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Biden Says He Stands Squarely Behind My Decision to Withdraw from Afghanistan as Country Falls to Taliban; Taliban Fighters Swarm Kabul Streets after Government Collapses; Taliban Fighter Tells CNN Women Can Continue Their Lives Despite Group's History of Female Repression; Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) is Interviewed About the Afghanistan's Collapse; Tropical Depression Bears Down on Haiti After Devastating Earthquake. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 16, 2021 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM with our breaking news coverage of the crisis in Afghanistan.
Tonight, President Biden says he stands squarely behind his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops despite Afghanistan's descent into chaos as the Taliban seize full control of the country. The president acknowledging the collapse happened more quickly than expected, but he insists there was no good time to leave after nearly 20 years of America's longest war. President Biden described scenes in Kabul as gut wrenching, citizens taking desperate and dangerous measures at the airport to try to free the Taliban takeover.
Our correspondents and analysts are covering the story from every angle in Afghanistan, in the region and here in the United States.
Let's begin over at the White House. CNN's Jeremy Diamond is standing by. Jeremy, the president had little choice but to address the nation just a little while ago as this crisis continues to explode on his watch.
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No doubt, Wolf. From the moment that the world witnessed the stunning collapse of the U.S.- backed government in Kabul, it was clear that this was a moment that President Biden was going to need to explain what exactly happened and how this rushed U.S. exit has unfolded so chaotically at the airport in Kabul.
We did hear the president for the first time acknowledge that he was caught off guard, by how rapidly the Taliban advance on Kabul. But the president ultimately making clear that he stands by his decision, he has no regrets and he did not want to hand this U.S. war effort to a fifth president.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am president of the United States of America and the buck stops with me. DIAMOND (voice over): Tonight, President Biden acknowledging he was caught off guard by the Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan.
BIDEN: The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
DIAMOND: But standing by his decision to end America's nearly 20-year war.
BIDEN: I'm deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America's war fighting in Afghanistan.
DIAMOND: Even as Biden accepted some responsibility, he also pointed fingers, blaming his predecessor's deal with the Taliban and a collapse of willpower in Afghanistan.
BIDEN: Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed. Some time without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that any U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.
DIAMOND: The country's stunningly swift collapse came less than a month before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, which will see the Taliban back in power after a multi-trillion-dollar war effort and the deaths of 2,448 American troops. Biden didn't address how his administration failed to anticipate the debacle in Kabul, which he dismissed as improbable just six weeks ago.
BIDEN: There's going to be no circumstance where you will see people lifted off the roof of an embassy.
The likelihood will be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
DIAMOND: The chaotic evacuations now unfolding evoking the fall of Saigon in 1975. Only worse with desperate Afghanis clinging to the hulls of U.S. military planes, some even appearing to fall to their deaths after one plane took off. Amid the chaos, Biden now pinning some of the blame on his predecessor.
BIDEN: When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.
REP. MICHAEL WALTZ (R-FL): President Biden has showed no problem with tearing up Trump administration deals, whether it was Nord Stream, whether it was Keystone, whether it was the Iran policy, Israel and Palestine. So to say that you can't pivot from your predecessor, I think, is frankly a feckless excuse.
REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): Look, I think, absolutely, President Biden bears responsibility for making this decision, but there is no question that President Trump, his administration, Secretary Pompeo, they also bear very significant responsibility for this.
DIAMOND: Biden also taking heat from some Democratic lawmakers, like Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton who said it would be dishonest to say that today is anything short of a disaster, worse, it was avoidable.
Biden says the U.S. will continue evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghanis, and issued this warning to the Taliban.
BIDEN: If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the U.S. presence will be swift and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary.
DIAMOND (on camera): And, Wolf, it was clear that while President Biden acknowledged that he didn't anticipate the speed of this Taliban advance, he really failed to answer the critical question of how exactly that could have happened. I have talked to White House officials who have insisted this was not an intelligence failure.
And, yet, the president still insisting that he had plans for all contingencies despite the fact that several thousands of those 6,000 troops who will be in Kabul to secure that airport are actually flying in from the U.S., not from the region. But President Biden was clearly trying to refrain this decision around his decision to leave Afghanistan and not exactly how it unfolded. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Jeremy, Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thank you.
Let's go live to Afghanistan right now. Our Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward is on the scene for us in Kabul. Clarissa, President Biden acknowledged being caught off guard by the speed of the Taliban takeover of the entire country. What are you -- Clarissa, what are you seeing on the ground?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I don't think anyone could have possibly imagined that things would move this quickly. Even some of the Taliban fighters who have I been talking to on the streets of Kabul say they were surprised by how quickly the Afghan army simply melted away. The president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. And without firing a shot in a matter of hours, the Taliban were in power.
Everyone in this city, Wolf, in Kabul, woke up this morning, I think, in a state of shock, some people horrified, terrified, desperate, some people jubilant. We were out on the streets to see who we could find, who we could talk to and to try to get a sense of what the Taliban sees things looking like going forward. Take a look.
WARD: As soon as we leave our compound, it's clear who is now in charge. Taliban fighters have flooded the capital. Smiling and victorious, they took the city of six million people in a matter of hours, barely firing a shot.
This is a site I honestly thought I would never see, scores of Taliban fighters, and just behind us the U.S. embassy compound.
Some carry American weapons. They tell us they're here to maintain law and order.
Everything is under control. Everything will be fine, the commander says. Nobody should worry.
WARD: What is your message to America right now?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: America already spent enough time in Afghanistan. They need to leave, he tells us. They already lost lots of lives and lots of money.
WARD: People come up to them to pose for photographs.
They're just chanting death to America, but they seem friendly at the same time. It is utterly bizarre.
Almost everywhere we go, it seems the Taliban want to talk.
A lot of people are very frightened that you might engage in revenge attacks against security forces.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since yesterday, we have proved that nothing will happen, and we give assurance to everyone that they will be safe, Maoli Multaza (ph) tells us. And we follow our leaders. Once we make a promise, we stick to it.
WARD: Maintaining law and order is top of that list of promises. At the presidential palace, the Taliban are now guarding the gate. They say they're here to fill the vacuum left when the government fled. But the welcoming spirit only extends so far. And my presence soon creates tension.
They just told me to stand to the side because I'm a woman.
The Taliban have yet to implement their draconian version of Islamic law, but many are already preparing for it. You can see this beauty salon and many others have actually painted over images on their store fronts of uncovered women.
The Taliban Commander Assad Massoud Khistani says Islamic rule will be implemented gradually.
How will you protect women? Because many women are afraid they will not be allowed to go to school. They will not be allowed to work.
ASSAD MASSOUD KHISTANI, TALIBAN COMMANDER: The female, the woman can continue their lives. And we will not say anything for them. They can go to the school. They can continue their education wear Islamic niqaab.
WARD: So like I'm wearing? [18:10:00]
KHISTANI: Not like you but covering their face or something.
WARD: Cover the face? So you mean niqaab?
KHISTANI: Yes, niqaab.
WARD: Why do they have to cover their face?
KHISTANI: Because that is in our Islam.
WARD: Is it in Islam though that you have to wear niqaab?
KHISTANI: Of course. That is in Islam.
WARD: Most ordinary Afghans we meet are in a state of shock struggling to process the last 24 hours. Fizullah (ph), tells us his father was in the Afghan army and was killed this summer. Now he doesn't know what to do.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yesterday I have lost everything. Like, I don't feel secure in here.
WARD: You are afraid?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I'm afraid because I lost my dad. I lost my mom, in Logar Province like two months ago.
WARD: I'm sorry to hear that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just I am with my little sister. We are living at home. That's why I'm afraid for everything. It's a big problem. This is a big problem for us.
WARD: It is a feeling shared by so many. Walking along, one has a sense that the real story may be the people who are not on the streets, those too afraid to leave their homes, waiting to see what tomorrow will bring.
WARD (on camera): And I have to say, Wolf, you know, speaking for those people who were not out on the streets, the people who were in hiding, the people who are fearful for their life, I don't think anything in President Biden's speech earlier will really be offering them much in the form of consolation when he says that the U.S. will continue to speak out on behalf of Afghan women and girls.
There is a very real sense of bitterness here, of anger, not that the U.S. had to end its war here, I think most people understand that, but the way it was done, the way it was executed, the chaos, the complete lack of dignity, a huge amount of resentment, bitterness and also just desperation, as you saw in those images. Those people desperately trying to get on those airplanes, hoping to just get out of here. BLITZER: And we're going to have more on the horror awaiting women and girls in Afghanistan with you, Clarissa. But I also know that we're seeing, as you point out, these truly desperate, desperate scenes at the airport there in Kabul. First of all, what are you hearing directly from Afghans who are simply trying to flee the country and so many of them won't be able to do so?
WARD: Listen, it's chaos. And whenever you have a situation where there is opposity (ph) of information, where there are a lot of rumors being spread, where fears are high, you have situations like this. You have pandemonium. You have this crush of humanity descending on a runway, people reaching out and grabbing on to the fuselage of a U.S. Air Force carrier because they are so desperate to leave the country.
And some of the images have been incredibly hard to watch. What appear to be a couple of bodies dropping from that plane as it ascends towards altitude. One can only begin to fathom what is going on in people's minds when they are willing to make a decision like that, to take a risk like that, when they are so fearful and when there is so little clarity about the situation, particularly, Wolf, for people who have worked with the U.S. in some capacity.
Many of them are being taken care of, and we have heard that from the Department of State and from the Department of Defense. But many others, they're calling me all the time, Wolf. I worked as a translator for two years. I applied for my SIV card. It hasn't come through. I was rejected. I can't tell you how many cases there are like this of people or now waiting for a knock on the door that they fear could bring the worst. Wolf?
BLITZER: From the Taliban, Clarissa, I want you to standby. I want you to also be obviously very, very careful. We're going to get back to you in just a moment.
As the collapse of Afghanistan is playing out in horror, the U.S. military deployment there continues with a relatively narrow focus right now. Let's go to our Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann.
Oren, we're getting new images of the truly desperate, desperate evacuation from Afghanistan. Share this image. Look at what is going on in this cargo plane.
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is on board a C17 that left Kabul International Airport in the desperation, the panic, the incredible effort to get out of the country from what is pretty much the only international gateway. Seem 640 people onboard that plane, men, women and children.
And as you look, take a closer look at the faces, the horror, the fear of what they were escaping. This, they felt, was the best option, perhaps their only option for trying to get out of the country. And this isn't just playing out onboard, this aircraft. These were the people who were lucky enough to make it on to an aircraft to get it, or to get out of the country.
There are plenty more at the airport causing a very difficult situation, a chaotic situation as they, too, try to find some way to get onboard the flight.
They are aware of what is critical here, and that is Kabul International Airport. It is the international gateway. It is where 6,000 troops are going in to be in the country with a specific mission of securing the airport because it is so critical. That's how the U.S. intends to gets its personnel out.
That's how U.S. intends to get Afghan interpreters and their families out. But it hasn't been stabilized and completely secured. There have been security situations at the airport over the course of the past day or two. There was a threat to U.S. troops according a defense official and U.S. troops opened fire killing two people.
The key question here, has there been engagement between the Taliban and U.S. forces? So far, Wolf, that answer appears to be, no, there has not. U.S. forces have not engaged the Taliban. And that perhaps is one of the critical issues in making sure the airport can continue to function and that there is no rapid deterioration of the situation. Wolf, the worst case scenario is if the airport falls. Then to get anyone out, it requires retaking the airport.
BLITZER: Yes. The contingencies are enormous right now and awful all around. Oren, thank you so much, Oren Liebermann over at the Pentagon.
Let's get some more on all of this. Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto is with us, CNN Military Analyst, Retired Lieutenant General Mark Herling is with us, CNN Political Analyst David Gergen. And our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is also back. She's back on the ground in Kabul for us.
Jim Sciutto, can President Biden really say the buck stops with me while at the same time pointing the finger at a very long list of other players?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, it is a fact that President Trump initiated this withdrawal, signed an agreement saying U.S. forces would leave by May 1st. But the fact is commanders-in-chief cannot pass the buck because Biden is the commander-in-chief today, and he could reverse that decision, frankly.
And by the way, as we supported, he overruled his own senior military advisers who recommended keeping a force in Afghanistan, somewhere in the order of three to five thousand troops, not just to back up Afghan security forces but to maintain an intelligence gathering and also a counter-terror presence on the ground in Afghanistan, which U.S. officials acknowledged is now compromised because those forces will have to be outside the country where they don't have nearly the capability.
So, he can point to a shared responsibility, it's a rare consistency between the Trump and Biden administrations to withdraw from Afghanistan. But the fact is, as president, he could have done differently. And the sad fact is, Wolf, I have spoken to a number of U.S. military officials and a number of Afghans on the ground there who say that Afghan security forces took the removal of that U.S. force and the telegraphing of that removal as, in effect, a message that it was lost, that the Taliban takeover was inevitable and they gave up. Of course, they share responsibility for that, but that message reverberated throughout the country.
BLITZER: It certainly did. You know, and, David Gergen, President Biden, he came back to the White House from Camp David today to give this speech. Clearly, he needed to do something, say something to the American people, but did he really do himself any favors with this speech?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Good question. And I don't -- the answer is I don't think so. I think much the other way around. The speech along with the events for the last few days have been totally mystifying to me, Wolf. Up until now, this administration, the Biden administration, has been working well. They have been very professional.
They plan ahead. They work with the departments. And yet, now comes along this botch, it seems to be, to cover everybody. You're never quite sure who's responsible, who's not. But it's made them very defensive. That speech was defensive. It did have a lot of finger pointing. And you have to contrast it with commanders-in-chief of the past who have been strong leaders.
You were there I think, Wolf, in 1993 when the U.S. Marine barracks were blown up in Beirut and President Reagan got a report and he had a lot of auditing of what went wrong. And the report came back and said, basically, the generals and admirals really screwed this up. I was there in the office when that report came in. Reagan, picked it up, looked at the conclusion and said, I don't accept this. And he walked out to the microphones and said, if there is any blame here, it rests with me. I'm the commander-in-chief. And he took the hit.
The same thing happened in 1961 with John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. He went out and took the hit. And guess what? In Kennedy's case, he went up 10 percent in the Gallup polls.
So, yes, I think presidents help themselves when they stand up straight and they're transparent. In this case, for some reason, President Biden just doesn't seem himself. He just seems to be so surprising. And I think it's extremely -- it now plays in to the rise and spike in cases in the COVID, in other areas of our public life, you know, the storms and everything else. There is a sense, I think, this plays into a narrative that we're losing control of events, we're losing control of the narrative.
BLITZER: Yes. I mean, those are excellent points you made. And, General Hertling, President Biden as you know, he was adamant. He doesn't want to pass this war on to yet another American president, another generation of servicemen and women, but that doesn't explain the total chaos of this withdrawal over the past 48, 72 hours. Not only what we saw on the tarmac in Kabul, people trying to climb aboard U.S. military cargo planes, but that image of more than 600 Afghans inside that military cargo plane as it's attempting to flee.
I used to be a Pentagon Correspondent. I've been aboard military cargo, aircraft. You've been on board a lot than I have. Have you ever seen an image like this inside a C17 or any military cargo plane, more than 600 people trying to escape?
LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I have not, Wolf, but it just shows the techniques of the great Air Force personnel that were running that cargo plane. Every time I see C-17 pilot says we can take one more, I think they got a dose of what that one more looks like today.
But going back to your question, does this explain the chaos of the withdrawal, it doesn't. In my view, the decision to withdraw is a good one. But the planning and the coordination within the administration, between state, the defense department, the combatant command in Afghanistan, all had huge execution shortcomings.
I have done a NEO operation during my career. I know that there are planning assumptions that go into conducting these non-combatant evacuation operations, to which is what we're seeing. The five key assumptions are, will it be a permissive environment or a contested one.
I think we went into this thinking it was going to be permissive but, in fact, found it was going to be contested. Will the host government provide support for the departure? There is no host government now, so they're not providing support. Will host nation troops provide defensive techniques for the U.S. forces going in? Again, there are no host nation troops anymore. The Afghan National Army has disbanded.
Where we control the time line for deployment, again, the American planning factors thought that Kabul was going to stand for a much longer time so they could get the forces in on time. Will the State Department, who the military supports in the NEO operation, execute at the right time? There seems to have been a delay on this, whether that's because of the SIV program or trying to get the most amount of Afghans on these flights, I don't know. But it seems like there was hesitation.
So we have turned what might be a most likely situation in planning into the most dangerous one. And that's why we saw a whole lot of chaos today. The enemy got a vote, and we were on the wrong side of that vote.
BLITZER: Yes, the chaos was awful. And, Clarissa Ward, you're there in Kabul. You're risking your life covering the story for us. How do you think it goes over in Afghanistan to hear President Biden blame Afghans, the Afghan military, for simply refusing to fight the Afghan political leadership, for escaping the country after two decades of American involvement? How is this playing on the ground in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan?
WARD: Well, you know what's interesting, Wolf? I interviewed a very brave and brilliant woman just the other day who is the head of the human rights commission here, Shaharzad Akbar. And I asked her about this, you know, whether she felt angry at the U.S. and she said, yes, she's very angry with the U.S., but she's also angry with the Afghan government. She's also angry with the Afghan military. She's also angry with the political elites, with the corruption.
A lot of Afghans do understand their role in precipitating this crisis. They do understand the problems of corruption, the, you know, lack of cohesion with the Afghan forces, the speed with which they melted away and surrendered. And so, of course, they accept their responsibility in this as well, most of them.
At the same time, in this moment of absolute crisis and desperation, when you have much of a nation on its kneecaps, I think this kind of finger pointing probably will feel a little galling to a lot of people because there are many here who would like some kind of an apology.
And I don't think that they saw that in today's speech from President Biden. And, again, just to keep stressing it, it is not an apology for withdrawing, it's an apology for the way in which the withdrawal has been executed and for the way in which so many people feel that they have simply been cast aside as America washes its hands of this war.
BLITZER: Clarissa, I want you to standby. I want everyone to standby. Right now, I want to bring in Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
He's a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He's a combat veteran, Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air National Guard who served over there.
Congressman, President Biden says he stands by his decision that there was never going to be a good time to withdraw from Afghanistan. He wasn't willing to force this war on another generation. What was your reaction to his speech today? He spoke for about 18 minutes.
REP. ADAM KINGZINGER (R-IL): You know, I thought it was a terrible speech. It was a speech that, to me, seemed like it was focused on stemming the upcoming political fallout from his decision and from this disaster. And, Wolf, we are being failed and inundated with people in the Republicans and the Democrats pointing the fingers at who is to blame on this.
I'm going to say something that probably most politicians don't say. The Republicans have failed you and the Democrats have failed you. The last president failed you on Afghanistan, and this one is failing you on Afghanistan because the last one cut a terrible deal when the secretary of state stood with the now president of Afghanistan under the Taliban and released 5,000 Taliban prisoners.
President Biden had an opportunity to right that wrong. President Biden should understand that the chaos you are seeing now is just the beginning of what Afghanistan is going to be and that the vast majority of combat operations, all these people that are saying the Afghan military melted away, they were doing all of the fighting. In 2014, we basically said we'll do the logistics and the air support if you do the ground combat. And the Afghans were fighting on the ground. But the second the United States abandoned them, I mean, even faster than our European allies who are like, you are leaving right now? Wait a second. When any military loses logistics and it loses air support, you can't expect them to necessarily stay and fight.
I wish they would have fought more. But the president's speech today was aimed at stemming political bleeding and it is not the kind of leadership that we need in a president that, frankly, has been lacking both in the last administration and now this one.
BLITZER: The president, President Biden, did admit this unfolded a lot more quickly than he had anticipated. I assume he's referring to U.S. intelligence as well. How hard is it, Congressman, for veterans like yourself to see those desperate scenes at the Kabul airport?
And let me show that picture once again of more than 600 Afghans inside that U.S. Military C-17 cargo plane. You're in the Air National Guard. Have you ever seen a cargo plane filled with so many hundreds of desperate people simply seeking to save their lives?
KINZINGER: No, I certainly haven't. I think -- I hope there are warnings that are going to go to the crew of that C-17 because they violated basically every Air Force regulation in packing that many people in there. In the long run that will end up saving a lot of people's lives.
How did this get so mismanaged, I don't understand. Keep in mind, Wolf, just a few months ago. We shut down Bagram Air Force Base. Bagram, was a secure military installation with a gigantic air field. Can you imagine if we still have that? We vacated that in the middle of night. We surprised the Afghans when they woke up and we were gone.
If we have that and we could now be processing the SIV applicants through that or the thousands of Americans, by the way, that are stuck behind Taliban lines and can't even get to the airport, United States citizens that are stuck behind the lines being told to shelter in place because they have no way to get to the airport at this moment, this could be very different.
So, look, the decision to withdraw, I disagree with. But regardless where we are at the moment, the president needs to make it very clear to the Taliban that they have never defeated us on the battlefield once. They will never defeat us on the battlefield. And they will allow us to extricate every American and every Afghan that was deserving of American visa now and they will not challenge us. That's the kind of leadership. Because trust me, Wolf, the Taliban knows that they cannot match us. They did, however, crush our will to fight. That's the only way they won.
BLITZER: Americans have been told, Congressman, as you well know, for nearly 20 years, that the U.S. could build a nation, build a military in Afghanistan, but only to see the country collapse in about a week, in a few hours, if you will, in the capital of Kabul. How do you grapple with that? KINZINGER: Well, look, it is certainly devastating. And there is a lot of, you know, points in the past where we have been misled or we thought we had a much larger optimistic outlook of what Afghanistan was.
But before we look and just say that was totally failed, you know, as H.R. McMasters earlier said, look at the freedom that is being deprived from the Afghan people as the Taliban move into Afghan or moving into parts of Afghanistan now and you know how much freedom they had. Look at the number of women that are out there making careers, that are thought leaders, that are academics that never would have happened under the Taliban leadership.
Look at the fact that there were 300,000 Afghan military that were fighting the Taliban hard on the battlefield simply with U.S. intelligence and airpower to support them.
Yes, there were a lot of challenges, and, yes, we might have needed to be there for longer. We're in a lot of countries, look, particularly even in places like Kosovo. But the devastation you are seeing today is why that a small footprint of 2,500 U.S. troops was so important, because we have dozens of jihadist groups in Afghanistan anyway. Now, they are going to thrive, grow, plan. And beyond that, what is this saying to our allies right now and to our enemies? Because America does not look very strong right now, and when we look weak, that's when people challenge us?
BLITZER: And one of the things the Taliban is immediately doing as they take over the capital, take over the country, is going to the prisons, opening the doors and releasing thousands of Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda terrorists who have been held in those prisons. And they are now free and they are potentially capable of getting a lot of U.S. weaponry that has been left there on the ground because the Afghan military simply walked away and collapsed.
Congressman Adam Kinzinger, thanks, as usual, for joining us. And as I always tell you, thanks so much for your service to the U.S. military and to the American people. I appreciate it very much.
KINZINGER: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. There's more breaking news we're following. We're going to continue to take a closer look at the frightening implications for women and girls in Afghanistan now that the country has fallen completely to the Taliban.
BLITZER: We have breaking news tonight. President Biden saying he stands, and I'm quoting him now, squarely, squarely behind this decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan despite the shocking scene of chaos and desperation as the country fell in a matter of only a few hours under Taliban control and the grips extremist ideology has tremendous and extremely disturbing implications for everyone in Afghanistan but especially the women and girls.
Let's dig deeper with our Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon, covered Afghanistan for many years, and our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward. She's also back with us live from Kabul.
Clarissa, one Taliban fighter told you, Afghan women, and I'm quoting now can continue their lives. How do you explain the massive disconnect between the Taliban messaging right now and the reality of life under Taliban rule?
WARD: Well, the Taliban wants to project this image that they are a more mature, thoughtful, diplomatic political force and that they have learned from the mistakes of their past. In the late '90s and the early 2000s, they took a lot of heat. They were in international pariah, particularly because they refused to allow women to be educated. They say they have learned from that, that women can be educated.
I asked a Talib today if he would allow women to continue working as journalists, and the same way that I did as television journalist. And he said provided they wear a full facial covering and gloves and don't interact with men that they can continue their work.
Well, obviously, realistically, on the ground, it's going to be difficult to sort of compromise those two ideas or reconcile those two ideas, I should say. And so I think a lot of women will, unfortunately, clearly find themselves in the position of not being able to work or not being able to go to school.
This was the same trick that was played before. Yes, girls can go to school. But once they hit puberty, they need to go to a separate school, because there need to be gender segregation. But there are no girl schools. So then we have to wait until they build the girl schools and so on and so forth. And before you know it, you find, you know, a generation of girls and young women who are completely disenfranchised, Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, it's awful when you think about what used to happen 20 years ago under Taliban rule and what is about to happen presumably right now.
Arwa, Afghan women journalists, as Clarissa is pointed out, they are already getting very threatening, phone calls, home visits from the Taliban. Thousands are at risk of Taliban revenge right now. Does that explain this frantic rush, at least in part out of the country?
ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, Wolf, it not only explains the frantic rush out of the country, it also explains why people are so desperate to leave, because so many people do not want to live under Taliban rule. They do not want to subject their children to what it was that they went through.
But, Wolf, the big issue right now, actually, is that we're not seeing this massive flood of people leaving Afghanistan. They're not crossing the borders because the borders are largely closed or the roads to the borders are closed. They're not leaving on mass from Kabul airport, because the U.S. military has shut it down and is only allowing military aircrafts to land and depart from there.
And, you know, Wolf, I was talking to this young Afghan woman, a student who I had interviewed at the beginning of COVID, and she was part of this electronics technology group with a bunch of other young female students called The Dreamers. And they were putting together a makeshift ventilator using Toyota car parts.
And I was messaging her, and I ache for her and for all the other young women who don't know what life is like under the Taliban, who don't necessarily know what is coming. And she just messaged me back one sentence saying, it is all very painful.
BLITZER: So painful. And my great fear is what's going to happen to these Afghan -- the little girls and the women in Afghanistan in the coming days and weeks and months. Arwa, Clarissa, guys, thank you very, very much. And be safe over there. Clarissa, we're praying for you, hoping the best. Be very, very careful.
Meanwhile, also tonight, CNN's Brian Todd is getting reaction from veterans of this 20-year war in Afghanistan. Brian, Americans lost huge amounts of blood and treasure only to see the Taliban take over Afghanistan again. What are you hearing, first of all, from the men and women, the veterans who are going through a very painful, difficult experience watching all of this unfold?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. We've been speaking today with several veterans of the war in Afghanistan, many are simply trying to make some sense of what's going on there. But the refrain is mostly one of heartbreak.
TODD (voice over): As they watch scenes of chaos from the Kabul airport and Taliban fighters walking through what was once a U.S. base, manning American heavy armor, as they watch President Biden acknowledge their hardship.
BIDEN: The scenes we're seeing in Afghanistan, they're gut wrenching, particularly for our veterans.
TODD: U.S. military veterans of Americas longest war are speaking out tonight about the collapse in Afghanistan, many with a common refrain.
TOM AMENTA, AFGHANISTAN WAR VETERAN, CO-AUTHOR, THE TWENTY YEAR WAR: I'm so angry. I don't -- I don't understand the why now of it. And that's the thing that I think makes me even angrier, is why -- there's been no real reason other than it's time.
JACK MURPHY, FOMER ARMY RANGER AND GREEN BERET IN AFGHANISTAN: My sense from the veterans who fought so hard over there in Afghanistan is that they're just heart broken by this. Right now, they're out of the military and they are having to answer the question of Afghanistan individually for themselves, ask themselves that question, what did it all mean. And I don't think we're anywhere even close to being able to answer that question yet.
TODD: CNN has spoken to several American veterans of the Afghanistan war as the country has devolved into anarchy in recent days. Many questioned the timing, the manner of the U.S. withdrawal. Now, the Afghan forces they helped train have melted away.
KRISTEN ROUSE, NYC VETERANS ALLIANCE: It is really hard. It is really hard to watch this.
TODD: What should have been done differently here, do you think?
TRAVIS HORR, FORMER MARINE LANCE CORPORAL IN AFGHANISTAN: I think that there was a lot of trouble with Afghanistan as far as America never fully committing to one part or the other. We never fully committed to the nation building of the building up the Afghan National Army. We never fully committed to routing the Taliban completely.
TODD: With more than 2,400 of their fellow American service members dead, more than 20,000 wounded in Afghanistan, some veterans are expressing not only heartbreak and anger, they're also putting this in the context of another long, horrific American war in Vietnam. Chris Kolenda says six of his soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.
CHRIS KOLENDA, COMMANDED HUNDREDS OF SOLDIERS IN AFGHANISTAN: And the policy that we had in Afghanistan in many ways was in vain or many of the policies are in vain. But they didn't die in vain. They died serving, fighting next to their comrades.
TODD: Kevin Brewington, who lost both legs and part of an arm in Afghanistan says the withdrawal was botched, but he does not think America is making a mistake with this withdrawal.
KEVIN BREWINGTON, ARMY VETERAN WHO LOST BOTH LEGS, PART OF ARM IN AFGHANISTAN: I really think we should have left earlier. Personally, I think we have been there too long.
TODD: But Travis Horr, who served in Helmand Province and works with other veterans, has a concern about some of his comrades who are watching some of what they fought for disintegrate.
HORR: Yes, there is definitely concern with thought for suicide ideation with something like the news like this. It is always a big concern when we're talking about this and if veterans are thinking what was it all for. That can lead to some pretty dark thoughts.
TODD (on camera): While many veterans voice frustration, anger and heart break and others try to come to grips with how they feel about the collapse in Afghanistan, at least one veteran looks at it in some of the starkest and simplest terms. Retired Army Infantryman Isaiah James, who served in Afghanistan, told the L.A. Times that just after Osama bin Laden was killed ten years ago, quote, my mission at that point was getting back to America alive. That was it, he said. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Brian, Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you very much.
Let's dig deeper into all of this. Republican Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas is joining us. He's the ranking member in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's a member of the Homeland Security Committee as well. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: We have lots to discuss. But let's start with President Biden's remarks today, his 18-minute speech. He said the buck stops with him. But did that speech sound like he's taking ownership of this crisis?
MCCAUL: You know, to me, it did not. I mentioned that on your Sunday show yesterday, the buck stops here. He can't blame this on anybody else but his own decision. And that he tends to blame the Afghan military, the prior administration. He made this decision. He owns it. I thought it was poorly executed. I think it is going to taint this presidency to a large degree on national security, particularly.
And this is the frustration I had, Wolf -- was that ever decision was made, we were getting intelligence reports about the conditions on the ground deteriorating rapidly.
It was a very grim assessment. And yet they tended to go with this rosy picture at the State Department, the politics in the White House that somehow they were going to pull a deal at the 11th hour. They weren't even talking about this deal just a couple of days ago with Taliban. And not really -- it was sort of devoid of reality.
And so, now, the consequences are we're seeing the Taliban completely take over the country. We were seeing our intelligence capability going dark. Bagram shut down, no ISR capability. Our embassy now being taken over.
And the visual of the Taliban flag being hoisted above our embassy, that's a visual and an image that I think will be very damaging to a lot of Americans and the American people and the Afghan people are the losers. And the winners are Russia, China and Iran.
BLITZER: You were in yesterday's briefing by the defense secretary, the secretary of state, the chairman of the joint chiefs for House members. Did you get any answers on why the U.S. was clearly blindsided by this quick, speedy, hours-only Taliban takeover?
MCCAUL: Not particularly. It was on an open line. But I can tell you without divulging classified information that this was not a surprise. It was not a surprise to me at all. I think it actually went faster than the intelligence community thought so. But they were on pretty much a six-month track through the fall. Then they talked about 90 days out. And the assessment again was very grim and the Afghan sources without
air support from residual force, our light footprint, they didn't have a chance against the ideology of the Taliban.
And I just think it is so sad your piece on women and the veterans and what this means to them, it's just a nightmare unfolding.
BLITZER: The president certainly bears responsibility as the commander in chief. But it was the Trump administration, remember, that made that initial so-called peace deal with the Taliban. The former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually sat down with Taliban leaders. We're showing video of that September 2020 in Doha, Qatar.
Clearly many of the administrations share the blame here, don't they?
MCCAUL: Well, you know, I would meet with Special Enjoy Khalilzad, Zal Khalilzad.
BLITZER: He was the U.S. -- the U.S. special envoy?
MCCAUL: Yeah, precisely. He was the one setting up these peace negotiations with the Taliban. I always thought he was a little bit naive. He's a smart man.
But the idea we could negotiate with the Taliban -- I think the only reason they did sit down is they thought they would necessarily have to be a part of the transitional government. But obviously it didn't work.
And that agreement, Wolf, it's important to point out, was conditional. And the conditions on the ground were such, and they were being violated by the Taliban by not cutting their ties with al Qaeda, by invading the capital province -- cities and, so, I -- you know, we could all hypothetically imagine what happened.
The best evidence I have is talking to former national security advisor Robert O'Brien when he was talking to then President Trump. His comments were, I will not allow another Saigon to happen under my watch.
We could talk about hypotheticals. The fact is this commander in chief made this decision. He owns it. And I think it will put a stain on this presidency.
BLITZER: As all of us remember, back on September 11th, 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. We know what happened on that day. And now, as we're approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11 next month, the Taliban again controls Afghanistan.
After all this sacrifice, Congressman, was it worth it?
MCCAUL: That's the question every veteran is asking themselves. And it's so sad that they are saying this. And the idea that the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is coming up, and guess
who the winner is? The Taliban. Now, they are the strongest terrorist organization in the world. And radical Islamic terror will be on the rise.
And don't think for a second that it's not going to be a safe haven again and that we're going to have to deal with it. As you and I, many times on your show, we talk about these external operations to kill Americans in the United States when I was chairman of homeland security. I fear that we're going to go back to that time.
BLITZER: Yeah, thousands of Taliban prisoners have just been released from all these jails inside Afghanistan, including al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists and God only knows what we can all anticipate.
Congressman Mike McCaul, thanks so much for joining us.
MCCAUL: Thanks, Wolf. Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: Thank you. There is more breaking news we're following. Haiti now facing a powerful storm as the death toll, the death toll from the devastating earthquake horribly climbs.
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories tonight, including -- including the rising death toll in Haiti from a magnitude 7.2 earthquake. Officials have just announced that the death toll has now topped 1,400 people, 1400 people and now the country is facing heavy rains and flooding from a storm named Grace.
CNN's Matt Rivers is on the scene for us in Port-au-Prince right now.
Matt, how devastating will this storm be for Haiti?
It's already devastating. But how much worse is it going to get because of this storm?
MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, I just got word from the CNN weather team who were talking about potentially devastating effect the from this Tropical Depression Grace that is clearly moving into this area and will continue about 100 miles west to the main epicenter of where this earthquake actually was throughout the next few hours. We're talking about rainfall totals, five, 10, 15 inches, Wolf, overnight tonight in some of the hardest hit areas.
When you're talking about Haiti as a whole, the place that's going to get the most rain over the next 12 hours or so will very likely be the same place where the epicenter of this earthquake was. That is very bad news for people not only for search and rescue efforts, Wolf, that are ongoing at this moment, making it that much harder to find any survivors in the rubble. But consider this, nearly 14,000 structures have collapsed as a result
of this earthquake. That has displaced thousands and thousands and thousands of people now outdoors sleeping outdoors, in many cases in makeshift tents that will have to deal with this rain, which of course brings this risk of flash flooding, mudslides making it that much harder for emergency responders.
And even before the rain started, Wolf, we got a chance to take a helicopter to the epicenter of where this happened and see this damage fur ourselves, even before the rain started when the sun was out, you can see it was bad. We went to a hotel, a multiple story hotel that collapsed in on itself. We were told multiple bodies were still inside. Search and rescue efforts were difficult before, even more complicated now.
BLITZER: Yeah, awful, horrible situation affecting Haiti.
Matt Rivers on the ground for us there, thank you very much.
Joining us now, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond.
Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. Our heart goes out to all the people in Haiti for this horrible situation.
What's the latest you can tell us? What are you hearing from authorities on the ground?
BOOCHIT EDMOND, HAITIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: The situation is dire one, dire situation because many thousands of families are now without any shelter and efforts to see if they can put them to some public facilities and in the meantime, before we have some makeshift for them. The situation is really difficult one, and we do hope that very soon, we can alleviate the frequency of the families.
BLITZER: But this tropical storm Grace, it's looming and will make search and rescue operations, recovery operations even more painful, even more difficult. Are you getting help from outside of Haiti? Are people coming in international organizations to help you?
EDMOND: Indeed. We are getting help from our international partners, particularly from the United States so from Dominican Republic and then other places, I believe Israel is coming tomorrow, and all those certainly what we need to do, we need to make sure that those international assistance will be much better coordinated than 2010, and to make sure that the victims are the one who benefit from that.
And at the same time, we are trying to make sure that how we can get access to them because some of them are very (INAUDIBLE) and we thank particularly the U.S. Coast Guard who are using helicopters to bring those people out from places to the hospitals, to the cities where they can get some medical attention. But right now, the most important means are the medical supplies and (INAUDIBLE).
BLITZER: You need the medical supplies --
BLITZER: -- when it comes as COVID is still causing enormous problems in Haiti right now.
EDMOND: Absolutely because that's why hospitals were before overwhelmed with the COVID cases but now, having to add this on the current situation, you know, it puts more pressure on the hospitals and nurses and doctors and that's why we are wanting medical supplies and I believe it's very important to have them to save lives and to make sure they can be treated properly.
BLITZER: It follows the assassination of your president only a month or so ago and we even before the earthquake, we heard about gang violence. It's an awful situation that's unfolding right now on the streets.
EDMOND: Yeah, but the national police is doing a really great effort to try to put something, particularly the public order and those blocks, those areas where gangs are fighting, which is -- but the issue is at the same time, we need to do something. We need to intervene. We need to put order on the streets but at the same time, we need to work together with our partners to make sure --
BLITZER: Please pass along our best, all the people of Haiti, I know you're going through a horrible situation. Mr. Ambassador --
EDMOND: Thank you very much, Wolf.
BLITZER: -- thanks for coming in.
EDMOND: Appreciate it.
BLITZER: And good luck to you and anybody in Haiti.
BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.