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Taliban: Kabul Coming "Under Full Control"; U.S. Forces Kill 2 Armed Men who Fired on them at Kabul Airport; Chaos at Kabul Airport as Afghans try to Escape Country; Soon: Biden Returning to White House to Deliver Remarks on Afghanistan; Fall of Kabul Sparks Comparisons to Saigon at end of Vietnam War. Aired 12-12.30p ET

Aired August 16, 2021 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello everybody and welcome to "Inside Politics". I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for your time on this very, very busy sober news day and we begin with fear and chaos in Afghanistan.

Taliban terrorists are now in charge and there is a mad scramble for survival. You see it there Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul now essentially a refugee camp packed with tens of thousands of Americans, Europeans and Africans all desperate to escape.

Throngs of people trying to elbow claw their way inside planes. Evacuation flights are now resuming following a temporary stop to clear and secure the airfield. And these U.S. forces shooting and killing two armed men as part of that chaos.

The chaos in Kabul now part of a worst case scenario we could Taliban route across the country one that ended Look at this, with the Mujahideen inside the Presidential Palace and outside the U.S. Embassy smiling and chanting death to America.

In just a few hours 3:45 pm eastern time here in Washington, the American President Joe Biden plans to address the nation that after a weekend of silence as the world watched images of an American retreat, and an American embarrassment. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is live on the ground force in Kabul. Nick described the scene that you are seeing is that chaotic airport.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, I mean, the airport has says unnaturally startling unraveling of this 20 year presence, frankly, at the site of where the American investment was so palpable, this extraordinary modern place into which diplomats and contractors just came in on dozens of flights.

It seemed almost a day now overrun by people desperate to possibly reach a civilian flight unaware that so many of those have been canceled. And then at times, racing towards us cargo planes just trying to get on any way they possibly could, essentially rendering obsolete or unable to function properly the system the Americans have set up here in a bit to try and get out Afghans who assisted them.

Many thought when they announced they will get tens of thousands of Afghans out, but you'd inevitably see some kind of chaos. But these sorts of scenes are startling. And they lead to the suspension of U.S. flights there. We have heard some airplanes above us here I've seen flares from must have been helicopters trying to protect them.

I've seen what looks like tracer, fire headed in their direction. So it's clearly volatile. That's inside the airport; we tried to head up to it ourselves. And it was startling at the gate were the Taliban. And they were essentially doing crowd control for the benefit of the United States keeping back many of the Afghans trying to swarm that particular airport.

There'll be some who say, well, they were trying to prevent people leaving that they might consider to be in U.S. allies. But clearly on the ground they were doing things that were very beneficial to the U.S. using, in fact, vehicles that have been given by the United States to Afghan security forces, the Taliban had now taken.

I saw people trying to climb 10, 20 foot walls, rushing gates, startling scenes, the occasional crackle of gunfire; they tried to keep people back. But a very volatile situation there certainly but a bizarre moment of irony is to flip into word but to see the United States' enemy for 20 years right up against the last patch of land they still control here in Afghanistan is a startling sight frankly, even after the last 10 days after so many years here, I'd simply never thought I'd see it unravel just like this.

KING: Well, let's reinforce the context of that you say the Taliban essentially crowd control for the Americans outside of the airport. But a while that might be helpful at the moment it is also just beyond any reasonable doubt any doubt now, Nick, that outside of that patch of land, as you call it, the airport, Afghanistan is now under the control of the Taliban fully.

WALSH: Absolutely no doubt about that at all. And even the possibility that there might have been pockets of resistance. Remember, this is - what they call the ring of steel, surrounded by security forces where the money was where the guns were where America put in so much investment.

I thought even if the Taliban moved in, there might have been occasional bits of clashes and crossfire here. But we've seen really very little if not none of that, though, are the occasional crackle of gunfire here and there.

But so much of that seems to come back to reports of people firing in the air to get the crowds back that instance in which it seems U.S. troops killed two what they said were armed men, we don't know get into the bottom of that they're clearly they've felt under intense pressure at that airport with crowds rushing in their direction. And of course, armed Taliban somewhere within the mix around that airport too but it just shows you how messy it is at that airport. And how I think that plan the U.S. had to save those tens of thousands of Afghans which seemed to me very optimistic in the chaos of this country with the Taliban advancing is going to be very imperiled in the days ahead, if not, to some degree impossible.

But we'll have to simply see how the Taliban choose to function they have maintained today as far as we can see, calm and order inside the capital. Remarkable site, frankly, to just drive down the streets and see Taliban and I've only ever noticed that sort of hiding behind trees or far away in the hills.

They took potshots at Americans now walking down streets carrying their guns in broad daylight in central Kabul. But they are the power here right now they are it seems keeping a degree of calm.


WALSH: Perhaps they're looking for some element of international respectability. We'll simply have to see how Joe Biden in the hours ahead after this extraordinary foreign policy failing of his own unconditional doing, how he squares what's happened in the last week and how he's going to deal with the Taliban?

I should point out a governmental group here, which the U.S. has really always, in the last few years known, they're going to have to do diplomacy with and eventually find some sort of negotiation out. Nobody thought it would end this way, John.

KING: Very few at least. Nick Paton Walsh grateful for you and our other crews, reporters correspondents and all the people on the ground, risking their lives to bring us this news Nick, thank you so much.

And joining our conversation now, a man with unique portfolio to discuss this, the Former Defense Secretary, Former CIA Director, Former White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta Mr. Panetta, grateful to see you on this important day Nick was just describing the situation on the ground. Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban.

The President of the United States was silent this weekend, is this all played out? He will address the American people and the world in just a few hours, what must he say?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, I think it's very important, considering that this is obviously a sad and tragic day, particularly for all of those over these last 20 years, who served in Afghanistan and sacrificed to make sure that what has happened today would not happen.

So I think the president has to take responsibility. He is President of the United States; he's going to have to take responsibility. He's going to have to admit the mistakes that were made. And at the same time, I think as Commander in Chief, he's going to have to make very clear to the world that the United States is going to go after terrorism, no matter where it's located.

And that we will not stand for Al Qaeda or ISIS to reestablish them in this Islamic caliphate. So he's got to make clear that we're going to continue the war against terrorism, and protect the American people.

And lastly, I think he's got to indicate that we're going to do everything necessary to make sure that a humanitarian disaster doesn't unfold in Afghanistan, with regards to the people there. And that's going to take both diplomacy, and a lot of strong muscle to make clear to the Taliban, that they've got to join the rest of the world in the way they behave.

KING: I want to come back to some of those latter points in a moment. But I want to start with the challenge for the President of the United States because you say he should admit mistakes here. He should take responsibility, because he's the Commander in Chief at this moment.

I want you to listen to a little bit of this president. This is over the last four months describing the key metrics of this this withdrawal from Afghanistan and how he said how he promised it would play out?


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: And if we leave, we're going to do so in a safe and orderly way. We'll not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We'll do it. We'll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely, but will not take our eye off the terrorist threat. They have the capacity to be able to sustain a government the drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan now inevitable?

BIDEN: No, it is not. The likelihood there's going to be the Taliban over running everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.


KING: Leon Panetta, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong, as you go through the list there from the President of the United States. His judgment and his credibility are part of the calculation the president has to deal with, as he addresses the American people today.

PANETTA: Now, there's no question. Look, this is a situation that deteriorated rapidly beyond anyone's imagination. I know unexpected what happened? No one expected the Taliban to move as quickly as they did. They obviously had a strategy to do this.

They knew where they were going both in the North in the West, they had pre-positioned weapons. So they clearly had a strategy, and we were not aware of just how rapidly that would happen?

KING: Let me check. Let me jump in on that point, again, because of your unique experiences, the Former CIA Director, the Former Defense Chief, the Pentagon Chief, the Former White House Chief of Staff, how did the United States not know?

You knew coming into this, this president had to know coming into this as you did when you serve in the Obama Administration, the Taliban are bad actors. So you have to keep as many eyes on them as possible. How can you not know that there are massive forces that there are masking equipment?

PANETTA: Well, there's no question that for whatever reason, we did not have sources in the right place to tell us exactly what was going to happen? I know the intelligence community did say that it would probably be six to nine months before Afghanistan collapsed. And they missed it and they missed what was going on.


PANETTA: They missed the fact that the Taliban obviously were preparing for this strategy once the United States pulled their forces out. They knew they could take advantage of it. And I think the intelligence community understood that.

But they did not understand how prepared the Taliban was to conduct the kind of campaign they did over these last few days. They captured 12 provincial capitals within a matter of a few days. That's incredible.

KING: It is incredible. I want you to listen to Jake Sullivan, the President's National Security Adviser this morning, trying to explain. He says, look, the president is surprised that what happened, what you just described, played out so fast, but he said the president is still resolute in his decision that America needs to come home after nearly 20 years.

And he says, in fact that the last couple of days actually reinforced the president's point that if the Afghans don't fight, why should Americans die to protect them? Listen.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president did not think it was inevitable that the Taliban were going to take control of Afghanistan. He thought the Afghan national security forces could step up and fight because we spent 20 years tens of billions of dollars training them, giving them the best equipment, giving them support of U.S. forces for 20 years. And when push came to shove, they decided not to step up and fight for their country.


KING: I think one of the challenges and I think you'll agree, please disagree if you doubt. One of the challenges right now is the credibility of what American government officials from the president on down say to the American people and what they have said, frankly, over the past 20 years.

You just heard Jake Sullivan, a good public servant, a National Security Adviser, saying that, you know, we spent 20 years tens of billions of dollars, and we thought they could step up and fight. You went through this your president when you were the Defense Secretary, the CIA Director, President Obama wanted to end this war, he wanted to come home and repeatedly the General said the Afghans won't fight.

We keep training them. We have a small contingent, that's good. The rest of them won't fight. Why should they - why should we believe the White House when we say the president was told the Afghans would fight with anybody I've talked to? And I believe you would say the same. The generals, the contractors, the people on the ground for 20 years have said no, actually most of them won't.

PANETTA: You know, I think we've got to go back to the beginning here, John, which was why did we get into Afghanistan? We went there for basically two missions. One was to make sure that those involved in the 9/11 attack, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda would never conduct that attack again, and we would make sure of that, and we accomplish that mission.

We add a second mission was to - which was to make sure that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven, for terrorists and for Al Qaeda. We failed at that mission. But that was the mission we were trying to achieve. And it does involve our national security.

So it was not that it was so all a wasted effort. I think there, there obviously, were a lot of lives put on the line, a lot of sacrifices made, in order to make sure that we could prevent Afghanistan from turning into a safe haven for Al Qaeda again.

It's obvious that a lot of mistakes have been made mistakes and judgment mistakes in terms of strategy. Look, the simplest lesson that we failed to learn here is the lesson from Vietnam and from Iraq and from other places, which one is, you need to have a clear mission when you deploy our forces. What is the mission you're trying to achieve?

Secondly, you've got to make sure you have a strategy to achieve that mission. And thirdly, you have to have an end game, when to get the hell out. Unfortunately, we never implemented those principles in Afghanistan.

KING: Lastly, let me just ask you, again, if you were the White House Chief of Staff today, as you have been in the past, you'd be the last person probably to talk to the president, before he walked out to give that address to the American people today put this into context. This moment is what for Joe Biden, President Biden?

PANETTA: You know, in many ways, I think of John Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. You know, it unfolded quickly, and the president thought that everything would be fine. And that was not the case. But President Kennedy took responsibility for what took place.

And I strongly recommend to President Biden that he take responsibility, admit the mistakes that were made. He's got to be - he has been, I think, truthful with the American people. He's got to continue to be very truthful.

We've been through a difficult few days here in Afghanistan, and he's got to make clear to the American people that his Commander in Chief, he is going to continue to protect our national security, and that we are going to go after terrorists wherever the hell they're at.


PANETTA: He's just got to ensure that the United States of America remains a strong world leader that can work with our allies to try to protect peace and prosperity. That's the message he's got to give the American people and the world because our credibility right now is in question.

KING: Leon Panetta grateful for your time and insights on this important day. It's great to see I wish we were having a more positive conversation, but I'm grateful. Thank you, sir.

PANETTA: Good to be with you.

KING: Up next for us more on this breaking developments. These breaking developments in Afghanistan President Biden as we noted, just expected to address the nation a bit later today. That as U.S. troops now more of them rushing to help evacuate Americans.



KING: Little later this afternoon, President Biden will address the nation on the crisis in Afghanistan this as the Pentagon now adding troops to help secure the Kabul airport so it can keep evacuating Americans and get others who want to leave the country out as well.

And the State Department's work includes keeping track of Americans still in Afghanistan and warning them not to head for the Kabul airport until they have told that it's safe to do so. CNN's Kylie Atwood is at the State Department for us. CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon and we begin at the White House with CNN's. Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, the president is coming back. What are we going to hear?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the question really is how he's going to address what's facing him now given this is John the first time that the president has spoken on Afghanistan publicly since last Tuesday, and also the first time that he has spoken since the collapse of the government over the weekend since we've seen the chaos that has ensued at the airport in Kabul.

Of course, that is something that his officials have talked about all morning, but we have not heard from the president himself in person. He did issue a statement over the weekend authorizing more troops to that area; we now know there are going to be thousands of them in Afghanistan as amid this withdrawal process.

And of course, there are big questions facing the president facing his top national security advisors, as they have bluntly admitted that the Taliban takeover happened much faster than they had anticipated. We know that President Biden had been briefed on the possible outcomes here.

The White House has said many times that when he was making this decision to withdraw, he did not ask his team to sugarcoat it and knew the risks that they were taking. But the big questions facing them, given they have defended that withdrawal is really how poorly it was planned.

Given what we have seen happen in the fact that just six weeks ago, the president was telling us that he did not think there was going to be any comparison whatsoever to of course, the fall of Saigon and what happened in the 1970s, with people being evacuated from there to what's happening now.

And when we've seen those images of helicopters hovering over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul yesterday as they were trying to desperately get people from the Embassy to the airport that is something that the officials have really had a struggle to explain exactly those images paired with what the president was saying just six weeks ago.

When he said he was confident that that was not going to happen. He also did not believe a Taliban takeover, which we have now seen was inevitable.

KING: Kaitlan Collins live at the White House. Let's go to the State Department now and CNN's Kylie Atwood. Kylie among the State Department's many tasks keeping in touch with Americans still in Afghanistan and trying to complete the evacuations. What are you hearing?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, so John, here's what we know. What we know is all the U.S. diplomats who were at the Embassy in Kabul, the contractors, all U.S. personnel, were safely evacuated out of that Embassy.

Now then they went to the airport in Kabul, what we don't know is how many of those diplomats how many of those contractors have actually safely gotten out of the country? Now, we've been told that about 5000 is the maximum capacity for the number of people that the U.S. could get out of Afghanistan on a daily basis, but they haven't yet reached that capacity.

And of course, further complicating all of this is the fact that right now, there are no flights leaving that airport right now. The U.S. military has put a hold for now on these flights, because they have to secure the runway, we've seen these incredible, devastating images of these Afghans chasing after trying to hold on to these American flights that are leaving the country.

Of course, that is complicating things, as the U.S. is trying to get out not only their diplomats, but the Afghans who worked alongside U.S. diplomats and U.S. military officials for the last 20 years.

KING: Kylie Atwood thanks from the State Department. Now, let's get to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara 3000 troops, I think already on the ground. 3000 more on the way, I'm not sure what the exact math is, at this moment. Lay out the mission for us. BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, forget all the message points. Forget everything you've heard from political appointees. The U.S. military is now in the middle of a major operation in Afghanistan.

They are deploying an entire brigade of the 82nd airborne, an elite rapid response division that unit and they will hope to have them all there in the coming days, a total of about 6000 troops they hope to get in. But before they can get those troops in as Kylee just said they are now in the middle of trying to clear the airfield, get those Afghans back under some semblance of essentially crowd control.

They can't let them be on the airfield. It's dangerous for them. It's dangerous for everybody the way ahead now trying to get those flights out resumed trying to get troops in John.

KING: Barbara Starr, Kylie Atwood and Kaitlan Collins I appreciate the live reporting from all three of you. We know you'll stay on top of the developments in the days and hours ahead. Ahead for us more on the television takeover in Afghanistan including this question how did it all escalate so fast?



KING: The fall of Kabul to the Taliban is something President Biden said would not happen. And as the chaos played out over the weekend, there were split-screen images certain to make any president cringe on the right, a scene over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and on the left fall of Saigon 46 years ago. Just a month ago the president scoffed at any such comparison.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam with some people feeling?

BIDEN: We're not - watching over zero when they're not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in - of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.