Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

13 U.S. Service Members, 90+ Afghans Killed in Kabul Attacks; Biden Vows Revenge for 13 Troops Killed: "We Will Hunt You Down". Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 27, 2021 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world.

This is EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Laura Jarrett. It's Friday, August 27th. It's 5:00 a.m. here in New York. It is 1:30 p.m. in Kabul.

And this morning, America's longest war ending very much the way it began. The nation mourning the victims of a horrific terror attack and a president vowing to hunt down and punish those responsible in Afghanistan. At least 13 U.S. troops were killed and over a dozen more are injured in the worst attack on U.S. soldiers in a decade.

We want to warn you, the images you're about to see here are disturbing.

Twin explosions by suicide bombers tearing through crowds Thursday outside Kabul's airport and a nearby hotel. Gunmen then opened fire on the crowd, and overnight, the official death toll rose to more than 90 people, with at least 150 wounded, including families with small children.

The Islamic State affiliate ISIS-K claiming responsibility for the attack and a short time later, President Biden addressed the nation.


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.


ROMANS: The president says he has ordered plans to strike ISIS-K targets.

Meantime, the Pentagon calls the threat of more ISIS attacks imminent. And yet even now, people in Kabul are gathering outside the airport gate, all of this, with of course, further complicating these last stages of the U.S. evacuation and final withdrawal from Afghanistan, after 20 years of conflict.

International security editor Nick Paton Walsh is live in Doha, Qatar, for us.

And, Nick, you've been reporting for us for days for the ISIS-K threat. What's the latest at this hour? We're hearing this is still an imminent threat here?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yeah, I mean, obviously, they have proven with devastating effects that they can get to the most sensitive part of the U.S. remaining presence in Afghanistan, which is the gates of the airport at Abbey Gate. Now, there have been consistent threats against frankly any target that they can find to fit their agenda for years.

So, given the success, devastating as it's been of that last attack, it is fairly likely at some point that they would try something again if they had the opportunity. This presents an enormous challenge for the U.S. evacuation operation moving forward. Not least because of the desperate need to keep American service people safe there, despite the extraordinary high-risk activities that they've been undertaking, literally standing face to face with huge Afghan crowds on a daily basis. But it also limits the number of Afghans that can potentially get on to the base.

We're learning a little more detail or learned yesterday from CentCom a little more detail about how quite frankly this attack happened. Now, General Frank McKenzie from CentCom was clear to point out that those doing searches require great proximity to individuals. Now, it is unlikely, I would suggest, that somebody would be searched by U.S. marines at the Abbey Gate. These are marines outside of the perimeter. There's a razor wire event above a sewage duct where a lot of the checking occurs.

It's unlikely they would search somebody who wasn't part of some list or hadn't been picked out of the crowd, a lot of people using ingenuity, a lot of people finding ways to get noticed. It's not necessarily clear this individual who ISIS was from Logar was on a list, but it's entirely possible he was part of a process there that was on the ground with the marines. He detonated his device. A secondary device seems to have detonated a bit farther down the road. That may be partly respondent for the more than 90-plus Afghan dead we're dealing with, on top of the 13 U.S. service people killed.

And then, according to CentCom, there was gunfire. Gunmen opening fire on civilians. That does suggest more certainly than one or two attackers you would think. Or we could be talking if there were gunmen, in the region of four. That's a big question for the Taliban because they've been running the initial checkpoints around that area, nothing like hermetically sealed, of course.

But a question too for the American people on that base who have been arranging coordination with the Taliban. Whether that begins to fray, the very limited trust that they initially had. But most importantly, how do you get people on to the base to continue this evacuation operation? JARRETT: Nick, talk a little bit more, if you would, about how

exactly this happened. At least based on what we know right now. Of course, you had been reporting for days about U.S. intelligence having information about a potential attack before it happened. The U.S. embassy warning Americans to stay away. Even the CIA director met with the Taliban this week, and yet this still happened.



WALSH: Yeah, look, the problem has always been that the U.S. presence is now limited. For 20 years, they've had control of streets leading up to streets, being able to project their power for quite a distance. They've been reliant around the airport on Taliban providing security, on the main airport road access up to the southern entrance. That's where people have been getting in, the Taliban let them. They moved to the U.S. inside of that.

And people have been finding their own way, through often Taliban checkpoints, too, that are often permissive to SIV applicants to get to the airport, like the tight road that leads up to Abbey Gate. Clearly an ISIS attacker or attackers managed to get their bombs and their weapons through that particular area, according to these initial reports.

So, that will be, of course, a great concern, I presume, to the Taliban as well, who I'm sure saw things like this and thought that they weren't particularly helpful to this bid they have to maintain enough trust with the Americans to at least keep this American citizen evacuation operation rolling. But it's -- it's a huge challenge now for these closing days of the evacuation operation. The White House and Pentagon were at pains yesterday to continue evacuating people to the last minute. We reported that the evacuation operation on a large scale will be tailing off soon.

We'll have to wait and see quite how that pans out. But it does look certainly that the volume of people being able to access the place at some point that they may not be able to get to the 20,000 daily evacuations that they were doing over the past days, which certainly said the last 12 hours or 7,000 people flown off the base. So, it may be, we begin to see the shift from evacuation to withdrawal at some point in the days or even hours ahead.

And all of that occurring under the phenomenally difficult circumstances of trying to keep the remaining U.S. Marines on the base and other personnel safe because of this persistent suicide bomb threat on the outside.

ROMANS: Yeah, we certainly don't want anymore knocks on the anymore knocks on the door of American families learning the table terrible, terrible news like these 13 families are learning right now. So for the vulnerable people trying to get out, you've heard the state department hear people who were still trying to get out of Afghanistan. What's your assessment of the situation for them at this hour? WALSH: Look, the state department's comments on how many were left

were a little confusing yesterday. We talked about yesterday 150 Americans still being known to be needing extracted. Well, the State Department said that a total of 500 have been taken out. That's essentially the block that they announced 24 hours earlier, who they knew were there, who've been in touch, who've confirmed they wanted to be taken out.

The thousand they also talked about were uncertain cases. And the State Department's comments yesterday suggested that about two-thirds of them. It wasn't clear whether or not that the airport situation was going to be how they got out of the country. But the general tone, I felt, of the State Department comments was they felt that those thousands, their situation may have been resolved. We'll have to get some better clarification frankly on that, because the words of it left many people, I think, confused.

But at this late stage, you do have to ask yourself, if you are a U.S. citizen who wants to get out, what have you been doing for the last week or so given the pace of operations that the U.S. has been putting on to find you, to bring you to the airport? So, I think probably, we are at the point where there will be less and less American citizens for this operation to be concerned about. But there may also be some who don't want to leave, who change their mind, and these thousands as well simply encompass who said they were Americans, but turn out not to be.

ROMANS: I know, Nick, there's operational security around all of this, you know, an operational secrecy some of this. But are we past the point of teams going in and extracting Americans and extracting people that are trying to get out?

WALSH: Unclear. Very hard to make definitive statements on this. I think that the speed at which this is happening does suggest that may be happening less than it was certainly a few days ago. But there are always exceptions to this, and it's important to point out as well, the numbers ebb and flow on the airport because of this separate, unofficial channel that's been operated by Afghan security forces to let their colleagues in on the base as well.

And this has often thrown a lot of the sort of clarity out, because you have this separate flow that's unregulated. Not all of the time by U.S. officials.

JARRETT: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much for all of your invaluable reporting. We'll come back to you in a little bit. Thanks.

All right. Evacuation flights resuming overnight after this terrorist attack in Kabul. Has the president made his case for withdrawal effectively enough? That's next.




LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We've got thousands of our troops in an unfriendly country. We've got thousands outside, trying to get into the airport area. We've got the Taliban who are terrorists and certainly supporters of terrorists, but checking -- they're operating checking points for terrorism. And we've got ISIS looking for the opportunity to blow people up.

This is a dangerous and difficult situation, and there's no question that it's probably Joe Biden's worst nightmare to lose 13 Marines result of what's happened here.


This has got to be the worst day in his administration.


ROMANS: That's former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta's assessment on the tragedy President Biden feared most. But Biden says evacuation efforts in Afghanistan will continue as long as there are Americans who want to leave.

JARRETT: Let's bring in CNN political and national security analyst, David Sanger.

David, good morning. Thanks for joining us.

So, it's no secret that the president has wanted to get out of Afghanistan for years. But this has always been the concern, right? The deaths of American service members? We had been saying that that was the good thing that nobody had died. That's obviously all changed.

Do you think that the president has been making his case effectively enough to have the American people on the need for withdrawal at this point?


I think that the president's made two sort of separate cases and one has been convincing and the other hasn't. The great tragedy we've seen unfold in the past 24 hours to President Biden's mind reaffirms and ratifies his decision that there's no reason to put American lives on the line for a mission -- a longer term mission in Afghanistan that we're not going to be more successful with in the next year or two or three, as he often says, than we have been in the previous 20.

And it has been his worst nightmare that the longer that you keep American troops there, the more they're at risk. And he argued, I think somewhat accurately that it would not be a sustainable situation to keep the small numbers that we had in Afghanistan.

That said, I don't think he's made a particularly are convincing case yet that the method of withdrawal from April when he made the decision forward has been executed anywhere near the way it needed to be. And clearly, if they had to do this all over again, they would have begun a much faster evacuation in April, May, and June, of Americans -- American civilians there, but also of those Afghans who work for the United States and who have this special immigrant status.

And you've seen the fact that we've been getting tremendous numbers of Americans and Afghans out over the past week in the most trying circumstance shows that we could have done it. The Afghan government didn't want us to at the time, but we certainly could have done it.

And so, we will have to see if he can now get out with a minimal future or no future casualties, but, you know, as Secretary Panetta just said there in that clip, this is a very dicey situation until everyone's out.

ROMANS: It sure is. And gosh, no one wanted it to end this way, sending exactly as it started with American lives lost at the hands of terrorists in Afghanistan. That speech from the president yesterday, that was a speech I felt like for a domestic audience.

He was trying to project strength, but what about our allies? What are they thinking this morning and saying this morning? And how does this, David, position America's high-profiles? I know Iran, Russia, China, they're keeping their embassies open in Kabul.

SANGER: They are. And, you know, I would not be shocked if eventually an American embassy reopens in Kabul. You know, you have not seen Secretary Blinken rule that out. To your central question, though, the message of the Biden administration since they came in is America is back. And that it would project strength and decisiveness around the world.

The allies have viewed the entire Afghan withdrawal as undercutting that message. The president didn't consult very fully with the allies before he made his decision in April. The fact that we were slow getting people out, I think, made them question whether or not this administration could really deliver the way that it would kind of -- the kind of competence that they have been known for.

I think he can get all of that back. I think the allies in the long run will view the decision to get out of Afghanistan as right. But boy, I think we certainly have taken the hit here. It's recoverable. Unfortunately, the 13 lives are not.

JARRETT: All right. David Sanger, CNN political and national security analyst, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

SANGER: Thank you.

JARRETT: All right. Thirteen families now torn apart with unimaginable grief. The White House lowering the flags to half-staff to honor the 13 service members killed. Why the president who relied on the Taliban for security says he doesn't feel it was a mistake.


[05:24:35] ROMANS: Thirteen American service members killed in the Kabul airport terror attack, the deadliest day for the U.S. in Afghanistan in a decade. President Biden recognizing he has been criticized for relying on the Taliban for airport security. He says he does not think that was a mistake.


BIDEN: No one trusts them. We're just counting on their self-interest to continue to generate their activities.


There's no evidence thus far that I have been given as a consequence by any of our commanders in the field that there has been collusion between the Taliban and ISIS in carrying out what happened today.


ROMANS: CNN's Natasha Bertrand live in Washington with more.

Natasha, before the fall of Kabul, the president dismissed the idea that he could trust the Taliban. Now the U.S. is sharing information with them for this airport perimeter security at least. What is the upside to partnering with the Taliban and can the U.S. keep it up? Essentially, it's the least-terrible of all the terrible options the Americans have for security at that airport.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Christine. It's basically the lesser of all evils, right? So, what we're seeing right now is really a relationship of convenience between the U.S. and the Taliban. This is why our former CIA director went to Afghanistan earlier this week, was to talk about this security situation at the airport. Obviously, the highest ranking administration official to go to Afghanistan and sit down with his counterpart there, his Taliban counterpart, to talk specifically about the security situation and with the withdrawal.

So, clearly, this is very important to the Biden administration, is just having this relationship with the Taliban to make sure that they maintain that perimeter around the airport, that can prevent possible attacks, like the one that we saw on Thursday. Now, according to General McKenzie, who spoke publicly yesterday, that has been useful, because the Taliban has, in fact, been able to thwart several attacks. We don't know where those attacks were, the details, really, but they said that because of that intelligence sharing partnership that's going on between the U.S. and the Taliban, that they have been able to deter potential terrorist attacks.

So this right now is a relationship purely of, you know, convenience. The problem, obviously, that we're waiting to see is whether there's going to be any retaliation by the Taliban against Afghans who are left behind in Afghanistan.

ROMANS: Yeah, that's the next step there. All right, Natasha, thank you so much for that great reporting. Thank you. Laura?

JARRETT: All right. A nightmare scenario in Afghanistan coming true. How President Biden plans to continue evacuations and the ongoing security threat at Kabul's airport. That's next.