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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Biden Defends Withdrawal as Taliban Takes Over Kabul; CNN: White House Expected to Adviser for Booster Shots; Tropical Storms Slows Rescue Efforts in Haiti. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 17, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The buck stops with him. President Biden admitting the collapse of Afghanistan unfolded more quickly than the U.S. anticipated. What now for desperate Afghans left behind?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight, booster shots this fall for most Americans, the new timeline from the White House.

ROMANS: And from bad to worse in Haiti. A tropical storm complicating search efforts from the deadly earthquake.

It is Tuesday, August 17, 5:00 a.m. exactly here in New York.

Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us. I'm Christine Romans.

JARRETT: And I'm Laura Jarrett. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world.

We are live this morning in Kabul, Port-au-Prince, Washington, Beijing, and Moscow as only EARLY START can.

But we begin with the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan. The White House now facing dual challenges this morning, on a national security level, preventing the kind of extremist resurgence that led to the attack that drew the U.S. in Afghanistan in the first place, and on a more political level, containing the fallout from the catastrophic retreat by the Afghan Army, the U.S. spent 20 years training to defend their own land.

Images like this, seared into industry, desperate Afghans fleeing the Taliban, chasing an American military plane as it departed yesterday.

ROMANS: Also, chilling scenes of what appear to be people in free fall losing their grip on the C-17 after takeoff. The U.S. now forced to send thousand of troops back to get the allies to remain there out. And a new photo emerging, look at this, this is inside a military cargo plane that flew out of Kabul late Sunday, 640 Afghans crammed on the floor on a plane meant for far fewer.

President Biden admits the collapse of Afghanistan's government unfolded more quickly than the U.S. anticipated, but did not waiver on his decision to withdraw.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that any U.S. involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.


JARRETT: This morning, the White House faces mounting questions about its apparent failure to prepare for the collapse of the Afghan government.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is live for us in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Nick, what's it like on the streets this morning as the capital city tries to adjust to this new normal, if you will?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yeah, I mean, it is still calm in the capital, a strange sense of order. Less so around the airport where last night, we did hear noises of gunfire in that general direction. It's, of course, the focus point of the remnants of the U.S. presence, where the Pentagon were very clear, they were going to try to get 22,000 Afghans who at some point worked for them or they have a debt to into the airport and out of the country. That, I have to say, when we heard of that project when the Afghan government was in position here, that were friendly to the United States or were, that seemed like a far-fetched idea, knowing the chaos that often envelopes bureaucracy here in this country.

Now the idea that these 22,000 vulnerable Afghans are going to go through Taliban positions, there are Taliban checkpoints on some roads, Taliban fighters on many streets, the idea that they are going to somehow make their way to the airport, knock on the door, and then be allowed gently in is a tough sell, frankly.

But it is the tenant, frankly, of the remnants, U.S. presence here. The ambassador to the U.S. saying, he's not left. He's still at the airport, assigning visas to those who have arrived there, an extraordinary operation for those who manage to get on to the airports.

And of course, the scenes we saw yesterday will have many deeply concerned inside that airport about how do you possibly get the right people in at the right pace? Unless, of course, you have some sort of cooperation or bargain with the Taliban on the other side.

And that would, of course, essentially involve now the power in the country, the enemy of the United States for 20 years, agreeing to let out of the country those Afghans who the U.S. has accepted were beneficial in their presence here. That's a pretty tough situation for anyone, frankly, to navigate.

ROMANS: You know, President Biden suggested in those remarks yesterday that he didn't act sooner to evacuate these translators and friend of America, that some people didn't want to leave, they were still invested in a better outcome of their countries, and he says he held off on a mass exodus of Americans -- Americans and also Afghans to avoid a crisis of confidence in Afghanistan.

How is all of that going over there on the ground?

WALSH: Make no mistake, when they talked about ramping up this program to the tens of thousands.


I mean, there were already that sort of number of people trying to get out. It's not a new things trying to leave Afghanistan, and pretty much anybody who can and has the access and the wealth has got their way to of a country, hence so much of the migrant crisis in Europe and elsewhere.

When that was announced by the United States, I had officials here say to me that the last thing we need is the remaining people who have military experience with the United States getting out of here in a hurry when we're trying to fight a war against the Taliban. That war is now very much over and the Taliban won it.

So, obviously, there may have been some months in which the Afghan government was reticent behind this. And then there's Joe Biden, who said, President Joe Biden, to give me. He said, that they were concerned that they slowed the program down because some Afghans didn't want to leave. I think I may have heard that once or twice, some individuals hoping they could stick it out a little bit longer in the hope that maybe Kabul would hold or some sort of accommodation would be made with the Taliban and they wouldn't have to uproot their families.

But, you know, that's often the minority. The majority of people you meet, when given the opportunity for an American visa for their family and new life in the United States leap on it. So, you know, a lot of what he said was logical to some degree. He said, this is a problem that can't be mixed, but at the same time, a lot of blame was passed to other individuals, previous administrations.

And I think in his heart, the commander in chief knows the American presence has to end here and is resigned to the very ugly consequences of what that means, that we've already seen, and are likely to see in the days ahead, as their promise to get tens of thousands out isn't realized.

ROMANS: You know, Nick, the State Department yesterday also said that people shouldn't be going to the airport. Americans still in Kabul should not be going to the airport. They should be sheltering in place. Do we have any idea how many people are behind closed doors, waiting I guess for the next leg of this evacuation, still in Kabul, trying to keep their heads down?

WALSH: I'm afraid I can't give you an accurate number as to how many Americans may still be here. I would say that the presence has thinned out somewhat, certainly from when I lived here ten years ago, when there was a pretty massive expat community. It's got more fiddly over time. So the numbers have dwindled and an incessant drum beat for the last few weeks for people to use commercial airlines out if they can.

So I would be surprised if there were a significant number of people sheltering in place within the city. But I could be very much mistaken. Of course, if they're hiding, they're not going to talk to CNN. So, it's a mixed series of events here and I hope that some sort of accommodation potentially for the Afghans and for the U.S. military and the potential for keeping peace along the airport road, the accommodation can get made so people can access the airport and leave.

But we are still at to point I think where the Taliban are recognizing their new power, trying to work out quite what to do with it, looking to see if they get international recognition from the people who said they would not get that, if they took Kabul by force. They might argue they never did that, because they didn't get much resistance as they came in.

But everything is so in flux in this city, despite the sense of surreal calm and order that the Taliban have imposed by themselves that the fate of that U.S. presence which is supposed to be growing hour by hour, day by day, with more troops, so they can begin this process, that the fate of how that progress goes is obviously very much in doubt.

JARRETT: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much for your analysis, as usual. Stay safe there.

All right. Breaking overnight, bring on the boosters. A federal health official is expected to recommend a third round of COVID vaccines shots for all Americans eight months after being fully vaccinated. Sources telling CNN this plan is still being developed and could be rolled out in mid-September, mid-to-late September, I should say, once the FDA formally approves the vaccines. Research has shown the three vaccines available in the U.S. offer protection between six and eight months.

ROMANS: Part of the goal here is to let Americans know now that they will need to plan for additional protection against the delta variant.

Nursing home residents and health care workers will most likely be the first to get booster shots followed by older Americans who were vaccinated last winter.

JARRETT: Still ahead for you, after 20 long years, what do most Americans think about the upheaval in Afghanistan? That's next.



JARRETT: Welcome back.

The death toll from the earthquake in Haiti over the weekend soaring now to more than 1,400. Now a tropical storm is threatening to cause flash flooding and mudslides in the same area where the quake hit, only complicating an already challenging search and rescue certify.

Let's go live in CNN's Joe Johns live for us in Port-au-Prince.

Joe, good morning. What is it looking like there?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: The prime minister here has declared three days of mourning as the government tries to figure out what it can do for the victims -- victims many of whom spent the fight in the rain after losing their home, perhaps other family members, and as the sun comes up, we're going to find out just how well those people fared.

The numbers here are terrible, in fact. 1,400 people killed and something like 7,000 people injured so far, and 37,000 homes destroyed, just an unimaginable tragedy for this country.


By the way, this is a country that does not have the institutions to recover from a situation like this. Listen to what's going on with the health care workers.


TITUS ANTOINE JUNIOR, DOCTOR, IMMACULATE CONCEPTION HOSPITAL OF CAYES (through translator): Yesterday, it was really hard and we didn't have enough staff. We had the people who work at the hospital, but we didn't have any staff, although we kept them until 6:00 a.m.


JOHNS: And moving through the streets of the city here, Port-au- Prince in Haiti, it's very evident that this country has not recovered from the earthquake ten years ago that took more than 200,000 lives. The question now is, how are other institutions going to respond?

We do know the United States has sent in USAID. Other non-governmental organizations are trying to lend assistance, but the recovery process has not yet begun, because they're still trying to figure out who they can save and who is not available for being saved.

Back to you.

JARRETT: And still dealing with the aftermath of the assassination of its leader, as well.

All right. Joe John, thank you so much for being there for us. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: All right. Back to the U.S., returning a nation of mostly unvaccinated kids to school is proving to be quite complex. In Florida's Hillsborough school district, that covers Tampa, nearly 6,000 students and employees are in quarantine or isolation. The school board will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss mitigation strategies, including masking.

JARRETT: Broward County, Alachua County, and now Miami-Dade County all enforcing a mask mandate. Meanwhile in Texas, Dallas and San Antonio school boards also requiring masks. All of these counties defying anti-masking orders from their state's respective governors.


ALBERTO M. CARVALHO, MIAMI-DADE COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT: And my opinion shall be guided by the expert opinion and position, the facts and the expertise and the experience of the individuals we are listening to or will be listening to very, very soon.

JUDGE CLAY JENKINS (D), DALLAS COUNTY, TEXAS: The governor is looking at polls. He's no longer even talking to his own medical experts. He's looking at polls of what Republican primary voters want to hear and working from there.


ROMANS: In Tennessee, just days into Nashville's school year, more than a thousand teachers and students are quarantined or isolated. This after a fiery school board meeting over masks last week in Williamson County.

But yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signing an executive order, allowing students to opt out of school mask mandates.


GOVERNOR BILL LEE (R), TENNESSEE: They're protective and if parents want their child to be protected in that way, then they should do sop. And if a parent believes that that's not best for their kid, because of other reasons, then they should have the ability to make that decision for the health of their children.


ROMANS: Optional public health.

JARRETT: At the same time in Las Vegas, a very different story. Big moves towards vaccine mandates.

Governor Steve Sisolak announcing indoor events of at least 4,000 people can allow attendees to go maskless if they show proof of vaccination. MGM resorts will now require all new employees and salaried hired to be vaccinated, and the Las Vegas Raiders becoming the first NFL team to require proof of vaccination at home games for fans.

You know, requiring vaccination for fans seems like one things that may actually move the needle. For the fans, I wonder if that could be the incentive that could help some people.

ROMANS: There's also big demand. Yelp and others are starting to change their search listings so you can search for restaurants or venues that everyone is vaccinated so that you can put yourself in a safe situation, and spend your money where you want to.

JARRETT: Yeah. Al right. Join CNN for We Love New York City. The homecoming concert, in once in a while lifetime event. This Saturday, starting at 5:00 p.m. Eastern, exclusively on CNN.



ROMANS: Criticism this morning for President Biden after the Taliban steamrolled through Afghanistan following the U.S. troop withdrawal, but the president may have support from his most important constituency, the American people.

Joining us now is Hunter Walker. He's a reporter for "The Uprising" newsletter.

Good morning. Thanks for joining us this morning.

You know, I'm wondering, outside the Washington bubble, what's your sense of how most Americans waking up this morning view this situation?

HUNTER WALKER, REPORTER, THE UPRISING: Well, there's pretty much a consensus in recent polling that the majority of Americans support the idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan. Now, we'll have to see if some of the chaotic and indelible images from Kabul change that figure, but I think for now, this is a move on which he has the support of most of the American people.

JARRETT: Hunter, you've also suggested on twitter, there are essentially two policy positions on the situation in Afghanistan. You've talked about one being that the war was just a complete waste, or on the other hand, that we have this obligation to continue fighting there. But doesn't the last few days reflect more of a concern about the way that the withdrawal has been handled and simply why people weren't evacuated a long time ago?

WALKER: Well, I think this does, you know, reflect some legitimate and dangerous changing conditions on the ground, but also somewhat a bit of a short attention span within our political discourse.


We're talking about the situation of the last few days so much, rather than the situation of the last 20 years, which has left over 200,000 people dead, including 6,000 U.S. troops and contractors. So this has already been a chaotic and messy situation. And I think there's a bit of a bad tendency to, you know, pretend it suddenly became that way.

Prior to this situation, really, this was a question of whether to withdraw or continue the war. I think there's now a little bit of a more nuanced debate, and that's why you see people like Congressman Ilhan Omar suggesting, let's bring in a coalition effort to secure the evacuation, and then leave. But then you also see people like Liz Cheney and Mitch McConnell, who I have written about, who are jumping on Biden for, you know, the chaos in Kabul over the last couple of days, and using that as an entree to make a case that we should essentially continue the war in Afghanistan and leave troops on the ground.

ROMANS: You know, the last few days, no doubt, have been messy. These images are frankly hard to watch.

But what will be the last impact of the president's decision on Afghanistan? Will it be these images or something else?

WALKER: Well, these are extremely dramatic images. They have unquestioned echoes of Saigon. And you know, he is the one who is simply presiding over this defeat.

I think it will unquestionably be a political problem for him. But I do think that the majority of people supported this. And for thousands of military families, this is going to mean their loved ones coming home and less threat of violence.

I think it's also important to center the experiences of people in Afghanistan. I think way too often, we cover this stuff and talk about the U.S. casualties, but those 100,000 Afghans who died are treated as a footnote, they will continue, obviously, as this has shown, to experience instability. But I think this has also exposed the fact that it's not just the recent U.S. missteps in the past few months that have led to instability in Afghanistan. It's been unstable there for a very long time.

JARRETT: Very fair point. Hunter Walker, appreciate it.

ROMANS: Who stands to benefit from America leaving Afghanistan? Two of America's biggest foes. We'll be right back.