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Biden to Address Nation Today as America's Longest War Ends; New Details on Biden's Tough Meeting with Grieving Military Families; 1 Million-Plus Without Power for Possibly Weeks after Hurricane; . Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2021 - 07:00   ET




JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world, it is Tuesday, August 31st. I'm John Berman. Brianna is off this morning. Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins is here with me, great to have you.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: You are here for a moment, 20 years in the making, for the first time in 20 years are Americans are waking up with no U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 20 years. So what does that mean? What's the legacy, not just of these last 20 days but of the last 20 years?

President Biden is set to address the nation this afternoon. The Taliban this morning celebrating withdrawal. A spokesman called it a historical day, a historical moment. New video shows Taliban fighters just moments after the final U.S. plane departed entering a hangar at the airport, checking out helicopters and other equipment that the U.S. military left behind.

Before that last plane left, this is the photo of the very last American service member to leave Afghanistan. Again, after 20 years there's Major General Chris Donahue boarding a C-17 cargo plane.

COLLINS: It's a remarkable image.

We're also following breaking news in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Overnight, two people were killed when floods washed out a major roadway between Mississippi and Louisiana. And you can see the remarkable images there as the new Coast Guard video gives an aerial view of the widespread destruction and flooding in parts of Louisiana.

This morning, more than a million people are without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and they could be for weeks. Now, many of those who don't have any power are facing extreme triple digits heat. But we begin with the latest from Afghanistan. The end of a war tragically did not come soon enough for 13 service members who were killed in a suicide bombing outside Kabul's airport last week. On Sunday, President Biden met their family members after that dignified transfer happened at Dover Air Force Base.

And now we are learning new details about what happened when they did meet behind closed doors for several hours. The Washington Post reports that one grieving father showed President Biden a photo of his son and said, and I'm quoting him now, don't you ever forget that name. Don't you ever forget that face. Don't you ever forget the names of the other 12, and take some time to learn their stories. That father tells The Washington Post that Biden bristled and responded, quote, I do know their stories.

Joining me now is the reporter who wrote that story, Matt Viser from The Washington Post. He reported on what happened inside the meeting that was obviously emotional, clearly tense at some times, Matt.

And so this remarkable moment between this father, a grieving father, talking to President Biden, who has also been a grieving father at one point, what did he tell you about the decision behind sitting down and actually meeting and coming face-to-face with President Biden given your story says he initially did not plan to do so?

MATT VISER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, he went into this meeting. He did not vote for President Biden and he disagreed with his decisions on how he was executing the withdrawal. He blames him in many ways for the death of his son, Jared, who is a 20-year-old Marine. And so he didn't initially want to meet with Biden.

After sleeping on it, on Sunday morning, he notified his military officer that, in fact, he would like to meet with Biden. He had something he wanted to tell him. And that scene, as you just said, was kind of the most pointed part of that conversation, where he wanted to confront Biden a little bit about the story of his own son.


But the meeting itself, you know, at least with Mark Schmitz, and his ex-wife, they had ten minutes with Biden, it was a private moment that Biden was sort of working around the room, talking to each of the 13 families individually and spending time with them. So I think he brought a different perspective and wanted to confront Biden. Some families chose not to meet with him all together.

COLLINS: Yes, it's a tough moment for any president. Of course, it is an aspect of the job, a solemn aspect of it. That father was on Fox News last night talking about this meeting, and this is how he described it.


MARK SCHMITZ, FATHER OF MARINE KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN: Initially, I wasn't going to meet with him but then I felt I owed it to my son to at least have some words with him about how I felt and it didn't go well. He talked a bit more about his own son than we did my son, and that didn't sit well with me.


COLLINS: Matt, did he tell you that he wished that conversation with the president had focused more on what he had just lost?

WISER: Yes, several times, he mentioned that. And he did mention that President Biden continued to bring up his own son, Beau, who died in 2015 of brain cancer and who served in Iraq. And that has been a way that Biden often connects with families. And Biden often is quite good at connecting with grieving families, but there was a big difference in this room and this instance where they were not families grieving together. They viewed Biden as somebody who was responsible for their own grief.

And so there was a different sort of feeling in the air for some of these families where they were not wanting to connect with Biden, they wanted to confront him. They wanted him to talk about their own son, and they weren't necessarily looking for a connection, which Biden often uses his own son, and his own grief. Mark also mentioned that Biden brought up losing his wife and his daughter in 1972.

So Biden is someone who does understand grief but this was a room that was just in a different place and kind of, you know, feeling that Biden had created their own grief, and was not much in a mood to hear about Beau. They wanted to share more about their own children.

COLLINS: Which is understandable. And, of course, now their children are some of the last to die in the U.S.'s involvement in Afghanistan. And you did say in your reporting that there was a moment where the father spoke -- there was a meaningful moment for him where President Biden pulled out that card that everyone knows that he carries with how many service members have been killed in the Middle East. What did he say to you about that?

WISER: So, that was sort of the one thing that mark left with sort of feeling good about Biden. You know, he pulled out that note card. He showed him, I do understand these stories, I do understand the numbers. And he showed him the number of troops that had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, which, of course, he carries in his breast pocket. And on that, there was an added point on the schedule that said, plus 13.

And so for Biden, it's an emphasis on that card that he has contributed to increasing the number of dead in Afghanistan. And he showed that to his father, and I think it did create a connection where the father did appreciate that Biden is internalizing some of his decisions that he's making there. But over the course of ten minutes they had together, I think that was the one sort of connection where Mark felt like he understood Biden a little bit. The rest of it did seem quite tense between the two men.

COLLINS: Yes. Matt, thank you so much for your reporting. And, of course, as we are looking back on the end of America's longest war, we are continuing to keep the families of those 13 service members in our thoughts.

WISER: Thank you.

BERMAN: Because, in some ways, that card that President Biden carries with him represents the 20 years, the 20 years of the U.S. presence there and the plus 13 is, in a way, quota, to 20 long years of an American presence in that country.

The Taliban taking control of the airport in Kabul the minute the U.S. left. Just moments after the last C-17 departed, Taliban fighters on this video, you can see them entering an airport hangar, exploring what the U.S. military left behind.

So, CNN's Clarissa Ward joins us now. She is right on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clarissa, you have been there so many times to Afghanistan, and this morning for the first time in 20 years, Americans are waking up with no U.S. troops in Afghanistan. We say it's a moment in history. It really is. I mean, there are plenty of Americans alive who have never been alive at a moment when the United States wasn't in Afghanistan.

And as you stand there at the border, looking over the border to that country, I just want you to reflect on what it all means.


As you look back over 20 years, all the trips that you have made, how do you make sense of it?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, honestly, it's been such a wild ride the last month that it's difficult to sort of unpack it all and try to make sense of it all. And I became a journalist after 9/11, that's when I found my calling. Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban. This was where the 9/11 plots were planned, and yet 20 years later, as we approach the 9/11 anniversary, Afghanistan still under control of the Taliban. And you can't be a rational, sane person and not ask yourself what was it all for, what was it all in aid of.

So many Afghans over the past two decades have been able to dream really big dreams, and do astonishing things with their lives, and I'm thinking particularly of women. And those dreams now really are hanging by a thread and there's so much uncertainty and so much anxiety. And there is also a sense of bitterness among many people, a sense of abandonment, as remarkable as the U.S. airlift evacuation has been. There are many people who are left behind.

And this is basically what they're left behind to now. They can't get out through the airport, so they are trying to cross through borders crossings. And I'm going to step out of the shot for a second so you can see we're here on the Pakistani side. You can see the Taliban, white flag, that is the official flag at this border crossing and you may be able to see as well the Taliban fighters standing just beneath that flag, just a few yards away from Pakistani soldiers.

Now, what you can't see very much of are Afghans coming in to Pakistan, and that's because, simply put, this border is basically closed, and it has been for several months. The Pakistanis are saying, unless you have official Pakistani residence or papers that allow you to travel here, you cannot come into this country. That's partly because Pakistan has more Afghan refugees than any country in the world, some 1.4 million, according to the U.N.

But you can imagine the anxiety, now, John and Kaitlan, for so many Afghans who are concerned they can't fly out of that airport, even though the Taliban said this morning that it should be up and running in a matter of days, and that anyone with a visa can fly, and they now see these border crossings closing, whether it's Pakistan, whether it's Uzbekistan, they see those windows of opportunity coming to a close.

And with so much uncertainty on the ground in Afghanistan, they simply don't know any longer what the future holds for them and what the real legacy of the U.S.'s longest war will actually be.

COLLINS: Clarissa, there are also questions about the legacy of this evacuation mission, which, of course, had started really modestly over the summer and obviously sped up as Kabul fell to the Taliban. You were there on the ground in the middle of all of it for several days. And what did you witness watching the U.S. military?

We were just talking with Matt about the parents of those 13 service members who were killed helping facilitate this evacuation that overall ended up in getting over 120,000 people out. What was it like being on the ground? What did you see from the U.S. troops that were there? You know, they were there in the final days of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

WARD: Yes. I mean, I saw U.S. servicemen and women breaking their backs to do everything to bring about as least painful an ending as possible, as an effective an evacuation as possible. I saw marines carrying babies, carrying a small crying toddler, I saw them handing out little scraps of cardboard in the hot sun to give people to try to fan themselves and fan their children. I saw them handing out food and water. And, privately, I had conversations with them as well where I heard about their anguish.

I have been getting bombarded with phone calls and messages from servicemen, both current and former, who are aghast at how this whole thing ended and who feel deep shame because they were the ones who were on the frontlines with their Afghan allies, whether that be interpreters who might be entitled now to go to the U.S. on these special immigration visas, or whether that be the Afghan army who were for some time their brothers in arms.

And I think it's particularly difficult in light of all the sacrifice, in light of more than 2,000 dead in 20 years of backbreaking work and pain and sacrifice and devotion. I think it's particularly difficult for a lot of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women to try to digest what's just happened.

[07:15:04] I think, of course, there's pride at the scale of the operation and how many people were rescued and taken out of Afghanistan, but there is also a lot of pain and a lot of heart ache and a lot of shame about people who weren't helped or haven't been helped yet.

And the thing that I tell them all the time when I talk to them is just wait and see. It's not over yet. If you take Secretary of State Tony Blinken at his word, these efforts are just beginning. They will continue. They won't be on the same scale. It won't be done on military aircraft carriers, but there are plans in the future to continue trying to help people get out. And the Taliban has said repeatedly, and, again, this morning, that people with the right documentation will be able to get out.

So this isn't the end of the line, but it is certainly for people in Afghanistan a new dawn and one that brings great uncertainty.

COLLINS: It certainly is. And we're seeing President Biden follow through on this major campaign promise to end the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but, Clarissa, you're right, there are a lot of questions about what's to come. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

WARD: Thank you.

COLLINS: And next, a highway in Mississippi washing away after extreme flooding from Hurricane Ida. Two people were killed and ten others were injured on Highway 26, which is a main artery between Mississippi and Louisiana. Ida has also left more than a million customers without power possibly for weeks. Tulane University has already cancelled classes for at least the next week. They will begin bussing students to Texas today.

And CNN's Ryan Young is live in New Orleans. Ryan Young, what are you seeing? What is it looking like now that officials are getting to assess the first few hours of damage?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You can tell they're going to be dealing with this pain in terms of clean up for quite some time. We have been doing a survey for several hours. In fact, we were in the car yesterday for over 14 hours. And as you can see, this is a lot of what people are dealing with. These downed trees that have been knocked out some of these power lines.

You're talking about Tulane University. We know they're going to be busing kids to Houston starting today. We're near the university as we speak.

They want to get kids out of here because there's no power in the area. In fact, we're going to turn our lights off so you can see, because we have lit up this neighborhood. We wanted to show you just how dark it is as we drove around this area. The good news is we didn't see a lot of structural damage. What we did see is a lot of downed power lines and a lot of downed trees.

And as you're driving through areas, like this one, you don't see the puddling, the trees down, so you have to be careful as you drive through the area. As we turn our lights back on to show things, there are people here who obviously have generators.

But they do know that powers will be out for quite some time. In fact, our crew here didn't have any power as we got ready this morning to go to work. All the hotels downtown are without power. And you see people sort of moving around, talking, neighbors and neighbors trying to get people supplies. A lot of gas stations also don't have power. What you have is what you have at this point.

One of the things we were talking to with one business owner yesterday, he was telling he was finally getting back online in terms of just getting ready after the coronavirus, and people were rolling back into town, and now they are dealing with all of this.

It's going to take quite some time for crews not only to get the trees off the power lines to get ready for the linesmen to come in to pick these lines back up, but just the idea of clearing all this in a city that's completely in the dark is something that you understand is going to be a large undertaking. And when you talk about the roadways and the power, that is something that people are talking about consistently but they're happy at least there's not standing water that's left behind and not a lot of structural damage as we have seen in the past.

COLLINS: Yes. But big questions about sewage, being able to pump gas, all of these things that are critical to everyday life. So, we will keep checking in with you as the sun is coming up and we're learning more about what the next few weeks are going to look like.

YOUNG: Absolutely.

BERMAN: And, look, a month without power, and they know. The problem for people in New Orleans is they don't really have a firm end date for when this will be fixed. It's really hard to live in New Orleans where it's hot for a month without any kind of electricity.

COLLINS: Yes. I'm from Alabama. It gets incredibly hot. It is the hottest period of the summer for them. And imagine living with that, trying to do these cleanup effort, and there's no air-conditioning. You're not charging your phone. Everything is dying. It's a big concern for people how long this takes.

BERMAN: And no firm answer on when it will end.

All right, for the first time in two decades, no U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, closing the book on America's longest war. What will President Biden say today while some American citizens are still trying to get out?

COLLINS: And parents are fighting back against bans on mask mandates in schools as COVID-19 cases are spiking among children who don't have the option to be vaccinated.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COLLINS: President Biden will speak this afternoon to mark the end of the United States' longest war. The last military plane lifted off from Kabul one minute before the midnight deadline local time. But for those left behind, a few hundred Americans and thousands of Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. for the last two decades, this forever war is far from over.

Joining us now to discuss what comes next is Bianna Golodryga, CNN Global Affairs Analyst, and Azmat Khan, Investigative Reporter and Contributing Writing for The New York Times Magazine. She's covered the Afghanistan war extensively and obviously has a lot of experience in this.

So, Bianna, we want to start with you though. Just looking back on this moment, and what this means for not just President Biden but for the three presidents that came before him, and as John was saying, did not get out of this war, what does this mean looking back on this and what does it mean for what's coming next?


BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think you need a little humility to say I have the answer for what this means down the road, but I think reflecting upon where we were 20 years ago, as we were approached September 11th. I mean, many of us remember where we were on that day in New York City.

And I think as we look forward 20 years from that day, we would have been surprised that the U.S. had not been attacked by another terrorist attack in the aftermath, but I think it would have been shocking to know that the Taliban would be coming back into power 20 years later, and that the U.S. would be leaving the way it has, sort of making the best of a worst case scenario.

President Biden has been able to do what his predecessors did not, right? He stood by his word, his pledge that he wanted the U.S. troops gone, and then he says that history will judge him as making the right decision. Of course, that is yet to be determined.

BERMAN: It's hard to know, right, because to sit here and say, was it worth it or did it achieve the goal, the issue is it kept on changing. 20 years is a long time. You don't have just one aim or doing one thing over 20 years. So, you look back on 20 years, and it's hard to balance what exactly happened.

AZMAT KHAN, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: It's certainly hard to balance what happened, but when you look at some of the original goals, right, what the United States originally wanted, which was bin Laden, there were actually offers on the table very early on in 2001 for the Taliban to turn over bin Laden to another country, not directly to the United States, and America rejected it. And there are multiple points in this war where we can see what can only be described as epic failures of U.S. goals.

And there are a lot of people who are questioning why this didn't happen faster and why this particular withdrawal was conducted the way that it was, leaving so many American partners just lost.

GOLODRYGA: I think that's going to be the hardest question for Biden to have to justify, is how we left this way, right, if we had been going through this process and a number of administrations have been dealt with the challenge, how do we leave and what's the next chapter with Afghanistan leaving the way we did where we have our closest allies publicly admonishing this exit strategy, saying that they were not communicated with and had little knowledge about how this would unfold. I think that's going to be hard for him to justify.

And, of course, he says that if we had stayed past this deadline, we would have seen more U.S. troops killed, and had those 13 servicemen and women not been killed, perhaps that would have been something that he could have seen as an achievement. That wasn't the case, unfortunately.

BERMAN: Let me throw this out there, because David Rothkopf, who has been defending the Biden administration, wrote this in The Atlantic. He writes, unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, all of whom also came to see the futility of the Afghan operation, Biden alone had the political courage to fully end America's involvement.

KHAN: It's true that since 2014, when the U.S. drawdown really began, that the United States has largely -- at least many U.S. officials have known that this war was unwinnable, right? The Washington Post Afghanistan papers have shown that many American officials knew this for quite a while, but actually breaking that was extremely tough. At the same time, I wouldn't say that it's necessarily completely over. We still retain what American officials talk about as over-the-horizon capabilities.

And as somebody who's looked at the impact of airstrikes in Afghanistan extensively and American bombing there, we have seen the effects that it's had and also the effects it hasn't had, right, for example, in eradicating groups like ISIS-K, right? So there -- I think -- I still think that there is potential for this to continue but at the same time, it was extremely politically difficult to withdraw from Afghanistan given a lot of the perspectives in Washington and the cost that people believe have already been sunk into this war.

COLLINS: And yesterday, I was struck when we were hearing from the head of Central Command when he was saying the Taliban now has to figure this out, and they have to deal with these thousands of ISIS-K fighters that they let out of prisons.

We know they have a lot of U.S. military equipment on their hands that was also left behind or that they got from the Afghan security forces as they were taking over Afghanistan, and so General McKenzie did say they made aircraft not be able to fly that was left at the Kabul airport, Humvees not able to drive.

They tried to make a lot of that equipment inoperable, but what does this look like with the future of the Taliban forming a government? Is there a chance anyone in the international community could recognize them as a legitimate form of government going forward, something that I think would have obviously been unthinkable two decades ago?

GOLODRYGA: Look, I think they would love to be recognized, and they needed financing, right? I think that U.S. supplied, what, 75 percent of the Afghanistan government's budget, so they would love world recognition. But at the end of the day, I don't know how long you can say that we still have more leverage over the country when we're not there. It's the Taliban's decision to decide how the country will be ruled, and as you said, they have got things to iron out in terms of their own division.