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U.S. Working To Accelerate Desperate Evacuation From Kabul; White House Says 11,000 Americans On The Ground After Taliban Takeover; Taliban Pledge Of Blanket Amnesty Met With Skepticism; Texas GOP Gov. Abbott Tests Positive For COVID-19; Death Toll In Haiti Earthquake Rises To Almost 2,000 People As Tropical Storm Hampers Recovery. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 17, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: See you tomorrow.

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.

Tonight, the United States is working to accelerate the desperate evacuation from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The White House says 11,000 Americans are still on the ground there amid urgent concerns for their safety. This as the Taliban is trying to calm global fears about their takeover of the country, promising Afghanistan won't become a haven for terror and that the country will uphold women's rights. That P.R. campaign though is met with lots of skepticism.

Here in Washington, the White House is struggling to contain the fallout over Afghanistan's collapse on President Biden's watch after his defiant defense in his policy. One White House official privately admits, and I'm quoting now, our confidence is being questioned.

Our correspondents are covering it all from the White House to the Pentagon to the Afghan capital.

Let's go to our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward. She's joining us live from Kabul right now. Clarissa, there are thousands and thousands of Americans and Afghans. They are hoping to flee the country but are so fearful of being attacked by Taliban fighters on their way to the airport. The Taliban just promised what they're calling safe passage to anyone who wants to evacuate. But is that happening?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what the Taliban says it's trying to do, Wolf, is prevent these chaotic scenes that we have seen at the airport where you just have a crush of humanity storming the premises, flooding the runway. But certainly their tactics are being called into question.

I spoke with a photographer just moments ago who was at the airport earlier today. He saw Taliban fighters at a checkpoint outside the perimeter of the airport beating people with whips. He himself was beaten at a certain point for taking a photograph of one of these Taliban fighters. And a woman and her child tried to push through and Taliban fighters actually shot them. They were not killed. They were quite seriously injured. But this gives you a sense of the chaotic scenes that are still playing out at the airport.

It is largely under control by comparison to the sort of epic images that we have seen coming out over the airport over the past few days but certainly still very tense on the perimeter, so many people trying to get in. The Taliban trying to keep people back, allowing safe passage to those who need to go but trying to keep rule and order in the way they knew how to do it, Wolf, which entails in this case shots fired and whips.

BLITZER: In Kabul today, many of them, they are so, so fearful of what's to come, so many of them are simply afraid to go on the streets. What has already changed for them potentially, though, under Taliban rule?

WARD: Well, so far it's difficult to see how different life will look like under Taliban rule. The Taliban is trying to say, listen, guys, everything is fine. We are a new, branded Taliban. They let government workers come back to their posts today. We went to a market. It was pretty crowded. But there are differences. You can already see it. People are fearful. They don't want to go out on the streets. And it is particularly who is fearful and who doesn't want to go out on the streets, the most vulnerable citizens. Take a look.


WARD (voice over): At the central Kabul market today, stores were open and people were back on the streets, or at least some people. It was impossible not to notice that women here seemed to have largely melted away. One store was doing better business than usual. For more than a decade, Mohamed (ph) has been selling Burkas, the head-to-toe covering once imposed by the Taliban. Business was good, but now it's even better, he tells us, more sales.

Why do you think you are selling more Burkas right now?

Because the Taliban took over, and all the women are afraid, he says. So that's why they're all coming in and buying Burkas.

WARD: Do you feel abandoned?


WARD: In an apartment downtown, we saw that fear firsthand. Until last week, Facila (ph) was working for the U.N. That's not her real name and she asked we not show her face. She's petrified that the Taliban will link her to western organizations and says she hasn't gone outside since they arrived in Kabul.

You look very frightened.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Exactly, too much stress.

[18:05:00] It is not easy for a person to work a lot with international organizations, having more than ten years of experience with working with international and now no one of them help me. Just sending emails to different organization that I work with, but now, no response.

WARD: Are you angry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I'm not angry. But as a person that who worked with them, now I need their supports. It is not fair.

WARD: You look very emotional as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, because I'm thinking about my future, my daughters. What will happen to them if they kill me, two daughters without mother?

WARD: The Taliban says they have learned from history and that women's rights will be protected. But many fearful Afghan women remain to be persuaded. We're on our way now to the home of a prominent female Afghan politician. She's told me that there are Taliban fighters outside her front door, so she's asked that I go in alone.

Fawzia Koofi was one of the Afghan government negotiators during peace talks with the Taliban and has dealt with the group a lot. She says that promising change is not enough.

FAWZIA KOOFI, AFGHAN POLITICIAN: You have to really prove it in the provinces across upon us. They have to show it by example. It's very easy to issue statements, but people need to see that in practice.

WARD: Koofi has ever reason not to trust. Last year, she was shocked by unknown gunman. The Taliban denied they were behind the attack. You have children.

KOOFI: I have two daughters.

WARD: And are they here?

KOOFI: They are in Kabul.

WARD: And are you concerned for them or --

KOOFI: I'm concerned for my daughters and all the girls of Afghanistan. I don't want history to repeat itself on them very brutally.

WARD: 20 years of progress for women in Afghanistan now hangs by a thread.


WARD (on camera): Tonight, we saw for the first time the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, journalist had been talking to him for years, but now we finally saw him behind the podium answering questions. And what was so extraordinary, Wolf, was the bravery of the questions coming from these Afghan journalists. They were not pulling any punches. They were pushing him on women's rights. They were pushing him on whether female journalists would be allowed to keep doing their job.

And one Afghan man asked a question that honestly just really stuck with me. Mujahid had been talking about this blanket amnesty that the Taliban was offering to people, and this Afghan journalist said to him, but will the Afghan people forgive you for what you have done for the scores of civilians who have been killed in your car bombs? And to which Mujahid said simply, well, collateral damage happens sometimes.

But I just thought it was so interesting and such a marker of a new moment that the Taliban, whether or not they have changed, Afghan people have changed. These young journalists have changed and they are willing to fight and speak out for what they believe in, Wolf.

BLITZER: I hope these young journalists are going to be okay after those blunt, tough questions. Clarissa, be careful over there. We will stay in very close touch. Clarissa Ward on the scene for us, in Kabul.

Let's go to the White House right now where officials are echoing President Biden's defiance on Afghanistan. At least one top official suggest there is no internal second guessing of the president's strategy.

Our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins is joining us right now. Kaitlan, the administration is doubling down on what we heard from the president, right?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They are, as his top aides who have been here at the White House speaking with reporters today as President Biden himself has been monitoring all of these far from Camp David, though he is set to return here to the White House in just a few hours tonight.

And, Wolf, he is coming back to a Washington where typically his allies on Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers, are even questioning his drawdown of the troops in Afghanistan and how this has proceeded. With Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Committee saying in a statement, quote, they want a full accounting for these shortcomings.


COLLINS (voice over): Tonight, the Biden administration is defending its exit from Afghanistan while attempting to manage the fallout from a chaotic departure.

JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: There have been questions raised about whether we should have down our embassy in evacuated our Afghan allies earlier. These are reasonable questions.

COLLINS: An internal blame game over why the U.S. didn't act sooner is underway. As CNN reports, an intelligence assessment within the last month show the Taliban were pursuing a total military victory. President Biden's national security adviser says they planned for months. SULLIVAN: Even well-drawn plans don't survive first contact with reality and they require adjustments.


COLLINS: After Biden largely blames the Taliban takeover on Afghan unwilling to fight, Jake Sullivan said he's also taking responsibility.

SULLIVAN: He's taking responsibility for every decision the United States government took with respect to Afghanistan because, as he said, the buck stops with him. I am also taking responsibility and so are my colleagues.

COLLINS: The top national security aide promising a review of what could have been done differently.

SULLIVAN: We will conduct an extensive hot wash, as we say. We will take a look of every aspect of this from top to bottom.

COLLINS: For now, their primary goal is evacuating the thousands of Americans who remain in Afghanistan with assurances from an unlikely group.

SULLIVAN: The Taliban have informed us that they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport and we intend to hold them to that commitment.

COLLINS: Thousands of U.S. troops are on the ground in Kabul with the mission of getting Americans and endangered Afghans out.

SULLIVAN: We will be putting 300 passengers on your average military cargo plane heading out of the country one another other, hot unloading and hot offloading.

COLLINS: Top military commanders are in communication with Taliban leaders that Biden said just weeks ago he couldn't trust.


COLLINS: Now that they control the capital, aides say it's too soon to say if the Taliban will be seen as a legitimate form of government.

SULLIVAN: Ultimately, it's going to be up to the Taliban to show the rest of the world who they are and how they intend to proceed. The track record has not been good.


COLLINS (on camera): And, Wolf, of course, what has happened in Afghanistan is being monitored by the world as well, including a lot of major U.S. allies. And until today, President Biden actually have not spoken with any of those allies despite the fall of Kabul happening on Sunday. But now he has spoken to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And according to a readout issued by Downing Street during that

conversation they had about evacuating people out of Afghanistan, the Prime Minister Johnson, quote, stressed the importance of not losing the gains made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, of protecting ourselves against any emerging threat from terrorism and continuing to support the people of Afghanistan.

So, thinly but not so thinly veiled there, making clear their feelings of what happened as well as we've seen these reactions from across the world pour in. And we should note, Wolf, there is going to be a virtual meeting of the G7 leaders next week. Of course, Afghanistan is going to be at the top of the list of things that they have to talk about.

BLITZER: Yes, lots of disappointment coming in from America's NATO allies, all of them stunned by what has happened in Afghanistan over the past few days. All right, Kaitlan, thank you very much.

Let's get a closer look right now at the increasingly desperate evacuation effort unfolding in Afghanistan, which includes a huge number of Americans.

Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is with us. Barbara, the White House says there are, what, about 11,000 self-identified American citizens still in Afghanistan. What is the plan to safely get them all out?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, yes, that 11,000 figure, nobody is even sure if that is actually accurate. Of course, that is just an estimate at this hour. The administration is still telling Americans who are in Kabul not to travel to the airport unless they have some indication that they have a flight, that they have some indication from the U.S. government that they will be able to get out.

They want them to shelter in place until it is safe for them to travel. So that is item number one. Now, once they get to the airport, there is about 6,000 troops that the U.S. hopes to put on the ground to continue to ensure security at the airport and to have it orderly and safe for them to depart. But progress is slow right now.

Today, about roughly 1,000 people got out but just over 300 of them were Americans. The Pentagon says it is going to ramp up that throughput, if you will, ramp up the average to get people out. But still only two weeks to go before the deadline of the end of the month and they have a lot of people to move, Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, we have all seen that really dramatic video of the U.S. air force military plane swarmed by people in the tarmac and Kabul. I understand the U.S. Air Force is now opening a full scale investigation; is that right?

STARR: Yes, they are doing that. You know, this is such a series of tragic events, Afghans so desperate that they would attach themselves to an aircraft and hope that they could survive. When that C-17 landed in Doha, Qatar, they found human remains in the wheel well. So the Air Force quite correctly wants to investigate and find out exactly what happened and find out how, of course, perhaps they can prevent this from happening again.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara Star at the Pentagon for us, so, Barbara, thanks very much.

Let's get some analysis, some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is joining us. He's a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

I know you are very close to the president.


You are a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Are you getting any specific answers for why the administration was, for all practical purposes, blindsided by this Taliban victory within only a few days?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Well, Wolf, this has been a hard week, as we have all watched the tragic scenes unfolding in Kabul and the unexpectedly swift collapse of the Afghan military and government. And I think there's going to be plenty of time for pointing fingers and for after-action review as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan promised today.

And we should be pulling together, Congress and the executive, our military and State Department to ensure that we get as many Americans and Afghan allies and partners out of Kabul safely as we possibly can in the weeks ahead.

The military has said publically when they get the airport fully operational again and they have fully secured it, they can remove as many as 5,000 people a day. I am hopeful that in the coming days, we will get to that operational tempo and be able to safely remove all Americans and our closest Afghan partners and allies.

BLITZER: But you have been briefed extensively over these past several weeks. Did you ever expect that the Afghan political leadership would simply escape, run away, get out of the country within a few days or that the entire 300,000-member Afghan military would collapse, put their guns down, all their weapons down and for all practical purposes hand over all that U.S. military equipment, tanks, artillery, everything else, armored personal carriers to the Taliban. Did you expect that to take place within three or four days?

COONS: Not at all. Wolf, I was shocked by the speed with which the Taliban swept across the country and the fact that, you know, after fighting bravely and hard for many, many years the Afghan National Security Defense Forces largely collapsed without a fight in many provincial capitals and that the Afghan government collapsed and their leaders fled. That was quite a surprise to me.

I will say this, Wolf, going back to my first visit to Afghanistan a decade ago, it is clear that our initial mission in Afghanistan, which was striking back at Al Qaeda after 9/11 and knocking down the capability of any terrorist group to attack our homeland from Afghanistan had largely been accomplished in the first few years.

And the expanded mission undertaken over four administrations of trying to build a nation in Afghanistan was very difficult, very tenuous and that, frankly, even after pouring tens of billions of dollars over many years I saw a decade ago on my first visit to Afghanistan that the Afghan national security forces and the government that led them were not likely in the long run to succeed in holding off the Taliban and in developing a deep and legitimate government.

BLITZER: Yes, I think it is more like hundreds of billions of dollars, U.S. taxpayer dollars that were wasted for all practical purposes over these years in Afghanistan and on the 20th anniversary next month of 9/11. The Taliban, once again, will be in control of that entire country.

As you know, Senator, a senior White House official is telling CNN today there is no second guessing to the president's strategy, but when you see this absolute chaos unfolding, shouldn't there be some second guessing?

COONS: Well, two things if I could, Wolf. First, this was not a wasted effort over 20 years. I have been speaking to veterans, to gold star families, to very concerned Americans who have been calling me alarmed about Afghan partners or Americans they know who are in harm's way in Afghanistan.

The men and women of the United States Armed Forces and our Afghan partners over the last two decades bought us desperately needed breathing room to push back on Al Qaeda, to degrade their ability to attack us, to buy the United States time to strengthen our own defenses, to build a global network of counterterrorism partners.

And I'll remind you that when President Biden took office earlier this year, the intelligence community's assessment was that the global war and terror has largely moved on from Afghanistan. And to the extent we face threats there much more from other countries, like Somalia, or Libya, or Mali or Nigeria, other places in the world.

And, second, yes, of course, there has to be accountability for some of the missteps here. President Biden, in a clear speech to our nation last night, said the buck stops here. One of the reasons I long admired and supported President Biden is he said he won't mislead the American people. He has been clear-eyed why he made the decision to complete our withdrawal after 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan.

And both, he last night and National Security Adviser Sullivan today, in a lengthy press conference, made it clear that they intend to focus on this urgent mission right now in securing the safe passage out of Afghanistan of our citizens and our key partners and allies and that there will be an after-action review.


BLITZER: But aren't you concerned, Senator, that with the Taliban now in control of all of Afghanistan with access to all the U.S. military equipment that was left behind that there -- and opening up all those prisons, Al Qaeda terrorists freed right now, Taliban terrorists freed right now, that there could be a resurgence of anti-American terrorism emanating from Afghanistan?

COONS: Wolf, that's absolutely right. That is a serious and legitimate concern. But I'll remind you, we don't have a significant true presence on the ground in countries like Somalia or Yemen or Libya. We maintain a robust counterterrorism capability that we've build up over 20 years. And we are going to be able to, we must, continue to maintain that capability with regards to any resurgence of Al Qaeda or ISIS on the ground in Afghanistan.

It is concerning that Bagram Air Base was abandoned and that that military prison at Bagram has now been opened by the Taliban. And I am concerned about developments on the ground in Afghanistan in terms of our security.

That is the sort of issue that we in the Foreign Relations Committee, the Intelligence Committee, Armed Services Committee will be focused on in the months ahead. But I have confidence in President Biden, his national security team, our military and our State Department that they will remain vigilant in protecting our country from threats overseas.

BLITZER: Yes. What worries me so much is so many of those Al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban terrorists who killed so many Americans in Afghanistan and NATO personnel are now free and for all practical purposes they're taking charge of that country. Senator Chris Coons, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the political fallout for President Biden as he faces very sharp criticism from both the Republicans and some Democrats over the fall of Afghanistan.



BLITZER: The White House says President Biden takes responsibility and stands by his decision as he faces very sharp criticism over the sudden and totally chaotic fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Even fellow Democrats are taking the president to test. Former Obama Senior Adviser David Axelrod said that President Biden needs to, quote, own that failure as commander-in-chief. Here is how the White House press secretary responded to that today.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There are a few people I respect as much as David Axelrod in the world of politics. He is brilliant. He's also a great human being. But he would be the first to say that there is a difference being between on the outside and speaking out on television and being on the inside and the difficult choices that you have to make. The president stands by his decision because he knows it is in the interest of the United States, our national security and the American people and he's not going to ask mothers and fathers to sent their children to fight a war the Afghans won't fight for themselves.


BLITZER: And David is joining us right now. Our Senior Political Commentator, David Axelrod. There you see him, along with CNN Political Analyst, New York Times Washington Correspondent Maggie Haberman.

And, David, so what is your response to that? Do you really need to be inside the White House to understand how badly they actually bundled this?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, first of all, I have -- we have a mutual admiration society, Jen and I, we worked together in campaigns, in government and here at CNN. And I have nothing but respect for her. What she did there what a good professional press secretary should do. She shifted the question to friendlier terrain.

I did not, in any way, question the president's case. I thought that he did quite a good job, frankly, in his speech yesterday about explaining why he thought it was time to get out of Afghanistan. But, of course, that's not why he was called upon to take an emergency speed. He was called upon to make that speech because the execution of that withdrawal was desultory and chaotic and defied what the country had been told would happen. So it was a failure. And it was a manifestation -- that was clear to everyone.

And I just thought, from the standpoint of his presentation that it would have been better to just acknowledge that and say, you know, we're going to take -- you know, he should have said more of what Chris Coons said in his interview with you just a few minutes ago. It obviously didn't go all the way it was supposed to go and the important thing now is to look back and find out why. But in the immediate, go forward and figure out how to remedy the situation as best you can.

And so, you know, Jen was -- wanted to shift back to the logic behind leaving Afghanistan. That wasn't my question. My question was what about the execution of it.

BLITZER: Yes, because the execution clearly was not what even the president only a few weeks earlier had anticipated. He said exactly the opposite would occur.

One senior White House official, Maggie, says and I'm quoting him now, our confidence is being questioned. Does this all raise serious questions about President Biden's credibility right now?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, certainly within Washington, Wolf, it is going to raise questions, has been raising questions. I don't think we know yet how the average American is viewing this, how much they care about this. We have seen -- you know, since 2001, we have seen interest in what is taking place in the Middle East go from an extremely unifying force to what we have seen as largely disinterest and disaffection by the public about what was taking place.


So I'm not sure that it is actually something that the public is that consumed with. Time will tell. It might be. It depends on what happens in the region. It depends whether there are new threats of terrorist attacks. But I do think that it is a problem for Biden that he can't answer, as David was saying, the basic question of why this execution was so bad without saying you are questioning my strategy.

I understand why he is giving that as his reaction because it is generally popular within the country to withdraw from Afghanistan, or at least it was until the last couple of days, I think it's a little less so now. But that is not what he is being questioned about. And I don't think these questions are going to go away with my ease and I don't think the White House is making it easier on themselves.

But I think in fairness to officials who are standing there in the briefing room answering these questions, they are doing what the president didn't do yesterday, and it is only going to continue until the president does it himself.

BLITZER: We'll see what he says tomorrow. He's supposed to be speaking again tomorrow.

You know, David, imagine if this was all happening under a Trump presidency. Just how different would the reaction from Democrats be?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think, first of all, Democrats have been fairly critical of President Biden. I think there is bipartisan concern about the execution of this mission. But, clearly, you know, Wolf, you are asking a question you know the answer to. We're in a highly polarized environment and so, you know, people tend to gravitate more to their tribe on questions like this.

The thing that I would be concerned about if I were the president is, you know, we have now -- this is a traditional thing in Washington. You are both very familiar with it. You know, today has been a day of finger-pointing, the State Department pointing the finger at the Defense Department. The Defense Department at the State Department and both of them at the intel community. The intel community leaking what they told the president and so on. So this is not what they want to be doing.


AXELROD: This is not what you want.

And so it's better to be transparent. It didn't go right. There are reasons it didn't go right. Find out what those reasons are. But in the immediate, also give people assurance that you are moving forward and doing the things that need to be done. BLITZER: What do you think, Maggie?

HABERMAN: I think David is right. I mean, look, I think that the finger pointing is something that this White House and this administration, in general, has managed to avoid. They have avoided a lot of drama. They have avoided a lot of chaos over the last seven months. And I think it was a point of pride for them, this scenario, not just in term of what we are seeing in terms of these images.

And I do think it is important, Wolf, there have been a lot of comparisons to Saigon, there have been a lot of comparisons to Vietnam. Certainly the images were deeply, deeply troubling and upsetting and I think are going to stay with people. But the circumstances in the country are not the same as they were then. And So I think that the White House is aware of that. But I do think they know they have a narrow window for at least trying to get their arms around this and they're not there yet.

BLITZER: Maggie and David, guys, thank you guys very, very much. Coming up, the Taliban disavowing their horrific history of terror and misogyny. Is there any reason the world should actually believe them? I'll ask the U.S. ambassador to the United Nation when we come back.



BLITZER: New assurances from the Taliban are being met tonight with skepticism as they disavow their history of tor error and misogyny, trying to portray themselves as legitimate global players.

CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The Taliban's P.R. offensive is now in full swing. Their spokesman claiming today that while their ideology hasn't changed --

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID, TALIBAN SPOKESMAN: On the basis of maturity, on experience, our vision, there are a lot of differences.

TODD: When the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, women were forced to wear burkas, schools for girls were closed, women who are unaccompanied in public places could be beaten. Today, when asked if Afghan women can go to work --

MUJAHID: Yes, with regards to women, as I stated earlier, it will be within the framework of Sharia law.

TODD: Within the frame work of Sharia law, women can work, can go to school. What does that mean?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well it's diversion of Sharia law, and you know work for women will be very limited. It will be in education, teaching girls or treating other women patients. Girls may be able to go to school, but it will be a Quran school and in this other point, when they become teenagers, my guess is that there will be no education.

TODD: As for the Taliban's vicious record of violence against women, another claim.

MUJAHID: There will be no violence against women, no discrimination against women within the framework of Islamic law.

TODD: Women's rights advocates say this isn't the reality on the ground.

GAYATRI PATEL, WOMAN'S REFUGEE COMMISSION: What we're seeing on the ground is that women are still being harassed in the street by Taliban forces. There are report after report of, you know, women and girls being kidnapped and forced into marriage to Taliban soldiers or put into sexual servitude, children being groomed for marriage, public floggings for minor offenses.

TODD: Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan's first female mayors of a town in Central Afghanistan, told Britain's inews, she has received death threats, quote, I am sitting here waiting for them to come. They will come for people like me and kill me.

There is another promise being made tonight by the Taliban, blanket amnesty for people who worked in the previous government, even for people who helped the forces fighting against the Taliban.


MUJAHID: I would like to assure you there will be no danger to them.

BERGEN: I don't believe this blanket amnesty for the government and for the military. They have already beheaded an Afghan who was an interpreter for the U.S. military.

TODD: Relations between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, according to the U.N., remain strong. On that score, the Taliban spokesman promised that on their watch, no death will be caused to anyone outside Afghanistan. But with Al Qaeda on the rebound there --

BERGEN: We can expect a lot more foreign fighters coming in. This will be tremendously energizing for any kind of Jihadi-minded person around the world.


TODD (on camera): Peter Bergen says once Al-Qaeda gets more organized, gain strength and more training and resources in Afghan stab, we can expect a tax on American interest, not necessarily on the American homeland, but certainly on American installations overseas or on possible soft targets. Wolf, that's a real concern.

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, Brian Todd reporting. Thank you very much. Joining us now, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. Is there any reason at all to take the Taliban at their word here?

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Wolf, it is great to be here. And what we will take the Taliban on are their actions. It is what they do, not what they say. And it is their actions that we will judge them on.

BLITZER: The U.N. secretary general is saying that they're already getting, and I'm quoting him now, chilling reports of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan. What specifically are you learning about those threats?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are hearing from people in Afghanistan that they are getting threats from the Taliban, and we have expressed in no uncertain terms here at the United Nations through a very strongly worded press statement from the Security Council that we expect the Taliban to respect human rights, including the rights of women and girls.

We have also indicated that they have to be respectful of humanitarian law and that we do not expect to see that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorists. But, again, it is not their words that we will hold them to. It is their actions that we will be watching.

BLITZER: And so far, we have seen several very, very disturbing actions.

So many Afghans, ambassador, especially female journalists, judges, anyone who's work with international organizations, they all say the same thing. They're terrified that they will be killed, killed by the Taliban. What more can the U.S., the Biden administration specifically, do now to try to save their lives?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we are working around the clock to get vulnerable Afghans who want to leave Afghanistan out of Afghanistan. We have secured the airport, and we are getting planes out 24 hours a day. In the past three days, we have moved more than 3,000 people and we will continue to take people out who are vulnerable as quickly as we possibly can until we finish the job.

BLITZER: Ambassador, you say America's commitment to Afghanistan's women and girls doesn't necessarily depend on a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. But how much harder will it be to fulfill that commitment now that the Taliban is in complete control of the country?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, Wolf, I won't say that it will be easy, but I will say that we will use every tool that we have, our diplomatic tools both here at the United Nations and through the State Department. We will use our development tools. We will work with human rights organizations with the United Nations to ensure that Afghan women's rights are upheld, and we will ensure that the Taliban are held accountable when those rights are -- when they break those commitments. BLITZER: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, we're grateful to you for joining us. Good luck. We're counting on you. This is a horrendous potential situation that's unfolding right now. And I know you and your colleagues will be very busy trying to do the best you can. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a Republican governor leading the charge against mask mandates just tested positive for COVID-19.



BLITZER: There's breaking news out of the COVID-19 hot spot of Texas. The Republican Governor Greg Abbott has tested positive for the virus. A staunch opponent of mask mandates, Abbott had been vaccinated. And you can see this video coming in from his campaign, the governor was mingling with a large crowd in a room just last night while not wearing a mask. You didn't see any masks, in fact, in that room.

This comes as the Biden administration is on the brink of recommending COVID booster shots for most Americans. CNN has learned tomorrow's planned announcement will include the first U.S. data on waning immunity among the fully vaccinated.

Let's bring in Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting director of the CDC.

Dr. Besser, thanks for joining us.

We've got a lot to discuss. But, first, as the former head of the CDC, what will you will looking for in this data that will be released behind this expected decision as early as tomorrow to recommend booster shots?

DR. RICHARD BESSER, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CDC: You know, Wolf, what I will be looking for is a sign that the vaccines are losing some of their effectiveness against hospitalization. There have been signals of breakthrough cases. But to date, there hadn't been data in the United States showing that people fully vaccinated were at increasing risk for hospitalization or severe infection.


If that's what they're seeing in the United States, that would be grounds, I think, for recommending boosters here, while at the same time continuing to push vaccines for people who haven't vaccinated at all, and doing a lot more than we currently are to help vaccinate people around the globe.

BLITZER: Some people as you know, especially older people, health care workers have already hit that eight-month mark. How worried should they be? How will all this roll out? BESSER: Yeah, you know, I say let's wait and see what the data are

showing. You know, until now, you know, the United States has been keeping track on any signals here as well as signals around the globe and while there have been signals of increasing breakthrough mild cases or asymptomatic cases, there really hadn't been for severe infections.

So, what I would expect to see, again, is a staged movement towards giving people a booster shot with those going first to those who got vaccines first, those at greatest risk -- so elderly, those in nursing homes, front line health care workers and then likely moving on to other people. But it will be very important that the data are shared so everyone can take a look and make a decision what they want to do.

BLITZER: We just learned, Doctor, that the horrible delta variant now accounts for nearly 99 percent of the cases in the United States. Clearly, we're seeing the impact of this much more transmissible variant, aren't we?

BESSER: We are -- and what it says to me, when you think about six months ago when the delta variant wasn't here, we were really focused on what is going on in the United States.

What this says to me is that we need to do much, much more to control this pandemic globally because as this virus spreads anywhere in the world, new variants can arise and thankfully, the delta variant is covered by our current vaccine but there's no guarantee that a variant couldn't arise anywhere in the world no longer covered by a vaccine and we would be in a much more serious position than we are now even though now is now quite a concerning place to be.

BLITZER: And what's your reaction to the news that the Texas Governor Greg Abbott has tested positive for coronavirus after banning mask mandates in the state and modeling risky pandemic behavior like this event he attended last night?

BESSER: Well, my initial reaction is I hope the governor does well, that he recovers fully and he doesn't develop severe symptoms. I also hope that it leads him to reconsider his stand on masks because what he's demonstrated is that people who are fully vaccinated, if they're going into indoor places wearing a mask is a good thing to do and if he can encourage schools to require masks, that will save lives in the state of Texas. Very important for him to reconsider.

BLITZER: And I know he's already taking the Regeneron monoclonal antibody, which is very effective. We hope he has a speedy, speedy recovery.

Dr. Besser, thank you so much for joining us.

There is more breaking news we're following. Horrible news, the death toll from that devastating Haiti earthquake has just risen again and a CNN crew arrived in one of the hardest hit cities. We're going there live when we come back.


BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The death toll from that devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti is now risen to almost 2,000 people and Tropical Storm Grace is making matters worse.

CNN Matt Rivers has just arrived in a very hard hit city of Jeremie.

Matt, what are you seeing there?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, we really just got here a few hours ago and yet, even though we haven't been here very long, the damage in this city is extremely apparent. Every block in the town behind me just below me has some sort of damage. Some blocks worse than others but some of the worst damage would be totally collapsed buildings.

We know hundreds of people of that 2,000 figure that you just mentioned, hundreds of them come from here in Jeremie, thousands of the injured of the 10,000 or so reported injured. Thousands come from here. This is one of the hardest hit areas in Haiti. It is Haiti's fifth largest city.

And what we're also seeing here or really what we're not seeing, Wolf, is in the time we've been here a Haitian government response driving through the town. There were no search and rescue crews. There were no real police presence, there were no firefighters.

There were no heavy equipment. It was really just ordinary citizens. In fact, we saw some citizens you can see in this video going through the rubble themselves looking for food supplies because that was actually a grocery store that collapsed. Food supplies are thin in this city right now. Anything can help.

And what the local government here, not just here but in other hard hit municipalities, Wolf, they're getting on talk radio to try and solicit help from the federal government. Talk radio is a huge industry here in Haiti. It's one of the most effective ways to get your message out and local governments are sending representatives to talk radio stations across the country asking for federal help.

One reason it's not here yet, it's a very remote part of Haiti, difficult to get to but a lot of work let to do here in Jeremie.

BLITZER: All right. A lot of work. Be careful over there. Matt Rivers reporting.

Our heart goes out to all, all the folks in Haiti.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: "OUTFRONT" next, President Biden returning to the White House right now earlier than planned.