get that.

There are thousands who cannot, because they don't have a positive test.

HOLMES: I guess, one good thing is that those clinics are starting to be set up and that is something. I wish we had more time but I am thrilled that you are feeling better. Let's hope that this vaccine does help others with long COVID. So very good to see you.

FINLEY: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.

HOLMES: Amanda Finley, from Kansas City. Thank you.

We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, severe weather warnings in Australia after days of torrential rain. Thousands fleeing rising waters. Officials say, it won't end soon. We have the latest, when we come back. (MUSIC PLAYING)



HOLMES: Thousands of people in Australia forced to evacuate due to severe flooding. This is the scene in Port Macquarie, where the Hastings River is flooding homes and businesses. A weather system, along the New South Wales coast, bringing days of torrential, widespread rain.


HOLMES: Several dams in the area, already above 100 percent capacity. Officials say the threat is far from over.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Regrettably, this will be a prolonged event and none of us are out of the woods whilst the storm front is moving south, it is still going to be prolonged and the rain may not stop until Thursday or Friday.


HOLMES: Meteorologists in Iceland closely monitoring volcanic activity, after that volcano erupted on Friday. We reported on that here, this time, yesterday. Officials say, the eruption is limited and lava flows, you see here, are not expected to cause any damage.

Also, rain is helping minimize the effect of gas pollutants in the air. According to the Icelandic Meteorological Office, the lava area spans less than 1 square kilometer. It's not huge but the volcano had been dormant for the past 800 years until it sprung to life this weekend.

Protesters in the U.S. are trying to stop a new $3 billion pipeline in its tracks. A court in Minnesota is set to hear arguments against the project next week. CNN's Bill Weir, speaking to some of the indigenous activists leading the fight.


BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: Way up north, where the mighty Mississippi is a twisting ribbon of ice, this is the new front in an old fight.

It is called Enbridge Line 3, a Canadian pipeline set to runs through the woods, wetlands and wild rice of Minnesota, setting up another Natives versus goliath clash over energy, sovereignty and our life threatening addiction to fossil fuel.

WEIR (on camera): So how much of this fight for you is about the immediate concerns of a leak that would spoil the water and land and how much of it is about stopping manmade climate change? TARA HOUSKA, TRIBAL ATTORNEY: For me, it's all the things at once. So it's the spills, right, which always happen with pipelines.


HOUSKA: It's the disruption itself of just the pipeline going into 800 wetlands, 200 bodies of water. Then there's the climate change piece, the emissions of this, 50 coal fire plants, absolute insanity.

WEIR (voice-over): Line 3 starts in the tar sands of Alberta, where forests are replaced with open pits and toxic lakes so big you can see them from space. Since it is scraped and steamed into a thick sludge, tar sand oil takes tremendous amounts of water and energy to push through a pipe. And one study found Line 3 will contribute as much planet warming pollution as 50 coal fired power plants.

WEIR (on camera): What is Enbridge's position overall on the climate crisis?

MIKE FERNANDEZ, CHIEF COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, ENBRIDGE: We agree, climate change is an issue. And, in fact, almost as our name implies, right, Enbridge, we're very keen about trying to building a bridge to the energy future.

WEIR: So at what point, in order to break this addiction, do we say, you know what, we're going to start with the worst -- we're going to start with the black tar heroin at we detox our way toward being clean?

FERNANDEZ: Yes, that -- I mean I think the real challenge here is that we have a demand for energy. And the reality is, even as we see great growth in renewables, we're still going to need some fossil fuels for years to come.

WEIR (voice-over): After President Biden pulled Trump era permits and killed the Keystone XL, those who lost the battle at Standing Rock have found fresh hope. The tribes and their allies who failed to stop the Dakota Accession oil from flowing just watched the first Native American interior secretary get confirmed and now they pray that the president or a judge will stop Line 3.

WEIR (on camera): But that's a much bigger ask. Unlike Keystone XL, which was starting from scratch, Line 3 is a replacement. And of the 340 miles that will cut through Minnesota, 40 percent of it is already in the ground.

WEIR (voice-over): To outrace a court or White House order, Enbridge is working as fast as the thawing ice and growing protests will allow.

HOUSKA: There have been over 130 people that have been arrested so far in just the last few months fighting Line 3. We've got people that have been crawling into the pipeline itself, that have been chained to the machines. I mean it's an all-out struggle for mother earth that's happening here.

BARRY SIMONSON, PROJECT DIRECTOR, ENBRIDGE LINE 3 REPLACEMENT PROJECT: We do respect everyone's views on the project. We respect safe protesting. What we don't want is individuals to become unsafe or trespass. And we ask our workers for de-escalation. Don't engage. Because it goes back to safety, integrity and, the last none, respect.

KEVIN PRANIS, MARKETING MANAGER, LABORERS' INTERNATIONAL UNION OF NORTH AMERICA: The truth is that the carbon emissions aren't coming from pipelines, they're coming from cars. And so if you really wanted to go directly to the source, you could protest car dealerships, you could protest gas stations.

WEIR (on camera): When you compare a job on the pipeline, compared to a job building turbines or solar panels or drilling for geothermal, does it pay the same?

PRANIS: That's an excellent question. In Minnesota, because of the work we've done over the past few years, our laborers working on the pipeline and our work labor that's working building wind turbines are making the exact same money.

WEIR (voice-over): For one side of this fight, it all comes down to supply and demand. While the other demands a supply of energy that doesn't come with thousand-mile pipes, droughts, floods, fires and rising seas. It's a debate that will define the 2000s and beyond -- Bill Weir, CNN, Palisades, Minnesota.


HOLMES: An important story.

Still to come on the program, women's groups in Turkey, outraged. Why they say the president there is empowering murderers, abusers and rapists with a stroke of a pen.

Also, taken from his home in the middle of the night, the family of a politician in Myanmar says he was tortured and dead within one day. His story, when we come back.





HOLMES: Welcome back to our viewers, all around the world, I'm Michael Holmes and you are watching CNN NEWSROOM.

Now Turkish women's groups, calling the actions of President Erdogan, a nightmare after he withdrew the country from an international treaty seeking to protect women against violence. Crowds gathering over the weekend, a protest to the move that has been praised by some conservative groups. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh with more, from Istanbul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hundreds have gathered here to protest President Erdogan's decision to withdraw his country from the Istanbul convention. People woke up to this news of the presidential decree on Saturday that has, really, sent shockwaves across the country.

There is so much anger here. A short time ago, there were reading the names of women who have been killed. It was 10 years ago that the council of Europe's binding pact to combat violence against women was signed in the city. Turkey was the first country to sign the convention.

But since last summer, there has been a heated debate in this country, lobbying by some conservative and religious groups to withdraw from the convention. They say it damages unity, traditional values and quote-unquote, "legitimizes" the LGBT community.

Women's rights' defenders say that this is a nightmare for women. This is only going to empower rapists, murderers, abusers of women, they say. This is a country that has a serious domestic violence and femicide problem.

At least 78 women have been killed so far this year, according to a women's rights group. That is a woman every single day so far and they're very worried that this is only going to get worse.

They say this is not just about the Istanbul convention the way this happened. Despite the reassurances of government ministers, saying their countries' laws will safeguards women's lives, they are very concerned that, even Turkey's domestic laws, are now in jeopardy.

A lot of people said that this is a dark day for Turkey not just for women's rights in this country. Critics of President Erdogan, are very concerned that this move by presidential decree is just another step in the wrong direction by this president, taking this country further down that road of one-man rule -- Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Istanbul.


HOLMES: Across the United States, there is a swell of support for Asian Americans after Tuesday's fatal shootings at three Georgia spas. Scenes like this played out in several cities, crowds braving the pandemic to denounce violence against Asian Americans.

Six of the eight people killed in Tuesday's attacks were of Asian descent. CNN's Natasha Chen caught up with one demonstrator in Atlanta who was coveted by the show of unity.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm here to stand against Asian hate crimes.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm here for those who are afraid to come, out and speak their voice. I'm here to take a stand for all of them. To see this crowd, of all ethnicities, different races, truly means the world to me. It just shows how much that unity can conquer hatred.

NATASHA CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm sure that this was very personal for you as well. And I know it is not designated a hate crime right, now.

What are your feelings on that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think a lot of things lead toward it being a hate crime, whether it's towards women, all of it is hatred at the end of the day. Seeing this just means that everyone is here to fight against it.


HOLMES: U.S. Democratic senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were all at that rally on Saturday as well. They did hold a moment of silence for the victims.

Police in Thailand clashing with protesters at the king's palace on Saturday. They used water cannon and tear gas, to disperse the crowd of more than 1,000 people speaking about parliament's failure to rewrite the country's military backed constitution.

Police say that protesters used firecrackers, metal bars and threw rocks and marbles, at officers. Prompting, the use of force with riot gear and shields. A mass trial began this week for protest leaders, accused of sedition and insulting the government.

There is growing pressure on Myanmar's military as the death toll of protesters and political opponents continues to rise. One group says 38 have been killed since February 1st. The military, of course, denying wrongdoing. CNN's Paula Hancocks has our report and we do warn you, it has graphic video and may be hard to watch.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres has said that he is appalled by the escalating violence in Myanmar, speaking of the killings, arrests and the reported torture for prisoners, saying that it violates the fundamental human rights.

Now in recent days, there were two members of the National League for Democracy who've died in custody. Those close to them say that they were tortured. Now the military leadership addressed this Tuesday, saying that the way they have treated the NLD members is, quote, "properly." The friends and family of those who died strongly disagree.

HANCOCKS (voice-over): An all too familiar scene in Myanmar these days. The funeral, of yet another killed by increasingly violent security forces. He was a member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, a politician who was supposed to be part of the new democratic Myanmar.

Instead, fiercely critical of the military coup, witnesses say he was taken from his home in Yangon in the middle the night by security forces and was dead within a day. His family showed us photos of the body, which showed wounds, suffered while in the junta's custody. The wound at the back of the head. On friend says he believes it is clear what happened.

He said, "The wounds he received could only be from intense torture."

The military has not responded to our request for comment.

Just days later, this man was arrested in the early hours of the morning and he too was dead within a day. Footage of his body, showing significant injuries to his abdomen and face. The junta says he fell from a building, onto a steel fence while trying to escape.

His wife says there is no steel fence near their home.

She says, "The soldiers have bayonets on their guns with a serrated edge on one side and a blade on the other. I think that is what was used to kill my husband. His neck is sewn up as well. They cut his neck and stabbed his stomach and killed him brutally and inhumanely."

The U.S. State Department has condemned, quote, "security forces' actions that resulted in the deaths of 2 NLD members."

The U.N. envoy for Myanmar, saying she heard direct accounts of prisoners being tortured. The nighttime arrests, continue, including this NLD member seen here on CCTV footage, being pushed to the back of a military jeep last week.

His family said they've heard nothing since, one of hundreds that have disappeared, hundreds more in hiding.

"I am constantly on the move," he said, "constantly switching places. I too have been to prison for over 10 years. I was tortured, made to sign confessions. I can't be arrested again."

His widow says that she has lost all hope and direction but needs to carry on for their 10-year-old son, and says she is heartbroken but proud of her husband for showing the world how brutal the military can be.


HANCOCKS: The advocacy group, AAPP said that well over 2,100 people have now been arrested or charged, or sentenced. For many of them, including other NLD members, they have had no contact with their family since they were taken -- Paula Hancocks, CNN, Seoul.


HOLMES: Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban, causing headaches for the Biden administration.


HOLMES: Why critics say, a full U.S. troop withdrawal by May 1st, as has been agreed, might not be possible. And how the Taliban is in way, making sure the troops do stay in the region. We'll be right back.




HOLMES: Now, just before leaving office, former U.S. president, Donald Trump, negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st. But that is not a simple task. Far from it.

Some in Congress don't like the idea, either. Last, week President Joe Biden himself admitted, it would be tough to pull out all troops of the country in that timeframe. While his administration might considering a new deadline, no decision has been made.


GEN. LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I'm aware of the various speculation that the president has made a decision on keeping troops there until November?

I'm a pretty prominent guy in those discussions typically and, to my knowledge, the president has not made a decision or made any announcements about when he will decide to remove the troops.


HOLMES: Now U.S. politicians, military officials and others are chiming in on what a troop drawdown right now in Afghanistan would mean. Some say the country is still too unstable, a criticism supported by one U.S. government watchdog agency. It just released a report showing Taliban attacks are actually increasing.

The report goes on to say security remains the most crucial and enduring high-risk area for Afghanistan because the Taliban have not, significantly, changed their tactics, high levels of violence or political objectives. And terrorist groups in Afghanistan, like Islamic State and Al Qaeda, although reduced, do remain in the country.

Lisa Curtis is a senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She's also a former CIA analyst, joining me from Washington.

This report by the inspector general for Afghanistan, reconstruction, pretty concerned on a lot of levels, all sorts of concerns about what would happen if the U.S. stuck to that May 1 withdrawal. Now the Biden administration is looking at a six-month delay.

What do you see are the major risks with a precipitous pullout?

LISA CURTIS, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: I think if the U.S. were to go down to zero by the May 1st deadline in the Doha agreement, even though, of course, the Taliban has not lived up to its end of the agreement, which is that they have not reduced violence and they still have links to Al Qaeda.


CURTIS: But if the U.S. were to fully withdraw U.S. troops, we are likely to see the Taliban retake the country, probably within a year's time, and the reemergence of the terror safe haven. The U.S. would lose global credibility, not to mention, the empowerment of a generation of terrorists that would, likely, converge on Afghanistan.

And, we would likely have to send back troops within a few years, just like we had to do in Iraq when ISIS rose in the country in 2014.

HOLMES: You make great points there. When it comes to the Taliban -- and it's all noble to talk of power sharing governments and a continuation of democracy and women's rights and so on.

Correct me if I am wrong, Taliban actions and statements on the ground, giving every indication that they is still committed to sharia law and rule by force.

Why should we have any faith that they would respect the changes made to civil society since their overthrow post 9/11 rather than, as you point, take over again?

CURTIS: I think that is right. We see no indication that the Taliban is interested in a genuine peace process over the last year. In fact, we heard from the special inspector general last week, when he testified before Congress, that violence levels by the Taliban, actually, are higher in 2020 than they were in 2019.

The Taliban has been targeting civilians, human rights workers, journalists; those targeted killings have also increased. As I mentioned, the Taliban have also not broken from Al Qaeda. We can see that Al Qaeda training is still happening in Taliban areas.

So we see no indication that they are living up to any kinds of the commitments that they made in the Doha agreement.

HOLMES: I was in Kabul, just after the Taliban were thrown out post 9/11. I saw firsthand the impacts their rule had on women and children's education, so many other things, from the music, to the film industry.

If there is a pull out, how responsible would the U.S. be for, as you point out, in a year or two or 3, that the country would be run as it was pre-9/11?

CURTIS: I think that is definitely a concern. There have been a lot of changes, as you said. Women are engaged in all parts of society. They are going to school, they are working, they are running NGOs.

But unfortunately, that could quickly change if the Taliban were to come back. I point to the situation a few years ago, when the Taliban were able to take over the provincial capital for 2 weeks. And the first thing they did was target women who were working in the NGOs, women that were working on women's rights, health care issues, etc. So it tells you something. I don't think we have seen a great deal of

change in the Taliban's attitudes towards women and anybody who has been participating in the new Afghanistan, who has been working in the media, who has been part of the legislature, the elected government, even the workers in the government.

So I think this is something that is a real problem and is a real threat.

HOLMES: The Afghan government have become so reliant on outside money and help, the training and security often by U.S. forces but often, the manpower and expertise provided by thousands, literally, of contractors.

I remember in the report, they said that if that support went, Afghanistan's air force would be grounded within months through lack of maintenance and ability. That is one example.

How dependent is the Afghan state on the foreign presence and crucially, money?

There are no good options for the U.S. here.

CURTIS: I think the Afghan security forces have improved their capabilities quite a bit. They are quite an effective force and they could stand up for a while, I think, in the absence of U.S. support. It might be that if the U.S. were to withdraw troops from the country but continue financial support it would, certainly, help the Afghan forces.

But you are right. In terms of maintaining equipment and the air force, that would certainly be a problem. They certainly do rely on U.S. airstrikes, which we have continued to conduct when needed. So that would be a major loss for them.

So that is why, I think, it is important for the U.S. to keep a small force presence there --


CURTIS: -- to support the Afghans, to backstop the peace process. There is a chance we can continue to encourage the Taliban to stay in the peace talks. We do have leverage. They would like their leaders to be delisted from the U.N. sanctions list.

And, also, some leaders in Doha have enjoyed the international legitimacy that they have gotten through the talks. So I think there is a way to keep a small force presence in the country but also keep the peace talks going.

HOLMES: A crucial few months ahead for Afghanistan and the gains that have been made. Lisa Curtis, got to leave it there, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

CURTIS: Thank you.

HOLMES: An important issue. We will be right back.




HOLMES: Sunday, March 21st, is World Down Syndrome Day. The U.N. chose the day to signify the condition which is caused by the triplication of the 21st chromosome. So 3 21, March 21st. It's a day for raising awareness and advocating for inclusion. Arwa Damon, visiting the only center for children with Down syndrome in wartorn Idlib, Syria. Have a look.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over) : It is hardly what we expected to find but from the moment the children piled off the school bus, we were enchanted. The dingy building, the dark staircase, the tiny classroom, all of it melted away, overtaken by the rare beauty of what is happening there.

As the other children sway and dance to music, Sara keeps her head down. It is her first day. She is shy and scared. The other children were like this as well when they first started. Learning tools are shared.

It is all they can afford at the center for children with down syndrome, the only one of its kind, in wartorn Idlib. All of the staff here are volunteers, drawn to the center because while Syria's war has eradicated childhood, it has been especially cruel to the most vulnerable.

They finally managed to coax Sarah outside. The isolation, brought on by war, the lack of specific resources meant that many children with Down syndrome regressed while others never learned the basics, like walking, feeding themselves and speaking.

One of the boys plays with our microphone. The children may not be able to articulate what they've been through but they are all well aware of the violence of their surroundings. Abdelkarim (ph) is six years old and a total charmer.

DAMON: Apparently, he used to be so shy, he would never come up to people.

(Speaking foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (speaking foreign language).

DAMON: He wasn't even able to say any words. He had lost all of his speech before he came here.

DAMON (voice-over): The center was started by Abdullah Mohammad (ph) seven months ago. He's a pediatric nurse who did a year in a clinic for special needs children before the war. He pays the rent for this tiny space out of his own pocket.

"We are struggling to stay open," his wife and the center's director, says.


DAMON (voice-over): But at the same time, we can't let go of the kids, especially not now, not that they have seen the impact they can have, knowing that hundreds more need their help.

Down syndrome is a genetic condition, in which a child has a full or partial extra chromosome. This affects the way the child's brain and body develop. Early intervention can mitigate the majority of the developmental challenges.

But even before the war, that was a struggle.

"One of the many problems is weak muscle development," the physical therapist tells us. She says, "Abdelkarim (ph) should have splints to help his knee joints," but she has to work with the little she has.


DAMON: This is incredible. I mean, we have been here 2 months ago, he wasn't able to walk on his own. They had to carry him through everything. Now intense physical therapy and he's doing so well.

DAMON (voice-over): Years ago, Sarah's parents had put her in school but she was severely bullied. Her mother tried to help her at home and she was doing well until a rocket landed on their house. She was pulled out from under the rubble and hospitalized.

Her parents tell us that, after the strike, she stopped talking. One of the teachers keeps gently urging her to play, comforting her, making her feel safe.

Just two hours after she arrived, she is already making friends. She is not alone anymore.

"This is the first time we are seeing her interacting with other kids, bonding," her father said, clearly emotional. "She is still shy with us," he says, "but I'm happy." And then runs off to play outside.

If they were just given the opportunity, these children can grow up to fulfill their potential. War will not stop them. It is what the adults here dream of. It is what they see children with Down syndrome do, in more developed parts of the world. But at least, they have created a space where there is no stigma, a space where there is joy and hope -- Arwa Damon, CNN, Idlib, Syria.


HOLMES: I'm Michael Holmes. Thank you for watching, I will be back in one hour. "QUEST'S WORLD OF WONDER" is next.