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Pentagon: Kabul Airport Secure, Evacuations Underway; Women of Afghanistan Fear Oppression Under Taliban Rule; U.S. Scrambles to Evacuate Thousands of Americans, Afghans; Biden Defiant: "I Do Not Regret My Decision"; CNN: White House to Recommend Booster Shot 8 Months after Vaccination. Aired 12-12.30p ET

Aired August 17, 2021 - 12:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington.

A giant change coming in the COVID playbook, the Biden medical team wants most Americans to get a booster shot eight months from the day you were fully vaccinated. Plus, the Pentagon trying to speed up evacuations for Americans still in Afghanistan.


Many Afghans want to flee too, fearful the Taliban promise of tolerance will evaporate the moment cameras click off. And a Biden competency crisis the president says he made the right call to end the war and that the bucks stuff is with him on the messy exit, yet in the next breath, he assigns blame to Donald Trump and to the Afghans.

We begin the hour with a very important Pentagon update on the urgent effort now to get as many as 10,000 Americans out of Afghanistan, ASAP. Kabul's airport is back open and military evacuation flights are up and running.

Overnight, the United States ferried out 165 more Americans and brought in 1000 more troops. Officials now plan to ramp up military aircraft departures to one per hour, and attempt to airlift 5 to 9000 passengers out per day. And the Pentagon revealing at a briefing a short time ago, there are regular communications with the Taliban.


JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Our commanders at the airport are in communication with Taliban commanders on the ground outside the airport. And there have been discussions there is communication between them and us. And I would just let the results speak for themselves. I'm not going to get into the details of how those discussions are progressing.


KING: Let's get straight to CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon. Barbara, what else did we learn? What are the big headlines out of this important briefing?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, it is remarkable enough that the U.S. military on the ground is talking to the Taliban. Because job number one right now is to keep that airport secure, not see the dire scenes that the world saw yesterday of thousands of Afghans, rushing aircraft rushing the airfield, it is much calmer today.

And that is why they believe they can make progress in getting Americans out. The estimate is 5 to 10,000 Americans still in Afghanistan, many in Kabul, but it could even be more than that, because they're not at all certain they have a firm handle on Americans out in various places in the country.

Now another thousand troops having landed and it is a lot of troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. In fact, that elite divisions' command will now take control of the airport mission that the U.S. military has. The 82nd Airborne Commander will be on the ground, he will take control. This is something that 82nd of course, does in combat in wartime take control of airfields.

It is basically the same task. But of course, this is an airport full of civilians, full of people fleeing for their lives. They will take control and try and keep order. Right now the hope is that they can get those 5 to 7000 people out every day, if they can establish that average.

If they can bring in enough aircraft, fill them up with people turn around and send them out. The hope is that this entire still gets done by the end of the month. That is the promise the U.S. has made the Taliban obviously watching very carefully, not yet making any moves against the U.S. that is a very important data point right now.

KING: Very important to say the least and we'll see if it continues. Barbara Starr I appreciate the live update from the Pentagon. Another pressing question this morning what about Afghans desperate to leave or those who want to know simply, is it safe to go outside?

You can see the pictures right here Taliban fighters now lined the streets of Kabul. They are in full control across the country. And with the Taliban Ascension old fears of brutal rule, especially for women have roared back to life. CNN's Clarissa Ward was on cobbled streets this morning.


CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on camera): The Taliban told all people who work for the government that they can go back to their jobs today. We saw policemen directing traffic on the streets. We're in a busy market.

You know, not all the stores are open, but certainly a good amount of them. I cannot see a single woman on the streets and it's just part of reality. You're going to see far fewer women on the streets because women are frightened and they can't trust the guarantees or the assurances that they've been given by the Taliban because they know differently from history. They know differently from rural areas where the Taliban is in control.


KING: Today, the Taliban promised amnesty to government workers and say they will not victimize women. But for the thousands, who helped the Americans or international aid groups over the past 20 years there is little appetite to stick around and find out if the Taliban are telling the truth.

This is a legacy image now of that fear. Take a look. 600 plus Afghans shoulder to shoulder in the belly of a giant American military plane those Afghans enroot to safety. Let's bring in our CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

Christiane are you here the update from the Pentagon? They're trying to get Americans out. You watch what is happening. And you listen to the Taliban, a briefing today in which they say you can have humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan. That's fine.

We will not victimize women. You had a very important interview yesterday with a spokesman for the Taliban who was trying to say don't think about how we behaved 20 years ago this is a new Taliban. Let's listen.


SUHAIL SHAHEEN, TALIBAN SPOKESPERSON: They should not be terrified or disparate.


SHAHEEN: Our guarantees our optional statements ensuring that there will be no danger to their property owner and life. All the people they lead their normal life. The schools are open, the offices are open and the businessmen do their trade and business--


KING: It is a giant question and challenge of the moment. What do we believe this more moderate talk from the Taliban today? Or what history has taught us?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Well John, honestly, we just have to wait and see. This is really one of those situations where we just need to see what unfolds on the ground. Clearly, it is between those two extremes.

And what the Taliban is trying to do and has been enacting since it took Kabul is essentially a charm offensive, whether it was our Suhail Shaheen, the Spokesman in Doha, or whether it was the Spokesman in Kabul today, they are trying to convince the United States and the rest of the world.

That they are different, that they want international legitimacy, that they will abide by all these international norms, including respect for women's rights, protecting women protecting even, you know, the Afghans who worked with the Afghan forces against them, or indeed, with the internationals in terms of trying to rebuild a new Afghanistan.

And not just as interpreters or else with American diplomats or military but inside Afghanistan itself a school principals and the like trying to bring progress to Afghan people, those are the ones who are afraid.

But of course, within everything the Taliban has said it's always within the framework of Islamic Sharia law, and that we just don't know how they are going to interpret it as a governing principle. We know what they mean, we know that they've said again today that we are still a religious entity, but we are they said matured and changed since 2001.

And we want to have international relations. I think it's not surprising that the United States, diplomats and military in the airport perimeter are speaking with the Taliban about their operations. Remember, the United States actually only engaged with the Taliban around the peace talks in Doha, Qatar.

So they have several months, if not more than a year or so of engaging with the Taliban. So this is not new. It's something that's been underway for a while. And it's also something that contributed to the complete despair and discouragement and collapse of the Afghan forces.

Because U.S. under the Trump Administration, in fact, cut out the Afghan government in its initial peace talks and gave the Taliban a deadline and a non-conditions based promise of withdraw.

KING: So help - the test of today to the point about well, is this a new Taliban? Are they more moderate? Will they treat women more kindly, more gracefully? We will know those answers in weeks and months, and maybe even longer than that as this plays out.

But in the here and now and immediate challenges to the people you just mentioned, if you're an Afghan who worked with the United States, or you worked with some international aid group or some international education group, and you want to get out, especially if you're an African woman, when will we know?

How will we know? Will the Taliban for example, allow corridors of safety if the United States or the UK or anyone wanted to go from Kabul to some other much more remote area of the country? Find people put them on a bus, bring them to Kabul and fly them out? Will the Taliban guarantee their safety? How will we know if that will play out? Or is that a pipe dream?

AMANPOUR: Do you know? That's a very good question because many people are going to fall through the cracks. The British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was practically in tears yesterday when he actually said, "Many will not come back".

In other words, those to whom they've made promises of safety and evacuation will not receive that safety and evacuation. This is something that even international diplomats and ministers have to confront. It is the big ethical and moral dilemma of this whole failure.

This whole euphemistically put messy withdrawal of the United States forces and NATO to allow the Taliban and unimpeded walk in to take control. But this will be the defining condition of that American withdraw if they can protect all those people who want protection and get them out that will at least be something because they have made promises to them.

And what we're seeing on the other hand, is a massively slow handling of the Special Immigrant Visas, the SIV's all over the place, whether in the United States, whether in Britain, and much is owed these Afghans who put their lives at risk for 20 years to help a project conducted by the United States, Britain and other forces.

So as you say, clearly, the U.S. could be negotiating safe passage corridors, putting people who want to leave and who need to leave on transport to get them out. It's very unlikely that the U.S. or others will go into the - handpick them and bring them but to enable them to get to the Kabul airport which they now control with, apparently according to the president 6000 forces that is a huge force to control the Afghan airport and it could be put to very good use.


AMANPOUR: And I think that will be a test of whether this withdrawal maintains at least a shred of honor to those to whom promises were made, and to those who put their lives at risk for U.S.

KING: At least a shred of honor. Well put, well put Christiane Amanpour grateful for the reporting and the insights at the top of the hour. We'll stay in touch as this story unfolds. Up next for us, follow up on that very point, questions of credibility and competence. President Biden stands by his decision to leave Afghanistan but even many Biden allies, see a mess, and they see mistakes.



KING: President Biden is defiant at this moment of global testing. He acknowledges things are messy in Afghanistan. And he says it is gut wrenching to see the Taliban so quickly seizing power. But the President says he made the right call to end a war that wound through the Bush, Obama and then Trump Presidencies.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: The buck stops with me. I'm deeply saddened by the facts we now face and I do not regret my decision, but I would rather take all that criticism and pass this decision on to another President of United States yet another one a fifth one because it's the right one.


KING: With me in studio to share their expertise, reporting and insights, Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast" POLITICO's Laura Barron-Lopez and Craig Whitlock of "The Washington Post". He's also the Author of "The Afghanistan Papers: A secret history of the war" due out this month.

Laura, I want to start with you because you're here the president. He says the buck stops with me. But then within another sentence or two, he's blaming the Trump Administration for negotiating the timeline. He's blaming the Afghans for not being willing to fight in the president for essentially running and getting out of the country.

There seems to be in an administration that made it through the first 100 days pretty unified. There's some finger pointing going on right now.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: There is and he also in the remarks made no comments about the Afghan people or also the big question that a lot of Democrats have for him, which is about the execution and how this happened?

He talked about the decision which a lot of Democrats don't have an issue with the decision. A lot of lawmakers say that they stand by him in the decision that he made, but the execution is what they want answers on and that they still aren't really getting answers on.

There is supposed to be a classified briefing next week for Hill lawmakers. But they haven't gotten any of the details about why the administration was so unprepared when they made this decision and why they didn't expect Afghanistan to fall earlier?

KING: And Craig, your reporting, you have access to thousands of pages documents going through the 20 year history are frankly, lies from American political leadership and corruption in Afghanistan. You hear from the Biden Administration, they were surprised by the pace of the Taliban takeover.

They were surprised that Ghani up and left. They were surprised the Afghans didn't fight back. If you look at your reporting and read what you've documented, I'm just going to read a line of it. The capitulation was sped up by a series of secret deals that the Taliban brokered with many Afghan government officials in recent days and weeks. Taliban leaders used a combination of cache threats and promises of leniency to persuade government forces to lay down their arms.

You have access to these documents. And this reporting the President of the United States should know this. Is the surprise yet another lie from American leadership?

CRAIG WHITLOCK, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: It's a good question. We'll have to find out I think the Biden Administration has a lot of tough questions coming their way. And they're struggling to answer them.

But in terms of the speed of the collapse of the Afghan army and police there were signs in open reporting and media reports in recent weeks and months, we'd hear about outposts of Afghan police or soldiers who didn't have any food didn't have any ammunition.

Well, this it shouldn't be that way the U.S. is paying their salaries is supplying them with weapons, ammunition food. We were footing the bill for all this. So that should have been a clear sign that the corruption had gotten so bad in recent months, those Afghan military commanders, generals, who were pocketing all this money.

They knew the end was coming, left their people isolated and vulnerable in the front. So of course those people were going to throw up their arms when the Taliban comes through.

KING: And so I want to read this is from our great White House team this reporting Jackie in the context of what Laura says and what Craig says there. During briefings, the president quizzed his team about how they could have misjudged the time it would take for the Afghan army to collapse according to people familiar with the matter.

He has also voiced dismay at the failure of Ashraf Ghani, the outside Afghan President who fled the country on Sunday to adhere to a path he laid out in the Oval Office meeting in June to prevent the Taliban from taking over major cities.

If all of the clues were in plain sight this is Joe Biden, Former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee eight years as Vice President who ran for President saying, I'm the guy who gets it, I get the world. I know how to manage things. I'm the guy you want as President.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: And that's why this could not only be a humanitarian problem, a crisis of confidence, this could end up being a political problem for Joe Biden.

He did run on bringing competence. He did run on this record, and we're not seeing it yet. It is very early but whether this combined with some of the resurgence of COVID some of the other economic issues in the country this could end up being a problem.

And the Biden White House, the Biden political operation, frankly, had banked on Americans. I mean, everyone knew Afghanistan was going to go badly once that once the U.S. troops lost.


KUCINICH: But that was not a surprise. The pace was the surprise, according to the White House. And so they were, though the polling had been in favor of pulling out of Afghanistan with the American public. But to your point, how it happened?

And congressional hearings that will happen, where these questions will be attempted to answer that will be in the public eye, we'll see how that plays out.

KING: So part of the challenges now they're trying to evacuate Americans. Now they're trying to evacuate Afghans who served with Americans or other Western organizations who feel at risk in an Afghanistan run by the Taliban. I want to listen to Seth Moulton, a Military Veteran, a Democrat in Congress an ally of President Biden, who says, why did the troops leave before you got all the State Department employees out before you got all the Afghans out?


REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MS): If they had planned for this contingency, then they would have gotten our friends and allies out of Afghanistan a long time ago. If they had done that we wouldn't see the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport today. So I don't see how he can make the case that he planned for this contingency. It's clearly catching us by surprise.


KING: How could that have happened in the sense again, if you read the amazing work that you're working on, I'm looking forward to the book to see even more. It's all laid out. It's laid out in the documents that he has access to that his national security team has access to, they have access to things maybe that you even haven't seen yet.

And again, anybody who served in the military who understands this has said this is a flashing light right before your eyes that if you took the contractors out who were supporting the police and the military, if you took the troops out that this was going to happen, that should not be a surprise to anybody.

WHITLOCK: Well get back - it gets back to that old saying it's easier to start a war than it is to end one. I think, in their defense, the Biden Administration was really worried about instituting panic that if they started bringing out large numbers of Afghan interpreters, people would help the United States.

If the Afghan people saw these plane loads of people who would help the Americans leaving the country that really would have started a real panic. And they were worried that that would undermine what was left with the Afghan government if they were taking all these allies out who had supported America.

What does that say? They're essentially saying we think this is going to collapse fast. So they were between a rock and a hard place. But there was just there were multiple failures here. There was a foreign policy failure to judge what was happening with the Afghan government.

There was a planning failure to be ready for this kind of moment. There was a military operational failure to have the airport secure to have the Embassy people ready to come out if necessary. And this all came together in the last week and it just doesn't look good.

KING: It doesn't look good to say the least. We will see if in time now that they have the airport secured? We'll see if they can make it better from here? But certainly at this point, it does not look good. That's an understatement.

Up next for us, check your vaccine card the government is poised to recommend a COVID booster shot and your turn would come this fall.



KING: The Biden Administration is changing the vaccine playbook as it becomes clear this Delta COVID surge will be with us well into the fall. The new twist will be a third shot a vaccine booster once the FDA reviews the data and signs off.

Eight months after becoming fully vaccinated is the timeline for getting a booster shot. Let's look at this in this context. Remember nursing home residents, health care workers first responders, they were at the front of the line of people getting fully vaccinated back here late February and into March.

So therefore think about it do the eight months forward from here they could be eligible for a booster as early as next month. You see the biggest spike in vaccinations here. April heading into May right there so December and January that would be eight months out for millions, literally millions of Americans for a third shot.

With us to share her insights and expertise Dr. Megan Ranney, Professor of Emergency Medicine and Associate Dean of Public Health at Brown University Dr. Ranney, great to see you. Why is it that the data shows that your vaccine wanes in efficacy over time? Or is it that the Delta COVID surge as I'm thinking get more protection, little both?

DR. MEGAN RANNEY, PROFESSOR OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE, BROWN UNIVERSITY: It's really a little bit of both in John. Let me be clear that the data that the Biden Administration is making these recommendations off of is still very preliminary. And these booster shots have not yet received FDA approval for anyone except for the immunosuppressed.

The folks that we heard the news about last week, people who are on chemo or on high dose steroids or have immunosuppressive disorders. So this is proactive, anticipating that more data is in the works. Showing that it is both that the vaccines' effectiveness seems to be waning a little bit over time. And that this Delta variant is worse.

But let me be clear, even more important than a booster is getting those shots in the first place. If you have those first two shots, you are still really well protected even against Delta. The boosters just an add-on it is the icing on the cake.

KING: And it's a critical point because on the far right of this graphic here you see where we are today the administration most governors, not all but most governors encouraging people please if you haven't got a vaccine. 291,000 people are getting fully vaccinated on seven day average right now that's lagging that number needs to be boosted in the case.

And this is why as I say - as we continue the conversation 99 percent of the country Dr. Ranney now lives in a community with either high or substantial COVID transmission. So the CDC says, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should mask up indoors, or at least in most situations. If you look at the case count right now, that's what scares me is just how steep that hill is?