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White House: U.S. Evacuated 3,000 People from Kabul Airport Thursday; Biden to Address Nation on Afghanistan at 1PM ET; Texas Deploying More Medical Personnel to Fight Coronavirus. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 20, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. It is Friday, August 20th. Happy Friday, everybody. It's 5:00 a.m. in New York.

Thanks for getting an EARLY START with us to end your week. I'm Christine Romans.

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

We have reports this morning from Kabul, the State Department, Doha, Hong Kong, Capitol Hill, and Beijing as only EARLY START can.

ROMANS: Around the world.

JARRETT: But we begin this morning with the U.S. struggling to speed up evacuations in Afghanistan. The White House says about 3,000 people were airlifted from Kabul, Thursday, nearly 350 of them were American citizens.

Now, the U.S. has said, it should be able to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people a day, so this is behind that pace with tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies still waiting for a way out.

ROMANS: CNN has also learned American military commanders are in contact with Taliban militants about security on those chaotic streets around the airport.

Constant reminders of the human beings caught up in all of this. That's right, especially children. New video shows a toddler being handed to American troops on top of the wall at the airport perimeter in Kabul.

JARRETT: Meantime, the State Department is engaged in high level diplomatic talks with the Taliban in the neutral setting of Doha, Qatar. That's where we find CNN international security editor, Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, good morning. The Taliban starting a violent crackdown, we've all seen the images. Obviously, the situation at the airport remains chaotic and tense. Who knows where this goes.

What are you seeing on the ground and what do you think happens once the western media starts to leave?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: That is, of course, the major question. We've seen initially Taliban that have come to power possibly a little shocked about how easy this was, possibly internally still trying to work out who is going to be their boss. That's possibly why there is a little bit of a vacuum here, a little bit of positive, a goodwill that is looking to for international recognition to come forward.

So, that moment is on pause. But seeing around the edges, there are some it seems Taliban elements cracking down on protests in various cities, other reports of people concerned about their own safety too, now this new government is in place. And the Taliban also clearly blocking access for many Afghans, the main arterial road to get to that key airport.

The airport is the last enduring symbol of America's longest war now and how this is handled will probably write the history of the end of this chapter.

As it stands, things do appear to be changing a little around the airport. I've seen video of what looks like Afghan special forces who are on the inside of that airport coming out and trying to push crowds back and essentially creating a space between the gates and some people trying to get in. That I understand has enabled people to -- in fact one person I was speaking through a source about to get inside the base.

So there appears to be the ability for Afghans to get on to that particular base and there appears to be increasing numbers of individuals inside that base. So it is possibly beginning to become a numbers issue inside the base where they simply have got enough people to put on those planes.

The White House said that on Thursday, they evacuated 3,000. Now, that sounds like a lot, but it's not really -- it's probably commensurate with the 11 planes that you had. And I'm struggling to tally this 3,000 with the statement that we got from the State Department yesterday that 6,000 people were on the base and had been processed.

So clearly then if you do the math, there is something like about 3,000 people still stuck there who haven't been transported out, which leads you to ask is there a lack of airplanes. When I landed in Qatar here, the airport here was corralled with C-17 airport. So there may be something of a jam inside the airport. It is an enormous logistical problem and of course something which President Joe Biden has made specific problems about.

But the fact that the U.S. commanders have speaking it seems to Taliban, it was not clear from the Pentagon precisely what was being discussed and the Pentagon a little bit sort of opaque in saying how those discussions were getting them what they needed. I suspect it is because they are asking the Taliban to stay back from the base itself, they are not interfering with the gates as far as we understand, just access to the roads to them, but this could all change. It remains extremely volatile and so many trying to get in means that the project basically hour by hour vacillates between accessible and totally closed down.

ROMANS: And, you know, Nick, there are new concerns this morning about U.S. military equipment left behind by fleeing Afghan soldiers. You know, you see these images as of Humvees and helicopters and drones and weapons in the hands of the Taliban.


And potentially even worse here, just a swift collapse of the military left a lot of American paid-for armaments in their hands.

WALSH: Yeah, I mean, the small arms will be an issue certainly, there should be enough ammunition there. And I should point out there was sort of a time when actually getting the right ammunition for the 556 weapons issued to the Afghan army was sometimes a problem as well. The Humvees, the MRAPs, the massive armor vehicles left behind are a massive symbolic blow to the United States, to see the Taliban cruising around in them.

It may not be a permanent proposition for them to keep these functioning, keep these maintained, it was a massive challenge at times for the Afghan army with U.S. backing.

So these vehicles may at some point become unusable. But still for the time notice to see the convoys that they are capable of putting together and the extra muscle that gives the Taliban is a startling blow for this closing chapter.

JARRETT: Nick, as this week comes to a close, you have sort of a step back piece up on CNN right now and I think the title really says it all, you say before this week, when did you last think of Afghanistan. You were based in Kabul for some time, you reported there for years. What do you think the world needs to know about this today?

WALSH: This is what happens when you are not paying attention to a war. The engagement of U.S. soldiers, the engagement of our Afghan allies in a country like this, there is no higher thing to ask of people. So you cannot do this on a part-time basis, as a side project. To some degree that is President Biden's message here that you cannot engage in something like this unless you really mean it.

Now, the U.S. has had people in arm's way, Afghans have had people in harm's way, but they're sort of doing as little as they can to prevent the collapse we saw in just 11 days. The absence ever constant scrutiny, of constant support, this being far from the headlines of so much U.S. news bulletins for so long means that there wasn't scrutiny on how badly this was going, on what the actual strategy was.

And so, it drifted in neutral to the point where President Trump could say I'll just get out of there and it didn't make that much of a wave at that time. President Biden has got out of there, it has left this extraordinary vacuum and collapse. And I think the question to ask here is not how did this collapse happen, to some degree there was inevitability about it. The Taliban were winning for a long time, held back by U.S. air power, really, realistically. The question is, how did we not see it in the years and billions paid into this? And it's because the fatigue that set around the war, the tiny number comparatively of Americans who actually served and sadly, I think hopefully that lesson may be learned that if you will put people in harm's way like this and fight the longest war, you have to be sure that you are paying constant attention to what is going one wrong and speaking truthfully about it.

JARRETT: And one group that clearly wasn't fatigued was the Taliban, clearly well prepared and ready to go for when this actually happened.

Nick Paton Walsh, thank you for your analysis.

ROMANS: Nice to see you, Nick. Thank you.

Also overnight, diplomatic dissent, the Biden administration was warned of potential catastrophe coming in Afghanistan. CNN has learned a group of U.S. diplomats wrote a letter in July recommending that the Afghan allies be evacuated quickly because the situation on the round could rapidly deteriorate.

We get more this morning from CNN's Kylie Atwood at the State Department.


KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: U.S. diplomats wrote a classified dissent memo to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in mid-July, urging the department to take more rapid action to process and evacuate the Afghans who worked alongside U.S. troops and U.S. diplomats because they were watching what was unfolding in the country. They predicted that the Afghan government would fall by the time the U.S. military completely withdrew in August. And they were frustrated that there wasn't enough being done to mitigate against a chaotic situation when that happened.

Now, deputy national security adviser John Finer spoke with Wolf Blitzer about this dissent memo and said that they did predict that the Afghan government was going to fall but they didn't predict it was going to happen as quickly as it did.

JONATHAN FINER, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I think the cable reflects what we've said all along, which is nobody had this exactly right in predicting that the government and army of Afghanistan were going to collapse in a matter of days.

ATWOOD: He also said that there were certain things that they suggested that the Biden administration quickly implemented. But I'm told that there are things in there that also weren't quickly implemented.

Now, the spokesperson for the State Department, Ned Price, said that the secretary of state reads all dissent memos, so therefore he would have read this one, and he reviews all the responses to them. He also said that this administration values dissent memos and they implement what is said in there into their policy planning. But it is noteworthy that there even was a dissent memo in the first

place. It tells you that these diplomats were already frustrated because this is a last ditch effort that diplomats make when they feel that their voices aren't being heard and they want to tell the secretary about what they are seeing -- Christine and Laura.



ROMANS: All right, Kylie. Thank you for that.

JARRETT: All right. With all the turmoil overseas, CNN has learned that the White House wants to focus on what is going on at home, keeping the focus on critical domestic issues. CNN is live on Capitol Hill. That's next.


ROMANS: President Biden set to address the nation at 1:00 p.m. Eastern today and the U.S. Senate will hold a virtual briefing later this afternoon.


Daniella Diaz has the details. She joins us live from Capitol Hill.


That's exactly right. These lawmakers want answers. They want to know about the time line on the White House and the Biden administration for Afghanistan and what led to this collapse of this government.

You know, these lawmakers want to know about the time line for Afghanistan and what led to this collapse of this government. You know, these senators are planning to get an unclassified virtual briefing on Afghanistan at around 3:00 p.m. today by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, and, of course, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley.

You know, this will come just a day after a bipartisan group of senators, 53 actually, sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging that he and the administration evacuate Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and their families urgently.

But look, it is important to note that the White House is pushing through on its domestic agenda. President Biden is not shying away from his goals to pass this infrastructure bill. In fact, he actually had a meeting yesterday with Democratic lawmakers about infrastructure, not about Afghanistan. And as well as increasing jobs, building jobs, so that is what his priority is right now.

Of course, they are also talking about booster shots. He is not talking about Afghanistan which is why it is going to be very interesting to hear from him today on the issue. But the bottom line here is that these lawmakers want answers. And it

is not just Republican lawmakers who are criticizing the Biden administration on this, it is also Democratic lawmakers. And they want answers, they want briefings, they will have congressional hearings. This is just the first of many hearings, many briefings on this issue as they try to get answers on what happened in Afghanistan -- Christine.

ROMANS: Yeah, and already hearing some GOP lawmakers and critics of this administration trying to cast this as Biden's Benghazi moment, frame it in that sort -- even as the president is trying to keep things focused on the domestic agenda.

Daniella, nice to see you this morning. Thank you so much.

JARRETT: Still ahead, masks on in Texas schools. The state Supreme Court dealing a blow to Governor Abbott's gamble with kids' health.

Stay with us.



JARRETT: Welcome back.

Overnight in Texas, schools are allowed to keep local mask mandates after the street Supreme Court's rejected Governor Greg Abbott's request to intervene in this case. This means mask requirements in the San Antonio and Dallas school districts still stand.

Texas health officials are warning of full ICUs. In Austin, officials say ICU beds are at a breaking point. Governor Greg Abbott announced additional medical personnel will be deployed statewide.


DR. GEORGE WILLIAMS, ICU PHYSICIAN WITH UTHEALTH HOUSTON AND LBJ HOSPITAL: It is a warzone in terms of how packed it is and feels like a warzone in terms of how sick the patients are.

DR. JUSTIN SQUYRES, GOODALL WITCHER HOSPITAL: I lost my brother on Saturday. Five days for an ICU bed and never happened. Right now, all I can do is walk in and say I hope we have a bed available because we probably don't.


ROMANS: In Georgia, Republican Governor Kemp issued an executive order allowing businesses to ignore local mask or vaccine mandates. Doctors in Georgia warning of a tsunami of patients coming into Atlanta hospitals. There are 2,044 children sick enough to be in hospital with COVID today.

In Kentucky, record coronavirus cases and pediatric intensive care reported just weeks into the school year. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D), KENTUCKY: Sending up masked unvaccinated kids into a poorly ventilated classroom is like holding the world's largest chickenpox party, except instead of chickenpox, it's the third leading cause of death.


JARRETT: In California, the Culver City school system will require all eligible students ages 12 and up to be vaccinated by mid November. This appears to be the first public school district in the country to mandate the vaccine for students. And starting today, San Francisco residents 12 and older will be required to show proof of full vaccination to enter indoor restaurants, bar, gyms and theaters.

ROMANS: Nationwide, yesterday was the first day with more than 1 million vaccine doses administered in close to seven weeks. Southern states that have struggled with the virus are where people are getting their first doses, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, Texas and Mississippi.


GOV. TATE REEVES (R), MISSISSIPPI: Now, getting the vaccine is your choice. It is your decision. However, more and more Mississippians are concluding that getting vaccinated is a good choice -- a good choice not only for themselves, but for the people around them.


JARRETT: Meantime, "The Washington post" reports that the Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia is rejecting religious exemptions to COVID vaccine mandates. Philadelphia joins five other dioceses that have told priests not to help parishioners evade these mandates. The others are San Diego, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Camden, New Jersey.

ROMANS: All right. Higher car prices may be sticking around. The surge in COVID cases especially in Southeast Asia prompting a new round of supply shortages and plant shutdowns. Toyota, the world's largest automaker, shutting down 14 Japanese plants because of the delta variant amid a global chip shortage. That will cut production b 40 percent there alone.

Volkswagen said that it may be forced to make similar production cuts because of new COVID outbreaks in Malaysia. Malaysia, a major supplier of computer chips used to build cars. Automakers have been struggling to find the chips they need to build enough cars and trucks to meet surging demand. Tightening supplies led to a shortage of cars.


For shoppers, the shortages meant higher prices for both new and used cars. Ongoing disruptions are likely to keep prices at these record levels.

JARRETT: All right. The U.S. struggling to speed up evacuations from Afghanistan. Our Clarissa Ward is at the airport in Kabul, next.


JARRETT: Good morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Laura Jarrett.

ROMANS: It's Friday, I'm Christine Romans. It is 30 minutes past the hour.

Time for our top stories to keep an eye on today.