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Evacuations Continue after 13 U.S. Service Members Killed; Philadelphia Mans' Wife and Five Children Evacuate Afghanistan after a Harrowing Journey; Biden Vows Revenge for 13 Troops Killed, We Will Hunt You Down. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired August 27, 2021 - 07:00   ET





ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: We don't know if the NRA is going to fight Dr. Walensky on her initiatives. That group is having their own legal and financial issues. It's unclear if they have the strength to muster much of a fight.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN NEW DAY: That was really interesting discussion and time spent with the CDC director, who obviously dealing with a lot on her plate right now.

COHEN: For sure.

BERMAN: Elizabeth Cohen, thanks so much.

COHEN: Thanks.

BERMAN: New Day continues right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN NEW DAY: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Friday, August 27th. I'm Brianna Keilar alongside John Berman.

And the danger level is rising in the final days of the evacuation and withdrawal from Afghanistan. This morning, the United States is pressing on with evacuations. We just learned that U.S. and coalition forces evacuated 12,500 people from Afghanistan here in the last 24 hours. That is despite twin suicide bomb attacks at the Kabul airport.

President Biden and his top military commanders are promising to do everything possible to get every American out.

Overnight, the death toll among U.S. service members rose to 13. More than 90 Afghans were also killed in these airport bombings. 150 more were wounded.

BERMAN: The president is vowing to hunt down and punish those responsible. This morning, we're pressing for answers on what that might mean and what that might look like.

This morning, large crowds gathered once again outside the airport in Kabul, even after the attacks. And the head of U.S. central command warns that new threats from ISIS-K could be imminent. This time, they could involve rocket attacks or vehicle-borne suicide bombs.

CNN's Clarissa Ward has been reporting from inside Kabul. Of course, she joins us live from Qatar. Clarissa, the news at 12,500 people got out even with the attacks, that is new. And the crowds once again gathered hoping to get out, even today.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's pretty extraordinary, John. And I think it speaks to the desperation of these people who are still lining up to get out of the country. But there is one key difference today. CNN has been in touch with someone who has been to the airport and shared some video with us. And the Taliban perimeter that had been guarding the outside of the airport has moved quite a bit forward, meaning that there is now a considerable amount more depth between the Taliban, who provide that first line of defense, and U.S. servicemen.

And one would only assume or hope as well that they are now making sure to pat everybody down because our experience when we went through those checkpoints and we're reporting outside of the airport was that the Taliban was primarily concerned, honestly, with looking at people's documentation rather than trying to make sure they didn't have any weaponry on them. All of this emerging as we learn more about what exactly happened yesterday.


WARD (voice over): A devastating scene of pure horror. Chaos and carnage outside Kabul airport after two suicide bombings tore through the crowds just outside an airport gate. The attack killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 90 Afghans, and leaving over 150 wounded.

Video capturing moments after the blast, with countless lifeless bodies seen strewn across the ground. President Biden promising retribution.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.

WARD: ISIS-K claiming responsibility without providing any evidence. The Pentagon calling additional attacks, quote, imminent and saying they could range from rockets to vehicle-borne or walk-in suicide bombings.

GEN. KENNETH F. MCKENZIE, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: The threat from ISIS is extremely real. We believe it's their desire to continue those attacks and we expect those attacks to continue.

WARD: President Biden already planning a strike against the terror group, though what that looks like is still unknown. BIDEN: I've also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time at the place we choose in the moment of our choosing.

WARD: Attacks were carried out by two suicide bombers near Abbey Gate at the Kabul airport. One bombing was right outside the gate, the other at the nearby hotel. That particular gate was where thousands of Afghans had crowded trying to enter the airport.

One congressman who made a secret trip to Afghanistan described the scene outside Abbey Gate days prior to the attack.


REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): Marines out there sifting through this literal sea of humanity, trying to pluck out our allies who trusted us to get them out of this mess with their families. The marines had to go forward of our lines, out yards from the Taliban with their horse whips to find our people and to give them a ticket to freedom.

WARD: The deadline to leave the country is fast approaching, but the U.S. vowing to complete its evacuation mission in Afghanistan despite the continued terror threats. Still, in the aftermath, many Afghans remain desperate to board one of the final flights out of the country.


WARD (on camera): This second blast took place outside the Baron Hotel. We had also visited that place on our way out of Afghanistan. This was essentially the British standing area processing point for their evacuation operation. They have now announced today that that evacuation operation is finished, completed and closed.

But they did stress, Brianna and John, that this is not as a result of this horrific bombing but this was in line with their previous schedule. And as you mentioned before, those U.S. evacuations are continuing. They've tried to mitigate the risk by having that Taliban perimeter pulled back. But as one CENTCOM spokesperson put it, every time a Marine or a soldier has to search somebody, they get within breathing distance of that person. That, of course, puts them in a very vulnerable position at high risk in a very volatile situation. John, Brianna?

BERMAN: Of course, it does, Clarissa. And, again, and Seth Moulton referred to this also, just the selfless act and the countless selfless acts that are being committed by U.S. service members there are now at the airport to try to get people in. 13 U.S. service members lost their lives helping, trying to help save lives and change lives. And that cannot be lost this morning. I appreciate your reporting. Thank you very much.

Joining me now Nabin Bulos. He is the Middle East Bureau Chief of The Los Angeles Times. He is on the ground in Afghanistan.

Nabin, it's John Berman. Can you hear me? MARCUS YAM, LOS ANGELES TIMES (voice over): Hi, how are you? I'm Nabin's co-worker, Marcus Yam.

BERMAN: One more time?

YAM (voice over): It's Marcus who is also on the ground with Nabin Bulos.

BERMAN: Okay, Marcus. It's John Berman with New Day on CNN. We appreciate you being with us this morning.

Marcus, give us a sense that the impact of these terror attacks yesterday, how does it feel today given what happened?

YAM (voice over): You know, it's a mixed reaction. I mean, a lot of us have just basically stayed away from the airport, but there have been reports that a lot more Afghans have been trying to get to the airport and trying to make their way out despite the fact that there are terror threats and the fact that what had happened yesterday didn't deter people from going back.

And the fact that I think everybody knows that these evacuations are all winding down makes them even more desperate and dire on the ground.

BERMAN: Even though they saw what happened, they know that time is running out, so they're still going to the airport there.

YAM (voice over): Yes.

BERMAN: It is believed that ISIS-K carried out this attack. What is the view inside Kabul of this organization from the people there? What is their overall presence insofar as you can tell?

YAM (voice over): I mean, the few people I talked to about this are pretty much talking to me in private and also in background because nobody wants to put themselves out there talking ill about either ISIS-K or even the Taliban for that matter in fear of being targeted. But I think nobody -- everybody knows nobody likes the ISIS-K out here. They've been claiming responsibility to a lot, a lot of attacks, especially against like the Shiite minority communities here in the past.

So, they are a smaller group but they're very lethal and very effective in their attacks.

BERMAN: The United States obviously has to depend on the Taliban to a certain extent now for security at the airport and depend on the good graces of the Taliban going forward to get out whoever might be left behind.


Any signs today of increased security from the Taliban itself? Has the Taliban changed the way it does things? YAM (voice over): I mean, definitely there's an increase in presence of fighters on the ground. The Taliban had brought in all outside of Kabul into the city to beef up security. And the attack yesterday, basically, it was at a location where the Taliban had control, access control basically. They were controlling access to crowd (INAUDIBLE) Abbey Gate and they were basically, you know, just letting people in and not really checking anybody for -- checking their bags or anything.

So, in some sense, it was an unfortunate event that didn't have to happen yesterday. The security was beefed up.

BERMAN: I was speaking to our reporter, Kylie Atwood, at the State Department, Marcus. If you do the numbers based on what the administration claims are the number of Americans left and wanting to get out and the number of Americans who left over the last 24 hours, there's a sense that probably in the hundreds, maybe the low hundreds at this point although it's hard to exactly pinpoint that. Have you spoken to anyone? Do you see Americans still there wanting to get out at this point?

YAM (voice over): Not that I have seen. I mean, I'm pretty isolated from Americans. I'm on the ground. I'm an American myself. But I pretty much -- I'm moving, eating and breathing with the locals. I've been trying to like embed myself into the story here and then not be around too many foreigners basically.

BERMAN: Well, Marcus Yam, please stay safe. We wish you the best. We're so glad that you could come on with us and give us a sense of what you're seeing there. Thank you.

YAM (voice over): Thank you.

KEILAR: All right. Let's talk about this now with CNN Counterterrorism Analyst and former CIA Counterterrorism Official Phil Mudd as well as CNN Military Analyst and former member of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, Cedric Leighton.

First off, Colonel and Phil, I want to listen to what President Biden is now promising in response to these attacks. Here is what he said.


BIDEN: To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this, we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.


KEILAR: Okay. What does that look like, do you think? What will that look like?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Brianna, I would say we're talking a classic counterterrorism operation in this case. Now, it could be a drone strike. It could be a commando raid. It could be any number of things. There are a lot of options the president has in these cases but all of this depends on intelligence and it has to be precise intelligence in order to get to that last mile of really what are we doing here and what -- is this leadership? Is this another type of target? So it depends on the targets that they have and it depends also on how easy it is for us to find them? It may take a while to do this.

KEILAR: And it would -- what we've heard from so many people is that would require human intelligence, right? People on the ground who say, this is where ISIS-K is. The U.S. doesn't really have that, Phil. But at the same time, Americans do not want to be in Afghanistan. If anything, these attacks we saw yesterday just reinforced that they do not want U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Don't sell them short. If you look at the intelligence picture here, the easy way to look at it if you're outside the businesses, we get a piece of spectacular intelligence that says, ISIS-K is over there, hit them with a drone strike. That's not how this game works. On the human intelligence side, it's not necessarily Americans.

We have relationships with commanders that go back to the Soviet times when I was working this problem in the early '90s. Those relationships will endure after the Taliban is there because here is a secret, those commanders are the same people who opposed the Taliban now. You go in. You don't need ISIS intelligence. To them, you might say, we're the foreigners. We're the people who speak differently, somebody from Jordan, somebody from Saudi Arabia.

So, snippets like that, snippets from the technical side, somebody that you're up on, on a wire says, I heard Joe did this. The people from Joe's team did this. It's a collage of stuff that might come over 6 to 12 months. It is not a quick snapshot where somebody comes in with a magic piece of intelligence. It will happen though. It will happen.

KEILAR: Do you think -- you mentioned a timeline of several months.

MUDD: Yes.

KEILAR: I mean, do you think, really, the president wants to wait that long?

LIEGHTON: Well, I think, politically, he probably doesn't. But as Phil said, this is not a quick fix kind of thing. Remember how long it took to get bin Laden? There so many factors in this and it is a collage. It is putting all these different pieces together, the technical piece, the over-the-horizon piece that President Biden talks about.


He's talking about both weapons and intelligence. All of that makes a big difference. And those are the kinds of things that need to come together in order to do this right and we have to do this right.

BERMAN: Phil, obviously, the U.S. military presence will go to zero basically in the next several days. So, how would that affect the ability for this kind of strike?

MUDD: Boy, that is the right question. The intel is going to be very difficult. I think it will come together. But think of two different scenarios, John. Scenario one, the scenario you would have had, let's say, 60, 90 days ago, you have in the theater a drone capability, that drone capability is armed. You also obviously have U.S. military and airborne power on the ground in Afghanistan, maybe in neighboring countries, now, your standoff off an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Peninsula, maybe if you're lucky, some presence in Central Asia.

So the intelligence, the changes the intelligence not only has to be good, like intelligence you might have acquired 60 days ago. The intelligence has to be good that it's durable enough for you to get on target in six, eight hours. What it means is the time to get on target is going to be longer. So, the difficulty in hitting that target is going to be higher, John.

BERMAN: Can I ask one more question, Phil? I can't remember a time, and maybe I'm wrong on this, where there were this type of specific warning going out to people. We think there is going to be an attack at this gate. Leave right now. There is the imminent threat of an attack right here and then a few hours later there was an attack right there. So, people are asking, if they knew it was coming like that, could more have been done to prevent it?

MUDD: I mean, I think the first question is whether you have a conversation with the Taliban. Remember what I just said, a conversation with the Taliban about how they improve security around the perimeter. These people are not professional security managers. So I don't know how well that conversation would have gone, whether they would have listened, how you would have interacted with them.

On this question you ask, John, about specificity of intelligence, let me tell you how this works. We mentioned human intelligence. We mentioned technical intelligence. One of the kinds of angles that works here is you find a good wire, that is you're listening to ISIS-K people who are on the periphery of the organization, you know they're ISIS-K. May not be core operators. One of them says, the guys are getting ready for an event at Kabul airport.

That doesn't mean you know who's going to do it, when it's going to happen, where it's going to happen, but the quality of the intelligence, the fact that you're up on somebody on the periphery of ISIS-K means you have to put out a specific warning. There's a big difference in my world between being right of the center of an operation and being on the periphery but still having stuff that's good enough to say, get out, we're in trouble.

LEIGHTON: And, John, there's another things here, and Phil is kind of alluding to it. Think how much more capable our intelligence actually is compared to what it used to be. That's, I think, a real key thing. When you look at what happened, say, with Pablo Escobar and getting him and then you look at what happened with bin Laden and now you look at some of the other cases, we're far better at it than we used to be, but, you know, it's obviously still not a precise science. KEILAR: Colonel, Phil, thank you so much to both of you for your insights. Look, there's still a threat, right? There's still a threat at the airport. There's no substitute for Americans screening people coming into the airport. So this conversation will continue, guys. Thank you.

LEIGHTON: You bet.

KEILAR: We want to update you on a story we brought to you Wednesday with some good news. You may recall that we interviewed an American green card holder who has lived in Philadelphia with his family since 2019 when they left Afghanistan. We had obscured his identity here for his security and for the safety of his family.

He had worked for five years in Kabul for the U.S. embassy as a locally employed staff member, which is a job obviously that put his family at considerable risk. His wife and five children ages 4 to 13 got stuck in Afghanistan while making one last trip to see family. They rightfully anticipated they would not be able to after the drawdown of U.S. troops but they were scheduled to return to U.S. in September. And the unexpectedly quick fall of Kabul left them stranded. They were on a flight out of Hamid Karzai International Airport yesterday, which was facilitated by the U.S. military.

The hard part, getting this family of American residents to the airport, Philadelphia residents. It's not a success story of the U.S. government. It is a success story of a patch work of volunteer networks who are helping Afghans navigate Taliban checkpoints, who are providing translation services and connecting them with entry options to into the airport. This woman and her children made an initially unsuccessful attempt to go to the airport this week hoping that their green cards would get them in. They didn't. Instead, their dad told me his kids witnessed people being shot, his four-year-old in particular struggling with what they saw.


Still, the family buddied up with an American here in the U.S., made another attempt to get to the airport. And they were turned away by the Taliban, green card holders here turned away. They were exhausted. But, again, urged by Americans who knew the window for escape was narrowing, they attempted another exit yesterday and through their own ingenuity, pushing through the odds, pushing through their fatigue with the guidance of volunteers with connections on the ground in Kabul, they got through. They actually entered the airport just moments before the bombings yesterday and dad tells us they are safe. He is awaiting their arrival back home here, their home, in the United States.

And up next, we will speak with a Democratic congressman and Afghanistan war veteran who supports President Biden's exit strategy as the nation is mourning the loss of 13 service members, flags at the White House at half-staffed.

BERMAN: Coming forward and depending his actions, what the Capitol Police officer who shot Ashli Babbitt is saying about the attacks against him and what he would do if asked to protect former President Trump.



BERMAN: President Joe Biden in the aftermath of the deadly terror attack at the airport in Kabul, vowing to continue the evacuation mission and look for retribution for the deaths of at least 13 U.S. service members. Listen.


BIDEN: We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation. I've also ordered my commander to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time at the place we choose in the moment of our choosing.


BERMAN: Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts. He is a Marine Corps veteran of the Afghan war. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.

It strikes me so much of the U.S. Victims were Marines, or Marines doing their jobs trying to save lives. How does their death -- how did that hit you?

REP. JAKE AUCHINCLOSS (D-MA): The war in Afghanistan is going to end as it began, bringing terrorists to justice. The architects of this atrocity need to know that the United States, whether it takes ten days or ten years, is going to find them and kill them. And the Biden administration, must as the president said they were, must sustain an over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability, so that attacks like this do not hit the U.S. homeland in the years to come.

BERMAN: Okay. They hit U.S. interests yesterday. 13 U.S. service members are dead. They clearly have the capability to do that now and there's every reason to believe their capability will grow in the coming days. So, how do you address this rising terror threat in Afghanistan at the same time as you're removing U.S. assets?

AUCHINCLOSS: There's a significant chasm between the ability to launch a suicide terrorist attack at a local asset in Afghanistan versus striking the U.S. homeland two oceans away. So, we should not just presume that ISIS-K immediately has those capabilities. But as I said, the United States needs to maintain an over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability to deprive them of a base of operations in Afghanistan and to bring to justice the architects of this attack and to prevent future attacks.

That's going to look like a collage of intelligence capabilities, of surgical kinetic (ph) capabilities, the insertion and extraction of special operations teams, and diplomacy. The United States has significant leverage still over the Taliban, 90 percent of their reserves are in U.S. banks. 75 percent of their government funding comes from international donors. They don't know how to operate an international airport. So, although we, of course, would have more leverage over the Taliban if we remained a troop presence in Afghanistan, given that that's not an advisable option, we need to use our diplomatic and economic leverage to make them a counterterrorism balance.

BERMAN: So, you still say it's not an advisable option. We had Congressman Michael Waltz on earlier and there are others who say the United States should go in and retake Bagram. What's your answer to that?

AUCHINCLOSS: U.S. troopers right now are heroes. They're pulling people to freedom at HKIA Airport. Now that evacuations are substantially advanced, we should transition that program to one that uses diplomatic channels to get remaining Afghan allies out after August 31st. We're going to be able to get all Americans who want to leave out before August 31st.

The question of Bagram Air Base in particular is one that troubles me too. And it's why I've called for a thorough after action review both by the administration as well as congressional oversight, not just of the withdrawal but of the entire conduct of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. We need to understand and declassify the decision-making around national security and we need to know whether the transition out of Bagram Air Base was made in haste and what impact that has on our counterterrorism posture.

BERMAN: And that is important. It's also in the past. I was asking specifically you're opposed to any efforts to maybe go back and retake Bagram at this point?

AUCHINCLOSS: To be clear, I'm opposed to any sustained counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, nation building, efforts to combat the Taliban. What I am very much in support of and always have been is a counterterrorism posture. I think it's important to differentiate between the two. Counterinsurgency is a nation building exercise, like you've seen in Colombia, for example. It took 50 years.


Counterterrorism is about neutralizing those with the capability to strike the U.S. Homeland.

The United States retains the prerogative for counterterrorism operations everywhere in the world.