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Biden Sticks to Deadline for Afghanistan Exit; House Passes $3.5 Trillion Budget Resolution. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired August 25, 2021 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman alongside Brianna Keilar on this NEW DAY.


The final countdown in Afghanistan begins. What the U.S. needs to do in six days before the deadline to get out of the country.

Plus, the secret trip to Kabul by two U.S. congressmen. One official calls it an unhelpful distraction.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR; And President Biden briefed on the intelligence community report on the origin of COVID. So what is the conclusion?

And the story behind the delay on the vice president's trip, the potential case of a mystery illness that grounded Kamala Harris for hours.

BERMAN: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Wednesday, August 25.

Events are moving at a breath-taking pace in Afghanistan. We're waiting for word in the next few minutes on just how many people have been evacuated over the last 24 hours. That number all the more urgent because of the president's decision not to extend the August 31st deadline to keep U.S. troops at the airport in Kabul.

So who is getting out? Who is being left behind? These are such important questions to which there have been incomplete answers. We don't have solid numbers for how many Americans are left in Afghanistan. That might change later today with an expected announcement from Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

What we do know is that President Biden says more than 70,000 people have been evacuated in the past ten days. That is a stunning figure. But, a senior administration official tells CNN that a lot of deserving Afghans will be left behind.

KEILAR: And overnight, a source told CNN that the Taliban appears to be letting some people pass through checkpoints despite their claim that no more Afghan civilians will be allowed to leave the country.

In the meantime, two U.S. congressmen, both veterans who have been leading the charge in trying to get Afghan civilians who helped the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, are now facing criticism for making an unannounced visit to Kabul to see the evacuation effort for themselves.

We begin now with CNN's Sam Kiley at the Kabul Airport, where an estimated 1,000 people remain this morning.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Day and night aircraft take flight from the Kabul airport, one departing on average every 45 minutes. And every second here is critical, as time to complete the evacuation effort begins to run out.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM "HANK" TAYLOR, JOINT STAFF DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR REGIONAL OPERATIONS: We're able to achieve this level of increased departures because of U.S. military personnel and our partners work around the clock, to conduct this highly important mission.

KILEY: The Taliban banning Afghans from boarding evacuation flights, meaning thousands of people, including those who worked for the U.S. And its allies over the past 20 years, will inevitably be unable to leave. The first U.S. troops have already begun to pull out. Early stages of the American withdrawal.

ADM. JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Roughly speaking, you need at least several days to get the amount of forces and equipment that we have at the airport.

KILEY: The Taliban warns again that the United States must be out by the end of the month. And President Biden says it's on track to meet that deadline.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The sooner we can finish the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.

KILEY: Potential risks Biden says he's not willing to take, fearing possible terrorist attacks from groups like ISIS-K and retaliation from the Taliban.

BIDEN: The completion by August 31st depends on the Taliban continuing to cooperate. In addition, I've asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable, should that become necessary.

KILEY: As evacuees continue to board planes, it's immediately clear that many Afghans may not make it out.

(on camera): There's no doubting the success of the second biggest air lift in the history of mankind. Yes, there are thousands still to get on these planes. There are many people stuck in Kabul, but for most of these people, this is a moment of celebration in terms of their freedom but also bittersweet because of what they're leaving behind.

(voice-over): Posa (ph) is leaving, but her brother Haida (ph), who has a visa for the U.S. is trapped outside the airport. Marines try to connect them, but she can no longer wait. It's her turn to board a plane with her younger sisters. A journey to a new life with no idea whether her brother will be part of it.

KILEY (on camera): Now John and Brianna, the other issue here is that it's not clear now whether or not even American citizens are able to get to the airport, because the numbers of people arriving here at Kabul International Airport are way down, and there's concerns some flights might even be leaving empty.


KEILAR: All right. Sam Kylie with that report for us from Kabul. And Sam is joining us now on the phone.

Sam, just give us a sense -- put this into context, where are we? The deadline is August 31, but we're starting to see things close up there at the Kabul airport, it seems.

KILEY (via phone): Well, closing up, I think, would be a little bit premature in the sense that the airport is still running at full capacity.

But you're right, absolutely, that a number of U.S. troops have begun the early stages of their withdrawal. That would be entirely necessary. The elements that weren't absolutely essential are being sent out, if one could have anybody who's not essential in an operation of this size.

British forces are also beginning to wind down. And there is also clearly not quite a shortage but there is a very seriously dwindling number of Afghans, certainly, making it to the airport and needing evacuation, quite probably because the Taliban put road blocks in around the city. It's not clear whether or not American citizens and other international workers who want to get evacuated can do so.

But certainly, CNN has been in touch with some Afghan nationals who worked with the United States for many years who are in a group hiding out in town and very, very frightened. They are unable to get through Taliban checkpoints to escape, even though they say they have the correct paperwork for evacuation to the United States.

So this is a very fraught and tragic time for those who are being left behind, and it will soon transition into a military operation of withdrawal. There's probably -- I'm guessing at this -- but 24, 36, 48 hours left for serious evacuations to be conducted before the military has to look after their own and start withdrawing.

And that, of course is the point at which they're very much more vulnerable to attack, particularly from ISIS-K, which we know from the Taliban has already been carrying out reconnaissance around Kabul city. They arrested four operatives two days ago doing just that, filming locations for possible attack.

KEILAR: Sam --

BERMAN: Any change in posture from the Taliban since President Biden announced that the U.S. would stick to the August 31st withdrawal date? In other words, has the Taliban allowed any of these SIV applicants and people to get to the airport?

KILEY: No. At the moment it appears not. Some may have been moved out in covert operations, but in terms of the bulk of movement, no, the Taliban announced almost simultaneously with the U.S. president saying that he would be sticking to the deadline to get out on August 31st. They announced this blockage, saying that no more Afghans would be allowed to leave the country or get to the airport, because there is no need to flee the country.

And adding also that they needed those sorts of skills to remain in the country to keep the wheels of the nation turning. That is the sort of official line that is coming out of the Taliban. They've been very hard over on this, and it would appear that the change in posture they've made is to try to seal access routes to the airport to prevent Afghans from leaving.

KEILAR: Sam, is it going to be inevitable that some Americans and some green card holders are -- are left behind? What are you -- what are you thinking? What are you understanding here?

KILEY: I think it's completely inevitable. There will be some who choose to remain, who do not fear the Taliban, who take the Taliban at their word. They're saying that they will not interfere with the international community members of foreign nations and so on.

There are not a lot of people who are extremely fearful of that, but there are people who believe that they need to stay on and continue to operate in their country. But there will inevitably be people who -- we have been in touch with some already. Notably Afghans. I'm not aware of any Americans who are trying to get out that won't get out.

But I think inevitably there will come a cutoff point. That's just a fact of military life. There will become a cutoff -- cutoff point which is virtually impossible to get into the airport safely and to get onto an aircraft safely.

And that will be a point, a sort of sliding point during the American military withdrawal of their own assets. I'm sure that they will do everything they possibly can to help anybody who would make it to the airfield, but the chances of doing that are ever dwindling.

KEILAR: And Sam, two U.S. congressmen visited the airfield yesterday, Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer. One of the things they said is that when they went in, they were hoping to push for an extension of the August 31st deadline.

But after seeing the situation on the ground, they said, Look, even a short extension wouldn't get the job done. Even if they extended two, three weeks, they wouldn't be able to get everyone out.

So what happens? What happens to these people who are left behind? Are they dependent on the good graces of the Taliban to leave on commercial flights or walk over the border?

KILEY: The short answer to that is, yes. They are dependent entirely on that, and the Taliban have also announced in the last 24 hours, somewhat chillingly, that you can't leave the country with any foreign country or significant asset.

In other words, they're already signaling that, if people want to try to flee the country and get out of town, then they will be leaving penniless if they allow them to leave at all.


So I mean, this is speculative. I mean, there will be a period in which things are sufficiently chaotic for people to be able to make their own way, either on commercial flights or out over land. Pakistan, of course, is very used to taking in large numbers of refugees. At peak, they had about four million in the past.

And the borders are porous. But that turns a life of relative security under their previous government into a life of terror and illegal border crossing for refugees.

So it's a very grim alternative that they face. If they can't get to this airport and get out, then their lives are about to get or could get extremely difficult.

But I have to stress the Taliban are very, very keen on trying to remain on good terms with the international community, and the international community has made any kind of future relationship entirely dependent on their behavior towards their citizens in terms of respect for human rights, female education, and so on. So, at least in the medium term, the hope is that perhaps people will be able to make their own way out of the country if they choose to do that.

KEILAR: Sam, America obviously isn't the only country operating flights, evacuating people, but other countries are largely dependent on the U.S. to provide security.

Are you getting the sense there on the ground, you know, what is happening with other countries who have been conducting air lifts?

With the coalition air lift, it's all under the American umbrella, because they're running the airport. That's how these sort of military operations run.

But in parallel to that, Pakistan is already trying to get commercial or semicommercial flights in and certainly keen to try to make sure that there is a smooth transition from American control to Afghan control when the U.S. leaves.

Nobody wants to see this place being attacked or burned or looted. There is some speculation that Turkish troops may stay on in order to help with that process.

The Afghan capability to run an airport has evaporated because the air traffic controllers were among the first to flee on those early flights close to Taliban takeover.

So they need a great help with capacity. But the Qataris, who have been an absolutely vital diplomatic link between the Taliban and the rest of the world through this whole process, have been in high-level talks with the Taliban over the last two or three days.

And no doubt at all that they will be intimately involved in trying to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the airport in the future. They have been running flights in and out of the country for evacuation. They've been working very hard to get journalists and other activists out of the country so that they can protect them from Taliban reprisal.

But they're also -- they know the Taliban very well. They hosted the Taliban political office for many years. They were the main mediators in relations between the Taliban and the U.S. And they have been and will no doubt be, going forward, very intimately involved with trying to keep the airport going.

So the hope is that, once the Americans leave, there may be an opportunity to reopen the airport pretty rapidly, but that will depend on the Taliban's ability to control vast crowds of people who are anticipated may try and swarm in.

KEILAR: Sam, thank you so much for being our eyes and ears there on the ground here as these evacuations continue but with the dwindling number of people getting out, as you mentioned.

I want to bring in CNN military analyst and retired commanding general with U.S. Army Europe and the 7th Army, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. General, just put this moment into context for us. What moment are we at in this evacuation?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it's a great question, Brianna. What I suggest is when we're talking about a NEO operation, a noncombatant evacuation operation, in a contested environment under time constraints, we're normally going to see a bunch of phases.

We've already seen the first phase, which was dysfunction and chaos. We started to see the second phase, which is the flow of people, according to the plan, even though it still has been somewhat up and down in terms of getting the right people into the airport.

Now we're going into a third phase, based on the president's announcement yesterday, where you have to take that re-stat (ph) of who you're going to put on the plane. It's going to be a mad rush to the gates, if you will, for people who know that the end is coming.

So we may see another rush, as we saw the first couple of days, of people trying to get out.

But then you're going to go into the final phase, which is going to be the toughest one. And that's where you have to determine as a commander on the scene who you keep behind in terms of your forces and the consulate officials from the embassy and who you put on planes to get the heck out of there.


So it would be sort of a modulation of those that are working the NEO to get them out, too. You have -- in this case, you also have the dynamic of equipment.

We've seen the CH-47 helicopters, the one with the two big blades, the Black Hawk helicopters that were there, other pieces of equipment on the airfield. The commander on the scene has to make a decision. How much of those do you upload, how many of them you might attempt to fly to places like Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, which are surrounding countries to Afghanistan, because you've got to remember you also have Iran and some other unfriendly -- like Sam just said, Pakistan, which are a little bit unfriendly.

And then you have to make that decision of cutoff. When do you stop taking evacuees? That's the most heart-wrenching phase. And as we've all heard, you know, the numbers are very large. From a numbers perspective, this has been a very successful NEO, but unfortunately, as many of us know, the people that needed to get on the planes haven't been able to get to the airport. So that's going to be heart- wrenching for when the last plane takes off.

And I'll say one more thing, Brianna, and that is we still have the potential based on the Taliban actions of seeing either them completely go away from the gates and cause a mad rush or something happen with ISIS-Khorasan, an attack on the air field or an attack on the people outside the airfield.

And that's the thing that gives me the most concern right now, is the potential enemy activity. Because as always, in any kind of combat operation, the enemy gets a vote; and sometimes we don't calculate that into our equation.

KEILAR: And as we heard Sam Kiley reporting there, the Taliban says it has arrested four ISIS-K operatives who are doing reconnaissance. They were filming the airport, clearly looking for vulnerabilities and possibilities for attack.

HERTLING: Yes, because that would be an embarrassment to both the Taliban and the United States.


HERTLING: That's what the Taliban is concerned about.

KEILAR: What is this -- you're talking about, you know, this is the unknown? What does the end of this look like? It sounds like, and you tell me, it sounds like the U.S. is very dependent on the Taliban to secure the airport. And so then would you just expect to see the U.S. military as it's deciding which equipment or if all the equipment gets out, then pulling in the perimeter of U.S. forces and then just -- just leaving and relying on the Taliban to secure the perimeter?

HERTLING: Yes. I see it exactly that way. And I think. based on what we've heard about in terms of the coordination, we don't know any of the details of this between the U.S. forces and the Taliban leaders. I think that's exactly what we're going to see.

And I think that was certainly part of the diplomatic discussions by Mr. Burns yesterday when he -- when he talked to the Taliban leaders. It is how do we get out without embarrassing the Taliban? I know no one cares about that truthfully, but it also helps them to allow us to get out without more problems with our withdrawal.

You know, the last day of this withdrawal, if it is August the 31st, will be sporty. I guarantee you of that because you're talking about either drawing in the perimeter or just taking off in the middle of the night, or perhaps -- and I'll throw this out there, and I'm not saying this will occur -- but it could be a contested withdrawal, as well.

And what we're talking about there is the potential for conflict, fire fight, you know, whatever you might think may happen. But those are all the things the commander on the scene, having nearly done a NEO once in my career, I know these are the kind of things they're thinking about and also still thinking about how many more deserving people can we get out.

And it's not just the SIV holders and the special evacuees, the P1, P2s, but it's also the family members that we don't have an expectation of the complete numbers. And that could get massive. I think we're seeing that as part of the big addition to the number for -- the number of evacuees we've already allowed to get out of the country.

KEILAR: Let us hope and pray it is not a contested exit, that possibility you described there. General Hertling, thank you.

HERTLING: A pleasure, Brianna. Thank you.

KEILAR: Coming up, a big step forward for President Biden's agenda after Speaker Pelosi struck a deal with moderates to advance his infrastructure deals.

BERMAN: Plus, new details about the intelligence investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

And new polls showing Republicans gaining ground ahead of next year's midterms. We have an inside look at the numbers.




BIDEN: There are differences, strong points of view, they're always welcome. What is important is that we came together to advance our agenda.


BERMAN: President Biden celebrating a bit after House Democrats overcame their differences and approved a budget framework that will pave the way for his sweeping economic agenda.

Actually, it only opens the door for future negotiations on that. It was necessary to get beyond this to even keep on talking.

Let's bring in Kirsten Powers, CNN senior political analyst and "USA Today" columnist.

Kirsten, great to see you this morning. This was hard. I mean, this took some wrangling, and this was supposed to be the easy part. The House had to pass this to begin negotiating on what's going to be in this #3.5 trillion budget plan, which includes all the promises that Joe Biden made during the campaign. I mean, this is the stuff that he promised Democrats he would deliver.

I guess my question is, how hard is it going to be for Democrats to come together and agree on what they want as part of this in the next few weeks?


KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I mean, you have what is being described as sort of a clash between the progressives and the centrists. And there's nothing really particularly surprising about that.

And Nancy Pelosi has, you know, once again managed to negotiate in a way to bring these disparate parties together to at least advance this process forward. And so, you know, I think both sides are positioning, and they're negotiating, and they're saying what they want. The moderates want, you know, infrastructure. That's really where their focus is.

And the progressives want more of a focus on getting this big budget passed that has all these promises that you were just talking about in it. And so I think that everyone is going to be posturing. Everybody is going to be trying to get what they want, playing games of chicken and all of this kind of stuff.

If we're going to look back, you know, if the past is prologue, Nancy Pelosi is usually pretty good at bringing these -- bridging these differences.

And so I think that she has said they're going to, you know, vote on the infrastructure bill by the 27th. They've now unlocked reconciliation so they can start negotiating.

And so, we just have to move the process forward, but I don't find it really concerning or out of the ordinary that you have these different factions in the Democratic Party that have different points of view and, frankly, have different needs in terms of their re-election efforts.

KEILAR: Look, that is -- that is the difficulty of governing, right? You're trying to herd all of these cats, and they don't always all get along.

I do want to ask you, because the House also passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But you know, this is something that would take state elections. We've seen so many states who have passed more restrictive voting measures in the wake of the 2020 election. This would restore federal oversight over places, over states that have historically had issues with restricting voting for people of color, quite frankly.

The thing is, though, Kirsten, where does this go? Where does this go from here, if anywhere?

POWERS: Yes. And well, that's the problem. The -- it's going to almost definitely die in the Senate, because there's no way that they're going to be able to overcome a filibuster. And this is sort of the tragedy of it.

If you look back, basically, what this bill would do is it would just restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court, which is something that used to be unanimously supported. It was something that Republicans and Democrats supported.

When it was up for reauthorization in 2006, no Republican senator opposed it. It was just sort of accepted as law of the land. And this was something that everybody believed was necessary.

Now you have Republicans basically saying we don't need this anymore. We don't need to have pre-clearance from the Justice Department, which is really the key point in these -- in these areas of country where we have seen a lot of discrimination.

And I'm sorry, that's just inaccurate. Because what we have seen is that we probably need it more than ever, because of all of the steps that these take. The pay gap to make it more difficult to vote; and they make it more difficult to vote in a way that disproportionately affects people of color. So that's exactly what this is supposed to address.

And I think Republicans know that. And that's why they're opposing it, is because they actually want to make it more difficult for people of color to vote. Because they -- they don't vote for Republicans, for the most part. And you know, this is -- it's a travesty. I mean, it's an absolute travesty.

BERMAN: And now it moves to the Senate for nothing. Kirsten Powers --

POWERS: Exactly.

BERMAN: -- thank you. Thank you for being with us this morning. Appreciate it. Great to see you.

POWERS: Thank you.

BERMAN: So we learned overnight that President Biden has been briefed on the intelligence community's review into the origin of coronavirus. What does the investigation show? That's next.