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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Countries Restrict Travel From Southern Africa Over Omicron; Interview With Moderna CEO And Co-Founder Noubar Afeyan; Biden And Putin To Talk Amid Ukraine Tensions; Can U.S. Guarantee It Will Remain In The Iran Nuclear Deal?; WSJ: Undercover Taliban Agents Seized Cities From Within. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired December 05, 2021 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world, I'm Fareed Zakaria, coming to you live from New York.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the program --

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.

ZAKARIA: As Omicron entered our lexicon and our world, dozens of countries shut down their borders, especially from travel originating in Africa. Across that continent, less than 10 percent of the population is vaccinated. Is this the new apartheid? I will be talking to a South African activist who says yes. Also, I will ask the chairman of Moderna whether his vaccine keeps people safe against the new variant.

Then Moscow versus the West. After a week of much diplomacy by Secretary of State Blinken, can a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine be averted? I will discuss with James Stavridis, NATO's former supreme allied commander.

And understanding the new round of nuclear talks in Vienna. As Iran and the U.S. appear miles apart, Washington says it's prepared to use other options if the talks fail. What does this mean? I'll talk to former State Department official Vali Nasr.


ZAKARIA: But first here's "My Take." The saddest thing about the emergence of the Omicron variant is its utter unpredictability. For months, even longer, public health officials have been warning that as long as the COVID-19 virus can circulate freely and widely, it would change its form and that those mutations could be more difficult to handle than the original variant.

In October this year, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown predicted just this. He said we in the West may feel safe and blessed at the moment because we've had the vaccines but we may find a new variant that comes out of Africa or Asia, where people have not been vaccinated and are not protected, and it obviously isn't susceptible to the vaccines that we have at the moment.

The solution was also utterly obvious, to vaccine the rest of the world and fast, but that never happened. And the resulting disparities are stunning. Close to 70 percent of the European Union and about 60 percent of the United States have been fully vaccinated. And yet only about 8 percent of people in the world's poorest countries have received even one dose.

Earlier this year, this failure could be attributed to a problem of production and supply. But the world is now producing 1.5 billion doses of vaccine monthly. The problem has been one of distribution, or to put it bluntly, of the rich world hoarding vaccines at the expense of the poor.

According to the health analytics company Air Finerty, by the end of March 2022, the G7 and E.U. are projected to have a surplus of 880 million vaccines, and this is assuming 500 million more donations to poor countries are made and every adult in these countries, the G7 and the E.U. are fully vaccinated plus receiving a booster.

It's estimated that 51 million of the doses stored by Western countries will expire and have to be thrown away by the end of this year if they are not used, and yet they sit stockpiled while the poorest 1.6 billion people in the world have about 5 percent of the world's vaccinations.

This is not a case of global institutions failing. There's an effective mechanism to share and distribute the vaccines worldwide, COVAX, set up by a group of international health organizations. But rich countries have been stingy about actually making donations. The U.S. pledged the most, 1.2 billion doses, but so far has delivered just about 280 million. The E.U., Iceland and Norway have collectively pledged about 500 million doses and delivered about 112 million.

China has recently increased its pledge to 850 million, up from 100 million, and it has delivered about 89 million. As a result of all this, dozens of countries are at risk of falling short of the WHO's goal of vaccinating 40 percent of every country's population by December 2021 which means that the virus will keep replicating and mutating freely among billions of people. What is the chance that we will not see another variant in the next year?


Vaccinating the world will be good for the world economy, which mostly means the richest countries that dominate it. In May of this year the IMF released a proposal that calculated that vaccinating the world by 2022 would cost $50 billion but a failure to do so could cost the world by 2025 $9 trillion. Put another way, an investment of 0.06 percent of global GDP could have a 180-fold return on that investment.

COVID and public health are not the only areas where we see a self- destructive nationalism at work these days. The hot economic topic is inflation and what is causing it. The Biden administration's COVID relief spending is often blamed for triggering it and it has almost certainly played some role. Strikingly though, we see rising inflation almost everywhere, including in countries that did not spend freely after the pandemic.

So what could explain this global inflation? Well, protectionist policies like Trump's trade war with China and Biden's Buy American. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers wrote tariff reduction is the most important supply-side policy the administration could undertake to combat inflation.

The connection between rising protectionism and inflation is obvious. For the last three decades countries have been aggressively sourcing goods from across the world because they are cheaper. Once they began reshoring, finding domestic supplies and putting in place versions of Biden's Buy American provisions, they are paying more for those same goods. Add to the supply disruption and sudden increases in demands for goods, and you have inflation rising everywhere. Just last week the Biden administration doubled tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber.

So far the rhetoric of nationalism has been cheap but as countries have turned that rhetoric into policy, the costs are mounting. They've been felt by the poorest in the world and they will hurt the working classes in rich countries the most.

The answer is obvious, greater global cooperation in public health, trade and more. But will any national leader dare to say this?

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column. And let's get started.

You heard "My Take," now let me bring in Fatima Hassan. She is a human rights lawyer and the founder and director of the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.

Fatima, welcome. Let me begin by asking you, I know that the president of Africa and I think you have been critical of the travel bans that have been put in place by many countries, including the United States, toward people coming out of South Africa. Is it not fair as a way of trying to prevent the vaccine spread, even though it is obviously not going to work perfectly, but isn't it fair to in some way try to stop the spread? How do you think about it?

FATIMA HASSAN, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR, HEALTH JUSTICE INITIATIVE IN SOUTH AFRICA: Thanks, Fareed. So they don't think it's fair because the way in which it's being imposed is quite uneven and a lot of the responses in the last few days really just smacks of a very knee-jerk way of dealing with this pandemic. It goes against the solidarity that was promised to us at the beginning of this pandemic.

And, you know, if you see some of the responses from countries like Canada as well as the U.K. and also the U.S. in the last 72 hours, we just feel that it's really bedeviled with racism in a way in which the application of the travel ban is being imposed to basically isolate most countries in Southern Africa and Africa in particular, but not to impose the same kind of restrictions or measures on countries from the north where the variant has also being discovered.

We just heard that Canada won't even accept a PCR test that's conducted in many parts of our world. So, you know, really there's a sense of people being really angry and enraged at the way in which the U.S. and the U.K. and countries like Canada in particular are actually applying those particular travel bans for those particular variants.

ZAKARIA: And do you worry that it will -- it will have a chilling effect on other countries alerting the world to the arrival of a new variant? Because what happened in South Africa, as I understand it, and in Botswana, scientists were very open, very transparent and immediately told the world, look, we have this new variant.

HASSAN: We are concerned about that and obviously the scientists in South Africa and Botswana should be congratulated for not acting in a secret way, for sharing information in a timely manner.


The chilling effect, you know, the concern that we have in relation to that is that it may deter other scientists in other parts of the world -- there's currently a debate in South Africa about how much information you should be sharing with the rest of the world. But the more concerning thing is that it's leading to vaccine hesitancy because there's a sense amongst the communities in which we work in that if our vaccines are not going to be accepted, some of us are fully vaccinated.

We've had a double shot of the Pfizer vaccine, if that is not going to be accepted for the purposes of traveling to the global north, if our PCR results are not going to be accepted, then communities are saying why bother, why should be vaccinate if we're just going to be isolated and if we're not going to even be allowed to enter your jurisdiction?

ZAKARIA: There is a larger problem, though, is there not, with vaccine hesitancy? And I wanted to ask you about this because in South Africa, for example, at one point the government said stop shipping us vaccines, we have enough. The problem was not enough people were getting the shots. Is the vaccine hesitancy about more broadly kind of hesitation about Western medicine? Is it being influenced by the anti- vax arguments and propaganda coming out of places like the United States?

HASSAN: I think the answer to that is it's likely more complex because I think the percentages are misleading and we've seen a lot of worrying reports in the past few days basically saying that the reason why we have this variant is because people in Africa don't want to be vaccinated.

In fact, recent studies and data show quite the opposite, that there's a greater willingness to take the vaccine and greater vaccine uptake and parts of our world where we don't have sufficient supplies where we have been drip-fed with vaccine supplies than people in parts of the global north.

And certainly, there is a combination of vaccine hesitancy because we're dealing with a fast-moving pandemic. Information is shifting on an almost weekly basis, that's being stop-start to our vaccine programs because of issues around the data or the clinical efficacy of certain vaccines. But it's being made much harder and infinitely harder because of anti-vax movements that basically are quite functional and quite alive in the U.S. with local chapters here, too. And that is making it more difficult.

So the longer it takes for us to even get full shots into people's arms in Africa, you have more time for both hesitancy and the anti-vax movement to escalate some of the misinformation and disinformation.

Remember that in the last four months, Fareed, more booster shots have been administered in high income countries and parts of the global north that even flu shots in Africa. So time really is against us. And I think the emergence of, you know, the new variant and what we have been dealing with in the last week shows how self-defeating it is to vaccinate, you know, most of people in the global north with booster shots and not even prioritize first shots for most people in Africa.

Only one in four health care workers in Africa have been vaccinated. And yet for over a year now there are safe and effective vaccines on the market that could have been used to actually protect our frontline.

ZAKARIA: Fatima Hassan, pleasure to have you on. Thank you very much for that.

Next on GPS, will the current vaccines work against the new variant? The million-dollar question. I will ask the chairman of Moderna just that question when we come back.



ZAKARIA: The big questions surrounding Omicron is how effective will the current vaccines be against this new variant? My next guest will know the answer.

Joining me now is Noubar Afeyan, the co-founder and chairman of Moderna.

Noubar, welcome. Previously when you've come on this program, you've explained very, very kindly to us how your extraordinary vaccine works, the MRNA vaccine sends essentially a kind of text message to the body, tells it produces therefore one protein, the spike protein. The problem now is that this new variant has altered that protein, particularly around where the spike is, and it's a big alteration. Delta had two or three changes. This has 10 to 12 changes to the spike protein. Will the MRNA Moderna vaccine work against this new variant?

NOUBAR AFEYAN, CHAIRMAN AND CO-FOUNDER, MODERNA: Fareed, thanks for having me. Forgive me for my voice. I have a bit of a cold. So I think we're going to learn this more definitively over the next seven to 10 days. We're doing the experiments needed to establish whether the reduction in binding that could be there nevertheless allows us to be protective against this variant virus.

The reason the scientific community has been quite concerned, as you said, is that there are many variations in the very binding region and we have not seen that before. But that does not mean that the way our immune system will respond will not be adequate.

And in fact, we suspect that we will see protection against the more severe hospitalization, death indications. But what we also want to see is will it be protective against being infected all together? Because ideally, we'd like to protect everyone against infection, not just hospitalization.

ZAKARIA: And so should we think of the MRNA vaccines a little bit like the flu vaccine in relation to Omicron? In other words, you've got some protection but, you know, there's still a chance that you'd get it but if you have the vaccine, you're likely to have less severe symptoms, less hospitalization? Is that a reasonable analogy?

AFEYAN: Fareed, I think it's a little bit early to say that. Let me just say what we're doing at Moderna, as the pioneer of this technology platform, announced last week four steps. One, we can boost with a higher dose. Our technology allows us to do that. We're going to see if a higher dose boost gives us even more protection so that there's really no -- that you get the same type of protection as we might have had with other strains.


We're going to get that data. We're trying a couple of what's called multi-variant antigens that's never been tried before. That is show the body a couple of different versions of the virus and see if that breath of antibodies can protect us. And then ultimately, we're also as a final defense measure developing an Omicron-specific spike, which will take a good 60 to 100 days to be ready to be deployed.

So we're taking all of the possibilities and putting resources behind them. The simplest would be the same dose or a higher dose of what we already have and then the rest follow.

ZAKARIA: What's extraordinarily about the technology you guys have developed is that you can say pretty confidentially that probably in 90 days, you will be able to develop something because it's really like a cold, it's no longer this process of trial and error. Do you think that this is the future, where, you know, we're going to get more variants probably and you're just going to have to keep seeing whether you need to adjust the code?

AFEYAN: Yes, I think that the past 10 years of developing the platform, several billion dollars has gone into doing this, enables us using computational approaches and all the learnings of the thousands of MRNAs we've made previously, to get to a point where we can actually specify a new code, test it and very quickly see if we can get the antibodies needed for maximum protection.

We should keep in mind our job is to develop the maximum protection for the most people safely. That's what we keep optimizing against and indeed we now have a new tool in the vaccine arsenal that allows us to operate at speeds that match what a virus can do. Previously we were several years behind the virus and with the flu, as you mentioned, we were guessing what variants we're going to get and we were trying to at least put a dent in it.

Here we'd like to strive towards the very high effectiveness we've already seen, just keep up with the variations so we can protect people for years to come if needed. If not we'd be quite happy to have the thing go away, that's very clear.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about this, a lot of people -- some people are saying you guys should be giving this technology away, waving all your intellectual patents. Explain what Moderna's position on this is. As I understand it, you are willing to say you will not enforce patents as long as COVID is around?

AFEYAN: Well, Fareed, the first time we spoke was around the time a year ago when we voluntarily pledged -- the only company to have done that -- voluntarily pledged not to enforce our patents against anybody who uses our patents to make a vaccine against the pandemic. At that time there had been no proof that the vaccine will work but we did that because we thought it's the right thing to do from a vaccine access standpoint.

We believe that that has enabled others to make MRNA vaccines and if others do that even further, that's great. In addition we've added to our production capacity. So this year we will have produced about 800 million doses.

Next year we've said we will produce two billion to three billion doses. So combined, by adding production capacity and allowing others to use our intellectual property, we've taken steps voluntarily to do the maximum we can and in fact we invite everyone to do the same.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, as with all your judgment and all your knowledge, the question a lot of people are thinking, is it safe to travel? If you're double vaccinated, do you feel that you have -- you can go about your life as you were before this Omicron was detected? Or what are you doing?

AFEYAN: Well, look, Fareed, I'm living in the U.S. and the Delta is a pretty serious threat as it is for people who are not yet boosted. So I would say, like I did last time, that people should get full double vaccinations. The boost is an important part of fighting the Delta. Not the other variants yet but definitely Delta. So even before we get to Omicron, if people are doubting the importance of getting boosted, we need to enhance the antibody levels to prevent infection. And I believe that that should be the public health goal.

Simply saying it's OK for people to get infected because they won't go to the hospital, I worry perpetuates this problem because infected people infect others, even if they don't get the worst version of it. So boosting will be very, very important in my view. And then what I'm doing is watching Omicron very carefully. Over the next week to 10 days it will be clear. Certainly I'm wearing masks much more than I was in the past couple of months and I'm going to see how to adjust behavior based on how serious this is.

But we have the tools, the vaccines, the boosts, masks and separations will protect us. We have to work on getting the rest of the world vaccinated, and to me as your past segments said, there's a lot of work to do in the last mile. We need the education, the supplies to make sure everybody gets vaccinated, otherwise we'll be talking about this for many, many years.

ZAKARIA: Noubar, I want to thank you for doing this. I know you have a very bad cold and cough.


You've drugged yourself to be able to do the show and I think you know that it was important to people to hear from you. So thank you very much.

AFEYAN: Thank you for having me.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, Biden and Putin are talking on Tuesday. Will that conversation calm any of the fears that Russia might invade Ukraine at any time? Back in a moment.


ZAKARIA: President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will talk with one another in a secure -- on a secure video call on Tuesday.


This comes as the U.S. and its Western allies were more concerned that Russia intends to invade Ukraine again.

But Biden said on Friday, he was going to make it, quote, "...very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do," unquote.

So, how will this all play out?

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis was the supreme allied commander at NATO. His latest book is "The Sailor's Bookshelf."

Admiral, welcome. If you were back at your NATO headquarters and you were looking at this. What about this 100,000-troop buildup is worrying and are there signs to you that this is saber-rattling and that he - Putin won't actually go ahead and invade?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Fareed, if this is saber-rattling, I would say the -- the Russian Cossacks saber is out of the scabbard in being weighed pretty dramatically in the face of the Ukrainians right now.

I would be very concerned if I were the current supreme allied commander in NATO. And I suspect he is hunkered down with his intelligence professionals, with his operations team looking at this minute by minute on what would otherwise be a quiet Sunday at his headquarters in Mons, Belgium.

We ought to be worried because Putin's done this before. You mentioned the previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014. You will remember, Fareed, 2008, he invaded Georgia and still kind of owns a couple of chunks of that country, just like he "owns," I'm putting that in quotes, the Crimea.

So, if crime is where motive meets opportunity, you kind of see motive, you see a lot of opportunity with this buildup, 100,000 troops, he's got the full attention of NATO and the Biden administration.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about that because in both of those cases, which I have been thinking about, Putin calculated that he could get away with taking those pieces of the territory that had a lot of Russian speakers, were in some ways sympathetic to - to Russia. This next move in Ukraine will be very different, it seems to me. He would be up against a very hostile population and one that over the last five or seven years has been rebuilding its army.

You have to give the previous Ukrainian government and the current one, a lot of credit and the West a lot of credit for arming them. So, all - all I'm saying is it does seem to me this would be a very tough haul for -- even with 100,000 troops, dealing with a hostile local population as the United States has learned in certain parts of the world, that's tough.

STAVRIDIS: What he will not want is to get bogged down in his own version of a forever war, watching body bags go back to Moscow. But there's kind of a middle position there, Fareed, which is what I worry about. The southeastern corner, the so-called Donbas region, has a high percentage of Russian speakers.

It would also constitute, if you will, a land bridge that would go from Russia proper to Crimea. So, one could hypothesize he may push in, grab that southeast corner and then it's just another version of the same playbook from Georgia, the same playbook that got him Crimea. That is probably the calculus he's wrestling with right now.

ZAKARIA: How should -- and presumably what he's trying to do -- part of what he's trying to do is put Ukraine on edge, make it difficult for it to consolidate its democracy and essentially dare -- tell him, don't you dare try to apply formally for NATO membership and telling NATO, don't you dare admit them.

How should the Ukrainians in the West view this issue? Is it dangerous provocative for Ukraine to take aggressive steps to become a NATO member or does it now become all the more necessary?

STAVRIDIS: Ukraine is already in what's called a membership action plan, which is kind of a - a pre-step toward eventually gaining full membership in NATO. So, that train has left the station, if you will.

What Putin is trying to do, you're exactly correct, Fareed, is scare the Ukrainians into essentially pulling back from that process, doing everything he can to intimidate them. What we should be doing is applying the tools that we have, gathering more intelligence, publicizing what he's doing. The more we talk about this on shows like this, I think the less likely he actually does this -- cyber. Press in against his command-and-control networks. Be ready to go if need be. More weapons to Ukraine that can be used defensively but lethally if he decides to make a move.

And above all, Fareed, we've got to get this out of a U.S. versus Russia kind of context. We've got to get NATO engaged in this, our allies. Really this ought to be the West saying to Vladimir Putin, you cannot do this for a third time.


Let's hope he listens. And I think that's the message that President Biden will seek to convey on Tuesday.

ZAKARIA: How - how firmly would the Europeans back an American move like that? Do you hear that the Germans are you know have mixed feelings with the Nord Stream project pipeline being approved there, dependent on Russia for natural gas? Does that hold them hostage or on this issue, are they fairly tough?

STAVRIDIS: From everything I can see talking to many my friends in Europe, they will stand with us on this one. They have thus far despite the energy dependencies you talked about which are in fact exacerbated by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, something we, in the United States, have - have mentioned many times to our European friends.

And frankly, Fareed, it's going to be sanctions that I think most hold Putin back, directed sanctions against his senior leadership team, very personal ones. Oil and gas sanctions, recognizing the complexities given European dependencies.

And thirdly, ultimately, secondary sanctions could be applied. So, we'd still got some economic tools in the quiver. I'm sure President Biden will be pointing those out to Vladimir Putin, Tuesday.

ZAKARIA: James Stavridis, always a pleasure to have you on. And your new book was very well-displayed behind your shoulders, so I hope people go and buy it.

Next on "GPS."

The first Iran nuclear talks in almost six months were held in Vienna this week and they didn't go that well. The backstory when we come back.



ZAKARIA: In Vienna this week, Iran came to the negotiating table for the first time since its new president was sworn in, in August. But it wasn't willing to talk to the U.S. directly. Then in the middle of the talks, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that the Iran had stepped up its enrichment of uranium. On Friday, the parties left the table on a sour note to go back to their respective capitals, get instructions and regroup.

Vali Nasr is a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department adviser.

Vali Nasr, pleasure to have you on.


ZAKARIA: Give us a sense of what the Iranian view is. What are the Iranian requirements, demands in these negotiations? You have unique access to kind of both sides of the negotiating table. You have been talking to people on both sides. I think we don't - I would like to hear what the Iranian perspective is.

NASR: Well, it's simply as that they want the sanctions to be lifted, to go back to 2017 and back into the full compliance, the United States and Europeans into full compliance with JCPOA. But - but the problem is that the Iranians don't trust that the United States actually intends to lift sanctions.

And that if it leaks - lift sanctions, it's not going to quickly reimpose them. Let say, under a new president. So now, in addition to lifting sanctions, they want some sort of guarantees that would mean that this day would have legs and it would - it would survive a Biden administration.

ZAKARIA: So, as I understand it, from reading what you have written, part of the issue is that if the sanctions are lifted and there's the fear that they may be reimposed. Let's say 2024, Trump is back in office or a Republican is back in office, or a Republican is back in office.

No company is going to do a deal with Iran, particularly oil companies which need you know long. They need to know that this is going to be -- these sanctions are going to be lifted for 10 years, for 20 years.

So, what they're looking for is some stability and predictability. And what does the Biden administration say when the Iranians say, look, we need some to - we need some guarantee that this won't be an on again/off again process?

NASR: Well, exactly. Now, there's the -- the deal has no value for Iran if there's no pathway to have direct foreign investment coming into Iran or if they sell their oil, they're able to bring back their money into the country. I mean, currently they have $20, $30 billion that is locked outside of the country.

The Biden administration says that no American president can give such a guarantee that a successor will not reimpose sanctions. But I think the trick comes down to whether there's a creative way to give the Iranians the confidence that the deal will not be completely undone in two years' time. That they're not negotiating for just two years with the United States. ZAKARIA: So, where we are now is Iran is moving closer and closer to really fairly advanced nuclear capacity. The United States has not found a way to really get them back into the deal. What happens next as this goes on?

NASR: I think both sides are motivated to keep talking. Neither side wants collapse, which would mean a catastrophe for the region and a major crisis for both of them. And I think Iran does need sanctions relief. But the Iranians feel that America's leverage on them is maxing out.

I mean, there's not much more pressure that the Americans can apply on them. But they are not applying maximum pressure on the United States by advancing their nuclear program significantly.

I don't think they want a nuclear weapon. They want to get the Biden administration to lift sanctions and I think they think that the bigger the program becomes, the more threatening it becomes, the more seriously they would be taken and the more motivated the Biden administration will be to deal with them.

ZAKARIA: You have a terrific piece in foreign affairs talking about how this is all happening in the context of a highly sectarian Middle East. Explain the center point of your article.

NASR: If the deal collapses, there's going to be confrontation between Iran and the United States and Iran and its Arab neighbors in the region over control of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. And the momentary sort of stability -- minimal stability that we are seeing is in danger of collapsing.


So, if the United States really wants to disentangle from the Middle East, wants to reduce tensions and it doesn't want a much larger conflagration in the region, it has to get to a deal with Iran.

ZAKARIA: So, the world you're describing -- in the Middle East, you're describing is one way, Iran is inching toward real nuclear capacity. Israel is looking for ways to either - either through hybrid war or actual war take out that capacity. Presumably the Saudis and the Gulf Arab states are looking warily at this process because they would be dragged into it. And the United States is sitting on top of it all trying to disengage.

NASR: That's right.

ZAKARIA: Is the conclusion - I mean, is it fair to say that Trump's pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in -- in retrospect now is looking frankly like a catastrophe?

NASR: Indeed. It is probably one of the biggest strategic mistakes the United States has made. Every assumption that the Trump administration, the Netanyahu government in Israel and the Arab Gulf states, Persian Gulf states, made in 2017 has proven to be catastrophically wrong. Iran is more dangerous, more lethal, the region is more volatile. And the West looks to be out of options in order to stop Iran's nuclear program. And what is going on, Vienna is a last chance to prevent a much greater calamity.

ZAKARIA: Vali Nasr, thank you for that.

NASR: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Next on "GPS."

The lightning speed of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. How did they do it? You will hear a fascinating new reporting involving spies playing a very long game when we come back.



ZAKARIA: The Taliban's lightning-fast advance earlier this year left many scratching their heads about how Afghanistan collapsed just so quickly.

Well, we now have a missing piece of the puzzle, a big piece. According to a report in "The Wall Street Journal," the Taliban had a network of covert operatives who had infiltrated all manner of organizations across the country and emerged at the last minute to cease control of Afghan cities.

Margherita Stancati is one of the reporters on that story. She joins me from London.

Welcome. So first explain just how did the Taliban manage this process of infiltration?

MARGHERITA STANCATI, REPORTER, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, it's clear that the Taliban were playing the long game. So based on our interviews, when members of the Taliban, it's clear that they had been working on this for years, for decades.

So, they managed to place people in government departments, in NGOs, and international organizations. And for the most part, they didn't let make them do anything. They were just there, sitting and waiting and playing the long game. And then they came into action when Kabul fell.

I mean, we first realized there was something deeper going on, you know the day Kabul fell. It was surprisingly well organized. It was relatively bloodless. The Taliban were able to quickly and effectively secure the city and all key parts of the city. You know, we didn't see any mass looting for example.

So that was when we first - that was the first clue that the Taliban were a lot more embedded in the heart of the Afghan capital than any of us really imagined. And then speaking to many Afghans, residents of Kabul after the fall of the city, we kept hearing the same stories. Like, oh, my neighbor turned out to be a Talib. Or you know this person who worked in my compound turned out to be a Talib, or the security guard at the bank and on and on.

ZAKARIA: So, the big question, of course, this raises, is this is a situation - we're not talking about trying to figure out what's happening in North Korea, you know this black box country where nobody is allowed in, who is a foreigner.

This is happening in Afghanistan where there are thousands and thousands of American forces with enormous authority, hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of American intelligence operatives, thousands of cooperating, tens of thousands of cooperating Afghans, informers and yet the United States seems to have been largely unaware of this. It feels like an intelligence failure on kind of a mammoth scale.

STANCATI: Yes. I mean, it's obviously a massive intelligence failure. You get the feeling that intelligence agencies barely scratch the surface of what was going on in Kabul and thus the rest of Afghanistan.

You know we spoke to, for example, one - one Taliban recruiter who was a student, he himself recruited some 500 people alone, mostly around Kabul University. And his -- his tactic for not getting caught was simply shaving his beard and wearing sunglasses and jeans and not getting into fights with more liberal students. I mean, it was that basic.

And, of course, you know we always knew that the Taliban were active in Kabul. The Taliban carried out multiple attacks in Kabul. In fact, Kabul was attacked the whole time. But there was this perception that while the Taliban manifested themselves in the city with these spectacular attacks that the war was mostly fought in rural areas.


And the Taliban, they were operating out of even mountain hideouts and Afghan Forces under you know American backers fighting for rural land but really it was these people in the cities that made a difference.

They were a lot more organized and, actually, a lot more sophisticated than I think any of us realized.

ZAKARIA: This is such great reporting, and it sheds so much light. Thank you so much.

STANCATI: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: And thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.

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