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13 U.S. Service Members, 90+ Afghans Killed In Kabul Attacks; Republican Lawmakers Slam Biden Over Afghanistan Bombings; Capitol Officer Who Killed Ashli Babbitt Speaks Out About January 6. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired August 27, 2021 - 05:30   ET




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

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. It is 32 minutes past the hour this Friday morning.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will hunt you down and make you pay.


ROMANS: President Biden ordering plans to strike back against ISIS-K -- the terror group -- after two suicide bombs ripped through crowds outside Kabul airport killing 13 American service members. Overnight, the death toll among Afghans topped 90, leaving grieving relatives searching and looking for their loved ones at the hospital.

JARRETT: Meantime, the bombings revived some criticism of the president's decision-making on this and the chaotic nature of the U.S. withdrawal that left troops and civilians so vulnerable. The attacks only adding to the tension and pressure on the ground around the airport, with evacuations winding down over the next couple of days.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you say to the Afghans who helped troops who may not be able to get out by August 31st? What --

BIDEN: I say --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you say to them?

BIDEN: -- we're going to continue to try to get you out. It matters. Getting every single person out is -- can't be guaranteed by anybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is live for us this morning again in Doha, Qatar. Nick, the Pentagon calls the threat of more attacks by ISIS-K imminent. You know, it is painfully clear no one knows what will happen in Afghanistan when U.S. forces leave in just a few days, Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes. I mean, look, if you are in any doubt whether or not Afghanistan remains a potential place where extremists can find refuge then, sadly, the awful scenes we saw yesterday are your answer. But such scenes have been across Afghanistan for many, many years, just not at such a moment of pivotal attention for the United States' longest war here.

We are knowing a bit more now about exactly how this attack went down. There appears to have been a suicide bomber who approached Abbey Gate, one of the key gates outside the airport. He was, CENTCOM say, then searched.

And the commander of CENTCOM was very clear to talk about how soldiers doing this sort of process have to get close enough to feel the breath of the person they're searching. That does -- given the situation at that gate suggests that possibly this assailant or attacker may have been picked out of the crowd -- may have been special in the crowd to those Marines guarding that gate.

That gate was closed yesterday, I understand, but there are occasionally exceptions, particularly when those inside the airport ask for specific people.

Unclear quite how he came to be searched. ISIS say he was from Logar. He detonated a device, which killed 13 or led, certainly, to injuries that killed 13 Americans there and over 90 Afghans.

There may also have been a contribution from a second device detonated further down the road. Less is known about the precise location of that. It's near the Baron Hotel, which the British, for the past days, have been using to process and extract their people.


Then, CENTCOM say there was gunfire targeting civilians and that gunfire seems to have killed others as well. This would suggest if you have two suicide bombers and what CENTCOM referred to as gunman, that we may be talking on preliminary reports, of course, here of more certain -- certainly more than two, possibly three, even four attackers at this stage.

So that will be a lot of what the U.S. is trying to assess right now to work out who this attacker was, how he got through with possibly his colleagues, Taliban checkpoints and security, all the way up to the airport. That's an utterly key question because it essentially speaks to the trust -- the limited trust already that the U.S. has in the Taliban and how they can continue to enable them to provide security on the outskirts.

So that, obviously, an awful chapter but one that will inform the remaining task ahead. It's very difficult, I would imagine, as a commanding officer on that base to have your Marines outside of the fortified blast walls of that airport after yesterday's events.

And that will limit, of course, what they can do with the SIV applicants still trying to get in, local embassy staff still trying to get in, the possibility of American citizens out there still trying to get onto the airport. That is a complicated task, too.

The State Department's comments on that yesterday were a little opaque to some degree. It was hard to quite see if they felt the task had been done or if they were still looking for a thousand. They seemed to suggest the majority of the thousand were having preparations made. We'll find out more I'm sure today.

But this evacuation window, small as it was, now fraught because of the security concerns raging around it.

ROMANS: You can see the planes right there on the tarmac, so they are continuing these evacuations even in the wake of the death of 13 service members.

JARRETT: And Nick, speaking of the people who are still trying to get out of there, I assume there've got to be backchannel communications if you will. And, sort of, is backchannel offline operations taking place to try to people -- to try to get people out? People, you know -- there are still American citizens, potentially, and Afghans who are trying to leave.

What do those efforts look like after this August 31st deadline if they don't make it out before then?

WALSH: Yes -- I mean, that is the question. And I think that's a -- that's a -- sad to say, a bit of a hole in the Biden administration's strategy here. They do, it seems, have goodwill with the Taliban at this point to enable American citizens -- and it seems also, too, some Afghans as well -- of high priority to get to the airport.

But the Taliban have a goal here, which is to expedite the departure of the Americans. They also want to see their airport functioning and for that, they need international help. So there are many bits of leverage that the U.S. has over the Taliban now. When the airport no longer has Americans on it and there are no Americans on the Afghan soil, and then the airport is functioning possibly with some kind of international assistance, leverage may reduce.

And, you know, much of the concern about the Taliban is they play a very polite, calm, disciplined game initially, and that begins to fray and perhaps we see their true colors later. We simply don't know. And, of course, many Afghans will hope that isn't the case -- that they're dealing with a new reformed Taliban at that stage.

But the notion would be after the 31st that you may find some kind of skeletal staff possibly here or in neighboring countries to enable this SIV application process to continue, then people could leave by commercial means. But I have to say that is clearly a longshot judging by the volume of people who yesterday tried to get to the gates of the airport even under those difficult conditions.

ROMANS: All right, Nick Paton Walsh. Thank you so much for your analysis this morning. Nice to see you, sir.

All right, CNN White House correspondent Arlette Saenz is live in Washington for us. Arlette, ending the way it began, this war, with Americans dead at the hands of terrorists based in Afghanistan. It's just an awful, awful coda (ph) to this 20 years.

And this is a scenario the White House, of course, did not want. But the president ended his defense -- his speech yesterday -- his defense of the evacuation by saying look, it was time to end a 20-year war.

Do they feel like they made their case?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president has repeatedly gone back to that argument that this was the time for the war in Afghanistan to end and ultimately, the White House and the president believe that Americans will be on their side with that.

But one question going forward is how Americans will assess this drawdown -- the chaotic scenes that we've seen play out and this ultimate death of at least 13 U.S. service members and dozens more Afghans in that terror attack by ISIS-K.

Now, the president has said that he bears responsibility for what has played out recently in Afghanistan. But he also has penned some blame on his predecessor, former President Trump, saying he was hamstrung by that deal he negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw American troops. But all of these scenes that we have been playing -- seen play out have all occurred under President Biden's watch.


And one thing that Biden really pitched himself on the campaign trail -- he argued that he would be someone who could restore competent leadership to the White House and that he also brought a certain depth and extensive knowledge of foreign policy. But the scenes that we've seen play out over the past few weeks have really prompted some to question where those attributes have been during this entire process.

Now, the White House, right now, remains acutely attuned to the task at hand, trying to evacuate as many Americans and Afghan allies as possible as the security situation grows more and more precarious there on the ground.

ROMANS: All right, Arlette Saenz. Thank you so much for that in Washington this morning -- Laura.

JARRETT: All right. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are criticizing President Biden within minutes of those attacks in Kabul.

Congressional reporter Daniella Diaz is live for us on Capitol Hill. Daniella -- so, what are lawmakers saying?

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Laura, there is such a divide right now between how Democrats are responding to this situation, obviously siding with the administration and reiterating their support for troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. And then, Republicans who are criticizing the administration and Biden's response to this.

You know, in a call yesterday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed that Biden would face a quote-unquote "reckoning" for what happened yesterday -- this attack in Kabul that left 13 U.S. service members dead and dozens of Afghans injured.

He says the priority right now is for Congress to come back. He called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to return lawmakers back to the Hill. I really want to emphasize they're not here right now. They are in their home districts. They are in their homes states. There is no lawmakers in this building, so they can't really do much on this.

And that is why in this call he called on there to be session so that they can pass a bill to pause on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan until every American is withdrawn from the state and returned to the United States.

But look, he stopped short of calling for Biden's resignation, which is a stark contrast to most of his colleagues in the Republican Party. They have been calling for Biden's resignation, as well as many members of his cabinet as a result of this attack. But he says that right now, the priority is to pull Americans out of Afghanistan and Afghan forces, and he wants to pause the withdrawal as -- for this reason.

So the bottom line here is really strong words from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on a call with Republicans yesterday, and we will continue to see how this develops.

But again, these lawmakers are going to have to face their constituents on this issue because they're not here -- they're home -- Laura.

JARRETT: Daniella, thank you so much.

We'll be right back.



JARRETT: Welcome back.

We have the terrorist attack in Kabul covered this morning from all angles, but let's take a quick look at our other top stories to keep an eye on today.

The U.S. Supreme Court blocking the Biden administration's eviction moratorium, ruling that a further extension would almost surely require new legislation from Congress. President Biden once again calling on cities, states, local courts, landlords, and cabinet agencies to prevent evictions. ROMANS: The U.S. Capitol Police officer who fatally shot a pro-Trump

rioter, Ashlie Babbitt during that melee on January sixth speaking publicly for the first time.


LT. MICHAEL BYRD, U.S. CAPITOL POLICE: I had been yelling and screaming as loud as I was, please stop -- get back, get back, stop. You are ultimately hoping that your commands will be complied with and unfortunately, they were not.


ROMANS: Babbitt has become something of a folk hero for far-right conspiracies.

Lt. Michael Byrd tells NBC he knows he saved countless lives on January sixth but in the months since he has been the target of death threats.

JARRETT: In Texas, a final House vote is expected this morning on that new elections bill making it harder to vote. The bill bans drive- thru and 24-hour voting. But after much debate, lawmakers actually took out some of the more restrictive measures like eliminating early voting hours on Sunday mornings. Once the Texas House and Senate iron out their small differences it heads to the governor's desk.

ROMANS: Tropical Storm Ida strengthens overnight, now forecast to be a major hurricane at landfall this weekend. A hurricane watch issued for the U.S. Gulf Coast now, and Louisiana's governor has declared a state of emergency.

JARRETT: All right, now back to our top story. And one of the big questions in the wake of the Kabul attack is how did terrorists pull off two major attacks after days of repeated warnings?

One military expert telling CNN the U.S. is not in a position of strength at the airport.


SETH JONES, FORMER ADVISER TO COMMANDING GENERAL OF U.S. SPECIAL OPS IN AFGHANISTAN: The United States does not control the checkpoints, does not control the roadways into the airport. I mean, I've been to that airport numerous times. The U.S. has to rely on the Taliban to do the counterintelligence and the counterterrorism checks leading up to the airport, so the U.S. is incredibly vulnerable to someone else securing the perimeter. That's the challenge the U.S. finds itself in right now.


ROMANS: A top U.S. general praising troops who have screened more than 100,000 people for safe evacuation.

The Pentagon now reaching out to the Taliban for help keeping America safe until they leave.

Here's CNN's Nic Robertson.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (on camera): Yes, the Taliban have said the U.S. is an occupying force and a puppet government, and a government that is just overthrown of Afghanistan. They want them out as soon as possible, and they're trying to stop any Afghans that want to leave and take those last flights out. So, absolutely, the Taliban want to see the United States leave.

So -- and their promise to the United States have been to protect U.S. forces. That their forces would not attack U.S. forces during the drawdown process. And it's something they've been proud of until this moment that they've been able to keep that promise.

So they provided this outer cordon security at the airport. We even heard there from the Pentagon that there have been a certain amount of pre-screening by the Taliban. That it had been communicated to them what was needed to allow what individuals would have to have in terms of paperwork, et cetera, to be allowed into the airport. And the Taliban were responsible for doing, sort of, first-level security checks themselves.


But those soldiers -- they are absolutely on the front line and a front line in a way that in previous wars would have been unimaginable. The front line was trenches and people staring down rifle barrels at each other across trenches in no man's land.

Here, as we heard, it's not staring across trenches. It's feeling the breath on your face of somebody who you have to physically search -- pat down. And you don't know until you start to pat them down what they have underneath their clothing -- if it's a suicide bomb. So a hugely brave undertaking.

And I -- you know, one detail that forms in my mind here -- the Taliban actually have a huge skill set in terms of suicide bombing. They used to essentially run factories producing suicide bombers. The Haqqani Network, part of the Taliban, were taking young children from madrasas -- from religious schools at a very young age and in some cases, drugging them. A colleague had somebody go into one of these training places and was -- they would try to recruit them as a -- as a suicide bomber, often to be given a special jacket.

So the Taliban have a huge skill set in production in the past of producing suicide bombers through the Haqqani Network.

And it is a former Haqqani Network mid-level officer that's believed to be at the head of ISIS right now. ISIS have a huge skill set, and a deep history, and a big bench strength in building suicide bombs, which means they know how to make them, they know how to hide them, they know how to make them as deadly as possible. And I think that's what we're seeing here -- this skill set developed almost over a generation. And in Afghanistan's context, by the Taliban as well.

You would say in theory, therefore, the Taliban should know what they're looking for. We know that their security perimeter has not been effective.


JARRETT: Nic Robertson, thank you so much for breaking all of that down.

All right, let's bring in CNN national security analyst, Juliette Kayyem. Juliette, nice to see you this morning. Very helpful to have you --


JARRETT: -- on this type of news day.

Help us out here with some of the criticism that the Biden administration has been getting for relying on the Taliban for securing that perimeter. In your mind, is that a fair criticism or, really, was there no other solution?

KAYYEM: So, I think it's the latter. My general feeling about criticism is and what's the alternative?


KAYYEM: We lost a war. The Taliban is in charge of the country. They are giving us, clearly, access to move people out of the airport -- over 100,000 now -- and are trying to protect it.

Our interest is going to be hard for people to get their head around. Our interest and the Taliban's align right now. They want us out but they want us out in a way that gets our U.S. citizens and the Afghans who may deserve it. And so that alignment of interests, both get us out and also to stop ISIS, means that there is going to be a nexus.

And as Nic was describing so perfectly, at some stage there is going to be a point of interaction between the person and our military. And you can -- you can push it out another two miles. There is going to be that moment, right? And so, that's the -- that's the challenge. But what's your alternative at this stage?

ROMANS: You know, this attack obviously complicates the evacuation efforts. We were just looking at --


ROMANS: -- three C-17s on the tarmac right now. They're going to try to resume those operations. In fact, they have been flying people out.

KAYYEM: Right.

ROMANS: The president says this is going to continue. How? How do they --


ROMANS: -- do this safely now after we know that there are still warnings of imminent threats?

KAYYEM: Right. So, safely is -- I say safer, right? I mean, in other words, we're not going to get to safe -- the risk is incredibly high. So what we're going to do now, as described by the Pentagon, is obviously try to protect those entrances better, do more vetting. The Taliban's interests are ours, again, so we have to protect the area. There is clearly -- as what's suggested by the military -- operations going on outside the airport -- covert operations to try to disrupt the ISIS threat.

And then, I was surprised how public the president was yesterday, essentially describing covert operations, or at least hinting to them, that are going on outside of the airport to extract people.

If you ask me what does post-August 31st look like, it is -- it is those kinds of extractions, either with the assistance of allies or even the Taliban to get more Americans out for those who cannot make it in the next days. So people should not think a cloud goes over Afghanistan and everything is done. There is going to be activity because it's the Taliban's interest for there to be activity, as Nic was describing. They need money, they need people, they need the airport to be open.

JARRETT: Juliette, you've noted before that the U.S. is not going to end its counterterrorism --



JARRETT: -- mission, and that we're essentially back where we've started.


JARRETT: The Biden administration has vowed retaliation. You heard from the president. What does a counterattack look like?

KAYYEM: Yes. So, this is the irony and the tragedy of where we are. We started this effort in 2001, 20 years ago, on a discreet counterterrorism effort focused on al Qaeda -- and the Taliban, at that stage -- and then stayed. And I think the mission creep sort of suggests, and the extent of the war suggests we had no clear reason why we were there.

We are now back to square one. That is going to look -- that is -- let me say two things.

One thing is the White House needs to be clear about what that looks likes. In other words, are we increasing surveillance? How are we doing that? There will be, clearly, drones. There will be covert operations. There will be attempts to get intelligence from the Taliban, which has a common interest with us to disrupt ISIS, as well as countries around Afghanistan.

But no question that capacity is going to be harder in the future. And I think the rise of al Qaeda is also something distressing for our homeland security.

JARRETT: And distressing, indeed.


JARRETT: All right, Juliette Kayyem, CNN national security analyst. Thank you so much. Appreciate your analysis, as always.

KAYYEM: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right, thanks for joining us for this edition of EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JARRETT: I'm Laura Jarrett. "NEW DAY" is next.