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U.S. Military Completes Withdrawal From Afghanistan Ending America's Longest War; Between 100 And 200 Americans Reportedly Remain In Afghanistan After Departure Of U.S. Military; Interview With Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA); Storms Strains Louisiana Hospitals Already Full Of COVID Patients. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2021 - 08:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: President Biden will address the nation this afternoon on the final withdrawal, the end of what has been called America's longest war. The Taliban is now in full control. You can see it in the pictures, new video of Taliban fighters just moments after the U.S. departed, entering a hangar a Hamid Karzai Airport, checking out helicopters and other equipment the U.S. military left behind. Army Major General Chris Donohue, commander of the 82nd airborne, the last to board the final military C-17 flight. This is, as far as we know, the last U.S. soldier to leave Afghanistan. We will hear from the Pentagon in just a moment.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: This morning we are also seeing the impact of hurricane Ida after more than a million homes and businesses in three states down south are still without power, and it could be for weeks before that power is restored. The storm left a trail of destruction in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now comes the scorching heat with no power. Temperatures could hit 103 degrees today. Overnight, two people were killed when floods washed out a major roadway between Mississippi and Louisiana.

BERMAN: First, Afghanistan, the challenges still ahead, and the legacy of what has been left behind. Joining me now is Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. Thanks so much for being with us. I'm cognizant of the fact that you spent your life in public service, a big chunk of it in the military. What's it like for you to wake up this morning and after 20 years, for the first time in 20 years, to have no U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, I think we're all still processing that, John, to be honest with you. It is something that for two decades we've all been connected to, without question. And I think it's going to take time for every veteran to sort of process this on their own.

What I can tell you is here at the Pentagon there's a mixture of relief that we were able to get everybody out safely in those last few hours, all the last remaining 800 troops, and that we were able to evacuate 6,000 Americans and 123,000 total people out. But there's also concern, obviously, over the ones that we couldn't get out, that time and space and the security threat simply wouldn't allow us to reach. Although we don't think the numbers are large, we are still obviously concerned about our allies and friends and fellow American citizens that are still there.

BERMAN: And I want to come back to those 100 or 200 American citizens who might still be there in just a moment. First, though, it's a picture that we've been showing this morning from the L.A. Times, the Taliban walking through a hangar at the Hamid Karzai Airport, fully armed Taliban, looking like they're wearing American gear, carrying what looked to be American guns, looking at American equipment. I wonder what these images, again, what's the takeaway here? If at any point in the last 20 years I had said to you that there would be Taliban fighters inspecting U.S. helicopters inside an evacuated hangar, how is it anything other than a U.S. defeat?

KIRBY: John, I would tell you that they can inspect all they want. They can look at them, they can walk around, but they can't fly them. They can't operate them. We made sure to demilitarize, to make unusable all the gear that is at the airport. All the aircraft, all the ground vehicles.

The only thing that we left operable are a couple of fire trucks and some forklifts so that the airport itself can remain more operational going forward. So I think we're not overly concerned about these images of them walking around. But, again, we did everything we could to make sure that that equipment couldn't be used by them going forward.

And as for the defeat narrative, John, the historians will write -- they'll write the chapters here. What I can tell you is that we prevented Afghanistan from ever becoming a safe haven for an attack on the United States again. And in the process, U.S. forces, coalition forces, our NATO allies, and our Afghan partners made a lot of progress in that country, progress which is now going to be up to the Taliban to see whether they are willing to continue or not. They have made promises, and now the United States government and international community are going to hold them accountable to those promises.

BERMAN: You said prevented an attack on the United States from Afghanistan. There was an attack in Afghanistan on Americans last week, obviously 13 U.S. service members died, and there are still 100 plus, give or take, U.S. citizens in Afghanistan who want to get out. So what is your current assessment of what threat they might be under?

KIRBY: There is no question that the threat environment in Afghanistan remains high. And certainly -- obviously, our concerned about the potential for Taliban retribution going forward, and we certainly -- and we saw it ourselves, are mindful of the threat that ISIS-K continues to pose inside Afghanistan. As General McKenzie said yesterday, the Taliban is now going to reap what they sew when they release these ISIS-K prisoners, and they're going to be struggling against an ISIS-K threat.


What I can tell you is that, as a government, we're going to stay mindful of our commitment to the remaining American citizens, and we don't believe there's very many, and to our Afghan allies, to hold the Taliban accountable for their promise of safe passage. It's not going to be their words, it's going to be their deeds. And we have a lot of tools available across the government to do that.

BERMAN: I know that's the promise, but President Biden at one point promised that U.S. troops would stay until all American citizens who wanted to get out got out. And there are still American citizens there and U.S. troops are gone. So if you assess, if the military assesses that these 100 plus Americans are under imminent threat, what's the military prepared to do about it?

KIRBY: Our job is to provide options to the commander in chief, but it's not to make policy. And I think I just leave it right there, John. What I can tell you is we have other tools available to us as a government to help the safe passage of Americans get out of that country or any other country. It's not totally unlike the ways we try to move American citizens who are stranded or in danger and peril out of other countries around the world. We have lots of tools available to us. I don't foresee a military role at this time, but of course, that's going to be a decision by the commander in chief.

What I can tell you is we're going to remain committed to getting them home as fast and as efficiently as possible. Though the military mission has ended, the United States commitment to them has not.

BERMAN: So, when people say America's longest war is over, is it?

KIRBY: Yes. Yes, it is. There are no American troops any more in Afghanistan. The military mission, the war itself is over.

BERMAN: No matter what happens to the 100 Americans still there?

KIRBY: John, I don't want to get into speculating one way or another. We don't see a military role here in helping these last individuals getting out, and obviously our job is to provide the president options, but I don't foresee that that's an option right now that is going to be needed. Again, we're focused on making sure we meet our commitment to them.

The other thing, John, that I'd like to add is just remember, 6,000 Americans did get out safely, and 123,000 other people, mostly Afghans, vast majority are Afghans. So we did meet a measure of our promises and our commitments to Americans who wanted to get out and to Afghans who wanted to get out. And I just don't think that that should be overlooked.

BERMAN: It's a remarkable achievement. There's no question the number of people who were removed from the country over an incredibly short period of time, it is impressive. There are questions about whether or not it could have begun sooner, correct?

KIRBY: There's going to be all kinds of time to do the forensics on this, John. What I can tell you is that we had been planning for noncombatant evacuation operations all the way back to the spring, back to April. It was something on the plate, and Secretary Austin prepositioned forces well before the Taliban had been making their moves on the provincial capitals here in early August, well before that. He decided weeks before that to preposition forces in the region closer to Afghanistan in case we were going to need them.

And I would remind everybody that we went in the span of 48 hours in mid-August, we went from believing we had an Afghan government who was a longtime ally and a partner that we could rely on, and Afghan forces, with 48 hours to having to develop a pragmatic partnership with a longtime enemy, the Taliban, in order to affect these evacuations.

I'm not at all discounting our concern over those that didn't get out and those that are still there. We absolutely share that concern and we're heartbroken that we couldn't get everybody. But in a span of less than 20 days, to be able to move out more than 120,000 people safely, mostly Afghans, I think is a remarkable achievement by the Pentagon, and by our State Department and by our coalition allies, too.

BERMAN: I do have to let you go. I just want to ask again, big picture here, and maybe put on your old State Department hat here as well, but as the world looks at this this morning, as the world looks at this morning where there are no U.S. troops in Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years, what do you think the lesson is in terms of American power?

KIRBY: I think -- I don't know that I'm qualified to answer that question, John. I think there's going to be a lot of time for historians and academics to work their way through that. What I would tell you is that we've learned a lot over the last 20 years. And we've improved a lot of our counterterrorism capabilities, a lot of our intelligence capabilities. And there was progress made in Afghanistan.

Obviously, it will be up to the Taliban to see what they do with the progress. But there's been a lot of progress made in the course of 20 years of trying to prevent that place from ever being a safe haven again. We did learn a lot. We accomplished a lot. And now we're going to have to see where it goes forward. What I can tell you is that we're not going to take our eye off the terrorism ball. We're not going to remove the capabilities we have available to us to protect the American people. All of those capabilities are still available to us, and we'll use them.


BERMAN: John Kirby, I do appreciate you being with us. I only disagree that you're unqualified to answer just about any question. It's a question I look forward to talking to you about over the coming weeks, months, and years. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

KIRBY: Thank you.

COLLINS: And for reaction to what John Kirby just said, let's bring in Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton, a veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee, who last week went on an unauthorized trip to the Kabul airport with a Republican colleague because they said they weren't getting sufficient answers from the Biden administration. Congressman Moulton, what is your reaction to John Kirby saying, yes, the war is over? Is this how you saw it ending?

REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): Well, I don't think it's how any of us wanted to see it end. But it's true that it is a relief to have our troops home safely, and it's a remarkable achievement that we got so many people out.

But one thing I strongly disagree with John on is he said it's a remarkable achievement of the Pentagon that we evacuated so many of Americans and our allies. And it's not a remarkable achievement of the Pentagon. It's a remarkable achievement of these troops on the ground. What we witnessed at Abbey Gate, right where these Americans were killed, was truly extraordinary. Marines going forward of the gate, sifting, sifting through thousands of Afghans to try to find our allies at tremendous risk to themselves.

I expected to see Afghans on one side of the gate and Americans on the other. That wasn't the case at all. The American marines had to be out there, feet from the Taliban with their horse whips, trying to find our allies. And every time they took an Afghan by the hand, they put a little Afghan girl on their shoulders and walked them to our lines, literally, literally carrying Afghans to freedom, they were doing it at tremendous risk, and it cost the lives of 13 Americans.

So if there is thing I think we need to take away from this war and from the withdrawal, it's the remarkable achievement of our troops. I don't want anyone to lose sight of that.

COLLINS: Yes, over 120,000 people total evacuated out of Kabul just in the last several days alone. And so I think the question, still, though, that we heard from Central Command yesterday, which is that there are between 100 and 200 Americans who are still in Afghanistan that want to leave.

And so the president, if you are measuring him against his own words, did tell ABC that U.S. forces would stay in Afghanistan until every American who wanted to come home came home. Clearly that has not happened. So do you think that they will be successful in bringing those people home given of course the situation got a lot dicier now with the U.S. military gone?

MOULTON: I absolutely believe in the president's commitment here. He understands how important this is, and I believe we will be committed as a government to getting these people out, whatever it takes. But it is going to be hard, and I don't think we've done enough preparation right now to be ready for what is going to be required of our relationship with the Taliban, our diplomacy going forward. All the things that need to come together to make this happen.

There's no question that this evacuation should have started earlier, as many veterans in Congress were calling for for a long time. But we are where we are today, and we've got to make sure that we have plans that we can use to get people out.

Kaitlan, let me also say that while we're celebrating this remarkable airlift, let's not forget all these 123,000 Afghans are now sitting in refugee camps. That was our next stop on our trip. And what we witnessed was a looming humanitarian crisis where people are on the verge of literally running out of food and water because so many are crammed into warehouses meant for airplane parts in places like Qatar. We need to reinforce that mission. We still have a lot of lives to save and to make good on our promise that we will bring these families to freedom.

COLLINS: And you say that the evacuation should have started sooner than it did. The president's national security adviser Jake Sullivan was just on television defending the decisions that they've made here.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: And those who are criticizing are not the ones who have to sit in the Situation Room and make the hard calls about the threats that we face and the objectives we're trying to obtain.


COLLINS: Congressman Moulton, do you think the president does deserve credit for bringing these forces out of Afghanistan after several presidents before him said they would do so and, of course, did not?

MOULTON: Look, of course, he deserves credit for this. Ultimately, this was President Biden's decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. But there are a lot of questions about how it was done, and those are questions that we have a responsibility to answer, not for the sake of finger pointing, but so that we ensure we don't make these mistakes in the future.


I know the families of those 13 marines want to make sure that we ask these questions so we get it right. And if we ever have to do an operation like this again, we won't make mistakes that cost American lives.

COLLINS: Yeah, over two decades of war, and to see it come to an end is so monumental, of course, and the way it was happening in its final days.

Congressman Seth Moulton, thank you for joining us this morning.

MOULTON: Thank you, Kaitlan.

BERMAN: Think about both of those men, too. John Kirby, retired rear admiral who served in the military for a long time, Seth Moulton with several tours interact. Afghanistan's been a giant part of their lives for the last two decades.

COLLINS: I do think it raises a good question about is there going to be a period of self-reflection. Not just for the Biden administration and the choices they made when it comes to execution of this, bull for past presidents and really what we learned here, given the U.S.'s leaving Afghanistan with the Taliban back in power, and more powerful than they were 20 years ago. BERMAN: That's what I was trying to get at with John Kirby. He talked

about the equipment which are non-operable. The fact there is a picture of the Taliban inspecting U.S. equipment 20 years after the U.S. went in to get rid of the Taliban, in part, you know, it shows you what's happened over that time.

COLLINS: Also, that equipment isn't inoperable. They said they made sure of that. The aircraft, the Humvees, there's a lot that's not, that the Taliban did capture. And it's not clear the estimate of how much they have. But to say they don't have anything is obviously -- they got a lot.

BERMAN: Also you have John Kirby saying, when I asked, is it America's longest war is over? He said yes, right away. Seth Moulton and others say, look, you can't really say it's over until you take care of all these other things and the possible threats that might loom.

COLLINS: Yeah, it will be interesting to see if President Biden frames it that way, that the war is over today because we did hear that from the secretary of state yesterday.

We will hear from President Biden this afternoon. This comes as Russia and China are stepping in after the U.S. war in Afghanistan with a war on the truth. We have a reality check coming up on that.

Plus, Louisiana hospitals already full of COVID patients now treating hurricane victims. We're going to speak to a top doctor at the state's largest hospital.

And the Republican congressman talking about bloodshed as he spreads election lies.



BERMAN: More than a million homes and businesses without power this morning in Louisiana after Hurricane Ida, that means no lights, no air conditioning, no refrigerators. It could stay that way for weeks.

Hospitals there are now dealing with the double onslaught of hurricane victims and COVID. Intensive care units were already at or over capacity at the state's largest hospitals. One hospital we've been speaking with regularly is our lady of the lake regional medical center in Baton Rouge.

And joining us now from that hospital is Catherine O'Neal, the hospital's chief medical officer.

Dr. O'Neal, always a pleasure to have you on this morning. I understand you still have power. What have the impacts been of Hurricane Ida?

DR. CATHERINE O'NEAL, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, OUR LADY OF THE LAKE REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER: After the storm started making landfall, we started to see power outages around town. That brings the first wave of patients to the hospital who are looking for extra care. Maybe have a concentrator at home for oxygen. We have so many people who have oxygen needs during this COVID surge at home who are looking for extra medical care.

And we tried to get that out to them as much as possible. But you start to see some of that wave of patients. And then as the storm got worse, people really did hunker down. The hospital became very quiet. We slept about a thousand people in the hospital, being able to have a day and night shift for days to come just in case we had more issues than we anticipated, and we did. Many of our health care workers live east of the storm and east of the hospital. So we have a lot of people without power who are working in the hospital today, a lot of people who don't have a home to go back to yet. A lot of tree damage and road closures that are keeping our health care workers being able to go back and forth to check on their own families.

BERMAN: Now, where are you with COVID or where were you before the storm even came?

O'NEAL: So, just in the last week, we started to see just a slight decrease in our number of patients admitted every day. Obviously, in the last 48 hours, we've seen less people. Our concern is always that those people are at home, that they're not able to get to us. Yesterday, we knew that there were quite a few people who were unable to call EMS because we had such a communication problem around the region with cell phone towers out.

But overall, we hopefully were in the down swing of the surge, but that down swing is still seeing record highs and our hospitals today 170 patients admitted with COVID and 40 on the ventilator. Hospitals below us had many COVID patients, too. As we see this movement of people, people not being able to access medical care like they would want to, what we worry is that this surge will see a bump up and trying to vaccinate through this and trying to seek those people out and get them to medical care so that they don't experience more harm because of it.

BERMAN: Yeah, talk about all that because, first of all, it's hard to vaccinate people when a state is rebuilding like it is and without electricity in a lot of places. But number two, maybe you're not as conscious about wearing a mask if you're worried about where you're going to get your next meal and when the lights are going to come on.

So, what's the biggest threat over the next few days?

O'NEAL: I think what we'll see is sort of a two-hit threat. Our first is going to be that many people who are medically needy. People who are fragile, people who may be vaccinated but don't respond as well to vaccines and many who are unvaccinated or not completely vaccinated will seek share together in a medical shelter. Our state has done a great job when we experienced this last year of setting up medical shelters where we can test people when they come in, we have plenty of masks available.

There is cool air so it's more comfortable to take care of your self in the medical shelter. We need to get people there. That's where they need to be for their oxygen need, medication needs.

The other problem that we see are people who are crowding into families' homes. So, lots of mixing of families, lots of movement through Mississippi, and through Tennessee, up through the northern part of Louisiana as people escaped the storm. So, who are they mingling with? We're mixing a lot of areas that still had a ton of COVID-19.


So, we're really worried about that sort of transmission risk and how do people stay comfortable when obviously you're usually in your own home you take your mask down. So, just going through those areas offering vaccination, especially in north Louisiana where we have a lot of electricity and hopefully reaching people with the things that they need.

BERMAN: Dr. Catherine O'Neal, listen, I'm glad your power is still on, you're still able to provide the services which are so important there. Thanks so much for being with us.

O'NEAL: Thank you. Have a great day.

BERMAN: Just ahead, three talk radio hosts who railed against vaccines all sadly ended up meeting the same fate.

COLLINS: Plus, there are blatant lies about President Biden that are being spread by right-wing personalities. Our Daniel Dale joins us next with a fact check.


COLLINS: There's a new trend emerging of prominent conservatives who used their platform to speak out against COVID-19 vaccines, getting the virus and dying from it.

Mark Bernier recently accused the government of, quote, acting like Nazis in their push to get more Americans vaccinated.