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Terrorist Attacks Kill 13 U.S. Service Members; Evacuations of Americans and Afghans from Kabul Airport in Wake of Taliban Takeover of Country; President Biden Vows Retaliation for Terrorist Attacks That Killed U.S. Service Members; Biden Vows Revenge for 13 Troops Killed: "We Will Hunt You Down". Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired August 27, 2021 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And the president is vowing retaliation for this. Top military commanders are on alert for even more potential violence by the Islamic State, which they say could involve rocket attacks or even vehicle borne suicide bombings.
This morning in Washington, flags are flying at half-staff in honor of the 13 fallen service members. CNN's Clarissa Ward reported from inside Kabul last week. She is joining us now from Qatar where many of these evacuees have been headed. Clarissa, tell us the latest.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, it's incredible to see that Afghans are still trying to head to the airport, risking everything to try to get out of the country despite the huge loss of life and the horrifying images that we've seen as a result of yesterday's attack.
We are learning a little bit more. Two suicide bombers essentially targeted two different gates. One, Abbey Gate, which is a major chokehold with thousands of people lining up, pushing to get into the airport. And the other one outside the Baron Hotel.
This is where we were just about a week ago. This is where the British had been using as a standing operation, a place from which they do their processing, their evacuations. They have said now that that evacuation operation is completely finished, but they hasten to add that this is not because of the attack. This was already on schedule, and they have simply finished the evacuations they needed to do.
But to give our viewers a little bit of a better sense of how this happened, just based on our experience, what you had was the Taliban guarding the outer perimeter, and then the next line, essentially, were U.S. forces. And while the Taliban were doing sort of cursory searches, they were primarily focused on trying to see people's documents, trying to ascertain who could pass, who couldn't, keeping Afghans out, trying to prioritize foreign nationals. And as a result, one can presume it's relatively easy to get through
that first line of defense, through those Taliban checkpoints with some weaponry on your person. I know that we went very early in the morning when we left the country, and we just passed one Taliban fighter, and we managed to talk our way through it with our vehicle and get right up to one of those gates near to where these blasts took place.
The other thing you have to keep in mind, as we heard from Cent Com yesterday, is when U.S. forces are searching people as they go into the airport, they have to get so close to them, close enough, as a spokesperson said, to feel their breath, which gives you a sense of the enormously vulnerable position that these U.S. servicemen will have found themselves in, up close and personal with a crush of thousands of people who have basically experienced very little searching up until that point.
And today we are seeing and noticing a difference on the ground. CNN spoke with someone who was at the airport and showed us some video of how things have changed. The Taliban have essentially pulled back that perimeter significantly to try to sort of keep the choking point further away from the U.S., create some depth between U.S. servicemen and between that initial Taliban perimeter. But still, just incredible to see despite what happened yesterday, despite the continued threat from ISIS-K of further attacks, Afghans are still risking life and limb to try and get into this airport. John, Brianna?
KEILAR: That means, look, the risk to them, to the Afghans, and also to U.S. service members, hopefully it has diminished, but it still exists there very much. Clarissa Ward live for us in Doha, thank you.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get right to CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon this morning. Barbara, what is the Pentagon saying about the possibility of future attacks? And also making good on the president's promise to retaliate?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the U.S. military at this point is going to operate, we are told, and continue to operate on the assumption that there could be and may well be more attacks. They're down to just, what, under four days before the August 31st deadline. And they plan to be gone by then. But between now and then, tensions running very high. A lot of concern about more attacks.
What they are doing, and Clarissa hinted at this quite clearly, they're talking to the Taliban about moving the perimeter back, about closing some access roads, and they have what they call overwatch, U.S. helicopters, drones, other sensor platforms flying overhead, trying to see the full picture of what is going on around the airport.
All of that said, that is the priority -- get the airport operation done with as safely as possible.
Right now there's no indication, but we don't know for sure, but no real indication yet of any retaliation attacks before the U.S. is packed up and gone. That will be an intelligence challenge. There will be no U.S. troops on the ground to gather intelligence. How would you get U.S. troops in and out? How would you conduct air-strikes when you're not really sure where ISIS operatives may be? They may be mixed in with civilian populations. They may be in very remote areas, on the move. There will be a lot of intelligence challenges to try and carry out the president's promise.
But right now, what we are told is the U.S. military 100 percent focused on packing up, getting as many people processed as they can, but getting out by August 31st. I think one more quick item to note. They are going to have to make a decision, we're told, about at what point they turn the airport gates and essentially the airport over to the Taliban, because if they're going to pack up and go, at some point the Taliban will take control of the airport. And when that last U.S. military plane is rolling down the runway, it will be the Taliban who are in charge of the airfield. John, Brianna?
BERMAN: That's a really interesting point. It gives you a sense of just how complicated this coordination really is. Barbara Starr, thank you so much for that.
KEILAR: Just before the attack, Jim Sciutto reported that U.S. intelligence saw specific and credible threats from ISIS-K, specifically that they could attack the crowds around the airport, which is exactly what happened. And Jim is joining us again this morning. He's CNN's chief national security correspondent.
He's also the author of "The Shadow War." That was one of the things that really has stood out listening to officials, including the president here even before this attack. They were talking about these risks. And there was this open question, why can't someone just blow themselves up in this crowd? And now we have the answer. They can.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: They can. Listen, the situation was a horrendous security situation, right. You have concentrated crowds coming in around the airport. Those are the kinds of crowds that terrorists target, sadly, right. And in this case not only were they able to target those crowds, but they were able to get as close as they could to target and kill U.S. service members. So a worst case scenario.
But it also exposes an essential flaw in the evacuation plan in that part of our security was based on the Taliban, right, one. Vetting, in effect, people who were able to get close to the gate, but also monitoring that ISIS-K threat up close. That's not to say the U.S. was not doing it as well, but U.S. officials have said, we've been cooperating with the Taliban here. That's a pretty remarkable partner to rely on. And they failed.
BERMAN: And that situation still exists, Jim, to be clear, correct?
SCIUTTO: It does. You heard that from the podium yesterday. You heard it from President Biden saying that we are working with the Taliban, not because we trust them, but because we have shared interests. Again, that's a remarkable statement to hear from a U.S. president, right, from U.S. officials to say we're working with the Taliban.
We believe we have shared interests. They're doing their job to some extent because the Taliban itself, it's a terrorist organization. We covered a few weeks ago a Taliban terror attack on the streets of Kabul that killed civilians. Hardly to be distinguished from what we saw yesterday outside the airport.
It can be true, right, that in certain instances and at certain times you have shared interests with adversaries, and that is true here to some extent because ISIS-K is a rival of the Taliban. But, boy, if your security plan depends, in part, on the Taliban, that is an enormous risk, and we saw the consequence of that risk yesterday.
KEILAR: What about going ahead here? What about moving forward?
SCIUTTO: The risk is still there. There's no question. No one I've spoken to about this intelligence prior to this attack has told me that ISIS-K has lost both the intent and capability to carry out attacks. They're good. They're good at this. This is what they do. They have an enormous presence on the ground.
And Kabul is not only a target rich environment, you've heard that phrase before, with all these civilians around and U.S. forces still there, but it's also one that is policed, if you can call it that, by the Taliban, right, and the Taliban, which is trying to gain control of the country.
So the security situation in the country has deteriorated. And as I think I said yesterday, Afghanistan is a giant magnet for extremists from all over the world now and has been for a number of weeks and months as the Taliban has taken over. They're flooding into the country much as they did, these kinds of people, into Syria as ISIS was in control there. And that means that the danger is still real for these next four days. But the danger for the Afghan people, for the weeks, months, years to come still grave as well.
BERMAN: But what does that mean for the United States in the weeks, months and years to come, especially President Biden addressed this directly for the first real time yesterday, making clear that a lot of this will be in the Taliban's hands within days?
SCIUTTO: The administration's argument, the president's argument is that, yes, Al Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS are in Afghanistan, but they're in other countries as well where the U.S. doesn't have a permanent military deployment, boots on the ground. The U.S. is able to control that threat from over the horizon, right, from distance operations, operations conducted outside the country. That's true in places. That's basically the U.S. strategy in places such as Yemen. Small number of boots on the ground, but that's basically the strategy there as well.
The trouble is Afghanistan is a lot bigger. And while U.S. officials are confident today that these groups do not have the capability to carry out complex attacks on the U.S. homeland, that can change very quickly. And the test is going to be can the U.S. keep a lid on that from outside the country, which is the plan going forward. Listen, we're going to see, right. The decision's been made. Those troops are going. We're going to see if it works. And the risks are enormous.
KEILAR: All right, we will see. We will see. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much for being with us.
So how does the U.S. retaliate in Afghanistan, and withdraw at the same time? NATO's former supreme commander is going to join us next.
BERMAN: Plus, combat veterans working back channels to try to get their Afghan allies out. We go inside the war room of one operation.
And civilian airline crews answering the call to fly risky evacuation missions to the United States. One of the pilots joins us live.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP
BERMAN: President Biden vowing to bring to justice the terrorists who took the lives of 13 U.S. service members at the airport in Kabul. The deadline to leave Afghanistan just days away, how would that happen?
Joining me now is CNN military analyst and former NATO supreme ally commander, General Wesley Clark.
General, thank you so much for being with us right now. What are the range of options available if your goal is to get these terrorists? How could you do it?
GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET), CNN MILITARY ANLAYST: Well, the first thing is that, of course, you have air space and you can use the air space. You can bring in drones. You can bring in close air support. You can bring in stand-off bombing. It depends on really intelligence. You've got many means of attacking, as we would say, but you have to have the intelligence.
So the key is can you take a combination of overhead imagery, monitoring communications, other electronic intercepts, reports from friendly nations, agent reports from the ground.
Can you fuse this into actionable intelligence that locates the presence of an enemy force? And then can you make the judgment that the collateral damage risks are worth taking to take out the enemy.
You can be sure this is being done right now. We've got a massive effort -- this is not the United States military of 2001. We're really good at this. We know how to do this. We have the assets. We can do it.
Now, can we send a team in and take these people out on the ground? Yes, that's possible. I'm sure there are people embedded right now at Bagram who could do this. Or not at Bagram, but at Kabul.
And if they're not in Kabul right now, could they be brought in? Yes, they could be brought in.
And if we do share common interests with the Taliban, as the president suggested yesterday, we'll be getting support from the Taliban because they don't have these capabilities. Before we withdrew, maybe they were confused and they could say, well, this ISIS-K attack, even though we don't support them, maybe if they go against the government, that's helpful. Now the Taliban can't say that. So that's another source of intelligence.
Afghanistan today has mobile phone networks, they have people who report. They have people who speak English. They have people who talk to us, thousands of people who talk to us.
So this is not the remote area that it was 20 years ago. This is terrain we know, and people we know, and when the president says we will find them, hunt them down and make them pay, we have the means to do it.
BERMAN: General, you served at all different levels of command. What are the complications that you think would exist in working with or around or near the Taliban going forward? Because that's what is and will definitionally need to happen after the next few days.
CLARK: Well, one of the things is that we don't ever talk about -- the Taliban really is an instrument of Pakistan.
So what's not being discussed over the last few days is, what's Pakistan's role in this? What are we hearing from Pakistan? Pakistan does not want ISIS-K in Afghanistan, so we are going to be working with Pakistan.
Can we work really cooperatively with the Taliban? Well, first, we're not sure, so it's first our own personal security when we put people out there. It's protecting identities for our agents.
It's not disclosing the full range of our capabilities or our understanding, yet taking from them more than we give to them. It's developing networks of trust with individuals inside the Taliban. Some of that's already gone on. More will be done in the days to come.
But it will be a tenuous relationship for a long time, partly because the Taliban is not really a unified military organization. It's still based on a tribal society where there are factions inside the Taliban, and we don't know really at the start who we're talking to, which faction, which loyalty, which policies they're following. And never forget, we did an awful lot of damage to the Taliban. There have to be people there who would like to see some of that damage inflicted on us. So there will always --
BERMAN: General, I also want to ask you -- again, you served at all different levels from our platoon commander in Vietnam where you were injured. Talk to me about the courage and what it takes for the U.S. service members, 13 were lost yesterday trying to save lives, Afghan lives largely.
The courage and state of mind it takes to walk past that gate to save those lives when you know that you're putting your own life at risk.
CLARK: Yeah, they're going to do a mission briefing before they go out there. They're going to talk about security. They're going to build teamwork. They're going to build a system of trust amongst themselves.
And they're going to talk about the mission and its importance. They're going to rely on their belief in the chain of command above them. All the way up to the president. They know they're doing an important mission.
And they're going to be full of adrenaline when they walk out there. There's going to be a sense after a few minutes, a few hours out there that this is routine, and they have to keep reminding themselves of the risk with every passing moment there's a risk. Now, it was a theoretical risk until yesterday. Now it's a real risk.
So the fact is that it's tougher to get out there for the men and women who are doing that today than it was yesterday because they know now the reality. They've seen it. So this is a mission that requires a lot of courage and a lot of leadership, a lot of leadership from the front by the chain of command.
BERMAN: We're certainly seeing that courage and that sacrifice.
General Wesley Clark, thank you so much for being with us this morning.
Up next, U.S. combat veterans on a mission to make sure none of their Afghan allies are left behind. We go inside their operation next.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And the Supreme Court hands a big victory to landlords and property owners in the U.S.
KEILAR: As the U.S. races to finish evacuations from Afghanistan ahead of President Biden's Tuesday deadline, the president has a message to those Afghan allies who helped U.S. troops but may not be able to get out in time.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: We're going to continue to try to get you out, it matters. Getting every single person out is -- can't be guaranteed to anybody.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: All right. Many war veterans who served in the war in Afghanistan are working behind the scenes right now to get people out. They're doing this as well with civilians who served in Iraq. And this right here is a first look inside the war room of a nonprofit called No One Left Behind.
This was founded by an army captain and his Afghan interpreter eight years ago. They now ramped up their mission to evacuate Afghans who helped U.S. troops.
And joining us is the group's co-founder, Matt Zeller.
Matt, we've been talking to you. We've been talking sort of abstractly about what you're doing. Now we have a look inside what you're doing.
First, though, I want to get your reaction to what the president said yesterday about no guarantees, but he also said that he -- we would, he said, the U.S., meaning he was saying the U.S. would get Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. out.
MATT ZELLER, MAJOR, U.S. ARMY RESERVE: Yeah, unfortunately that's just not happening. Our office is currently tracking 1,500 people, accommodation of American citizens, green card holders, and Afghan wartime allies who are on Taliban kill lists. We have in safe houses in Kabul right now.
We have been for days trying to get them to the airport. We cannot get them through Taliban lines. We had one of our couriers yesterday actually shot by the Taliban trying to move American citizens to a pickup. So the reality is this. These people are going to be left behind. There's no way that they can get to the airport. And unless the government steps in and assists us and actually comes to rescue these people, we're going to have to start thinking about how to get them out of Taliban-held Afghanistan after the 31st.
BERMAN: Hey, Matt, to be clear, you have Americans that you're speaking to who say they're trying to get out, they want to get out, but can't, because that's one of the difficult numbers to pin down for us. So talk to me about that.
ZELLER: Yes, we have American citizens right now in safe houses throughout Kabul who have contacted our operation center which we've dubbed Society 76, and they have asked and requested to be moved to the airport. We have attempted it. We can't do it. We can't get through Taliban lines.
We've tried to reach out to the government with really no luck in being able to coordinate between us and the op center at the State Department to get these people moved. And I get it, it's a chaotic situation in Afghanistan right now, but the reality is that if American citizens truly are the priority, we need help to get them to the airport. KEILAR: So, look, you know, we've been hearing stories in particular,
we have been following the story of Philadelphia residents, green card holders who had a hard time getting through the Taliban checkpoint and really through their own perseverance and ingenuity were able to do it.
But, look, if green card holders are having that kind of problem, what does it mean for special immigrant visa holders? And I'm talking about people who actually have the visa in hand.
ZELLER: Yeah, no, they can't get to the airport. Let's be clear.