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Biden Suggests U.S. Troops May Stay Until All Americans Are Out Of Afghanistan, Even If Past August 31th Deadline; Biden Says Booster Shots Best Way To Protect From Delta Variant; Biden Claims U.S. Withdrawal Could Not Be Handled Better As Taliban Violence Escalates In Kabul; Biden Denies Chaotic U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Is A Failure As Adversaries And Allies Question His Credibility. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 18, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: You can tweet the show @theleadcnn. Our coverage continues right now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." 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 with breaking news.

Tonight, President Biden is suggesting U.S. troops may stay in Afghanistan until all Americans are out of the country, even if it's past the August 31st deadline for withdrawal. The president speaking out in a new interview claiming there was no way for U.S. troops to leave the country without chaos ensuing. And he is standing by his defiant defense of the operation denying it could have been handled better, insisting, and I'm quoting him now, I don't think it was a failure.

This as the Taliban is now using gunfire and whips to block potential evacuees from reaching the Kabul airport. The Pentagon is acknowledging security has rapidly degraded, but America's top general insists nothing indicated the country would collapse in only 11 days.

Our correspondents are standing by in Afghanistan, here in the United States. First, let's go to Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. He's over at the White House. Jeff, first of all, tell us about this new Biden interview. What is the president saying?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Biden is saying for the first time that he is going to be slightly flexible on that August 31st self-imposed deadline if all Americans are not evacuated from Afghanistan. But he was less clear what the timeframe would be for the Afghan nationals, all of the Afghanistan citizens who helped the U.S. forces over the last 20 years or so.

He made these comments in a new interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. The first time the president has really gone deep into the Afghanistan situation since the Taliban takeover. Let's watch.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS HOST: All troops are supposed to be out by august 31st. Even if Americans and our Afghan allies are still trying to get out, they're going to leave?

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We're going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that mean troops will stay beyond August 31st if necessary?

BIDEN: It depends on where we are and whether we can get -- ramp these numbers up to 5,000 to 7,000 a day coming out. If that's the case, they'll all be out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because we've got like 10,000 to 15,000 Americans in the country right now, right? And are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out --


STEPHANOPOULOS: -- gets out?


STEPHANOPOULOS: How about Afghan allies? We have about 80,000 people on --

BIDEN: Well, that's not --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that too high?

BIDEN: That's too high.


BIDEN: The estimate where giving us somewhere between 50,000 to 65,000 folks total, counting their families.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the commitment hold for them as well?

BIDEN: The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone that should come out. And that's the objective. That's what we're doing now. That's the path we're on and I think we'll get it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So Americans should understand that troops may have to be there beyond August 31st.

BIDEN: No. Americans should understand that we're going to try to get it done before August 31st.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But if we don't, the troops will stay?

BIDEN: If we don't, we'll determine at the time who's left.


BIDEN: And if there are American forces -- if there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.


ZELENY: So, of course, one central question hanging over all of this is, is the U.S. military going to be able to move beyond Kabul to get to either American citizens or Afghan nationals out back to the Kabul airport. So that was left unanswered.

But, Wolf, President Biden also striking a defiant and defensive tone once again about this entire operation. He said that the chaos that we've all seen unfold this week in Afghanistan was actually inevitable.


STEPHANOPOULOS: When you look at what's happened over the last week, was it a failure of intelligence, planning, execution or judgment?

BIDEN: Look, I don't think it was fail -- look, it was a simple choice, George. When the Taliban -- let me back and put it in another way. When you had the government of Afghanistan, the leader of that government get on a plane and taking off and going to another country, when you saw the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to 300,000 of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off, that was -- you know, I'm not -- that's what happened. That's simply what happened.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But we've all seen the pictures. We've seen those hundreds of people packed into a C-17. We've seen Afghans falling --

BIDEN: That was four days ago, five days ago.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you think when you first saw those pictures?

BIDEN: What I thought was we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way which we can take control of that airport, and we did.


STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't think this could have been handled -- this actually could have been handled better in any way, no mistakes?

BIDEN: No, I don't think it could have been handled in a way that -- we're going to go back in hindsight and look but the idea that somehow there is a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So for you, that was always priced into the decision?


(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY: But, Wolf, that stands in stark contrast to what President Biden said with his own words just a month ago here at the White House, when he talked about the reasoning and the timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. So those words said here this afternoon must be viewed through the lens of what the president said on July 8th when he said that safety and security would happen in Afghanistan. Let's watch those comments.


BIDEN: The military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31st. The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart.

The likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.


ZELENY: So the bottom line here, Wolf, is framed in both of those conversations, both of those sentiments from the president. That is what Democrats on Capitol Hill want to get to the bottom of, what happened, how was this administration caught so blindsided and flat- footed by the rise of the Taliban?

It also has led to really extraordinary questions of competence and credibility of this administration's foreign policy. Of course, this president is someone who ran on his foreign policy strength, his relationships with allies. All of those have been put in question because of the crisis in Afghanistan. But again, we did not see President Biden give an inch on that today saying in his words, it was not a failure. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, his precise words indeed, I don't think it was a failure. Jeff Zeleny, I want you to stand by.

Right now, I want to go live to Afghanistan. Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward who is doing an amazing job for us, continues to report on what's happening on the ground in Kabul.

Clarissa, you're there in Kabul. First of all, what's your reaction to what we just heard from the president of the United States?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think my reaction is less important than what I would imagine the reaction will be of many Afghan people, which is if this isn't a failure, then what is? Because the scenes that we have been seeing throughout the day, the desperation, the complete chaos, shots being fired, tear gas, the nightmare that has become many Afghan people's living reality is ongoing, and there isn't an end in sight.

I do think that Afghan people will also latch on to that sort of glimmer of a commitment that we heard there, that I believe he said 50,000 to 60,000 was the total that he thought of Afghan nationals who have worked closely with the U.S., that there was a commitment to ensure that they would be safely taken or given safe passage out of the country. But, again, there're still so many questions as to how that happens and what's the timeline.

You heard him say very clearly that U.S. troops might stay a bit longer if all the Americans in this country haven't left yet but didn't really explain what happens to those tens of thousands of Afghans who are basically now camped outside the airport waiting for some clarity on their situation, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, it's amazing what's going on right now. When we're obviously hearing the president speak about it in this unique way. You are there on the streets right near the airport. And you were there earlier in the day. You met -- you were met by menacing Taliban fighters. It was a really scary moment. You were seeing fear and chaos and violence firsthand. Tell our viewers about that.

WARD: Well, the irony is the U.S. had first said that there would be safe passage to the airport. Okay, that clearly hasn't happened. And today, when we went to the airport, there were far fewer people than there had been in previous days. So you can imagine how chaotic it was in the days running up to today.

But still, you have this insane situation where the U.S. are controlling the perimeter of the airport. They have been firing out shots. They've been firing out tear gas to try to push back the crowds. And then you have the Taliban who are managing sort of checkpoints around the airport.

And let me tell you, Wolf, their methods of crowd control are downright scary. And so for any ordinary Afghan, frankly, any ordinary person from any country, you really are faced with a very dicey and intimidating situation to try to get into that airport. And we went there to try to give our audience a sense of what it looks like.


WARD (voice over): America's last foothold in Afghanistan is now guarded by the Taliban.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see the Taliban are all over and they won't allow anyone.

WARD: We've come to Kabul's airport to see the gauntlet people must pass through to fly out.

You can hear gunshots every couple of minutes.


WARD: Quickly, we are accosted by an angry Taliban fighter.

Can I ask you a question? Excuse me?

Cover my face?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cover. WARD: Cover my face? Okay. What is this? What is that?

He told me to cover my face. But he doesn't want to comment on that truncheon he's carrying.

The fighter tells us these chaotic scenes are the fault of America. The cause of all of this is America in Afghanistan. Look at these people, he says. America is really acting unfairly towards them. Why are they lying and telling them that they can go to America? Why don't they let them stay and help their country?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He doesn't want to talk to you.

WARD: Okay. He doesn't want to talk to me, all right.

We keep walking to avoid confrontation. A man follows us asking for advice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How we can enter the base?

WARD: How you can enter the base?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. They are saying email --

WARD: Do you have paperwork to enter?


WARD: Show me your paperwork.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To enter, no. But we have to do that, and they call on me.

WARD: Was this an Italian company?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, Italian company.

WARD: Okay. But I don't want to discuss it with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Okay, thank you.

WARD: Others crowd around us to show their documents.

You have Phoenix. You work in Phoenix.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it's my H.R. letter.

WARD: Yes, you were a translator?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We were working then.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you see this?

WARD: Yes. Can I have your picture?

Yes. So they're saying -- they all worked at American camps as translator for the Americans and they can't get into that airport.

These Taliban fighters are little upset with us. So let's keep going.

We decide to leave and head for our car. The fighter takes the safety off his AK-47 and pushes through the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stay behind him. Stay behind him.

WARD: You can see there so much Taliban fighters, they are just hopped up on adrenaline or I don't know what. It's a very dicey situation.

Suddenly, two other Taliban charge towards us. You can see their rifle butt raised to strike the producer Brent Swails. When the fighters are told we have permission to report, they lower their weapons and let us pass.

Okay. Now we're going. Get in the car.


WARD (on camera): And, Wolf, I do want to say that while the scenes at the airport have been very chaotic and very disturbing as you saw there, the rest of the city is surprisingly calm. The Taliban understands that the world is watching. They want to get this right.

They want to provide law and order. And so we definitely saw a lot of cars on the street, a lot of shops open, a semblance of normalcy returning to life. But that, of course, is all in jeopardy essentially by what's happening at the airport because it is so tense and just like a powder keg that could blow up at any moment if the situation devolves any further, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly could. Clarissa, I want you to stand by. I want to get back to you in just a moment.

But right now, I want to go to our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. She's getting news. Barbara, the U.S. military alluded to staying past the August 31st deadline but has not said that outright, unlike the president of the United States who just suggested, if necessary, the U.S. troops will remain on the ground beyond the end of this month, which has been the deadline. Is that correct?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely correct, Wolf. According to President Biden, this appears to be very much under discussion.

Now, in the 3:00 hour, we had a press conference with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. General Milley talked about getting every American out of Afghanistan who wants to leave. And that is a check we don't know that they can cash, to use an expression. There are Americans in Kabul who cannot get to the airport, even though the Pentagon says the Taliban are letting them through the checkpoint. There are Americans around the country who may not be able to get on the roads and get past checkpoints out in the rural areas to even get to the capital city. But it looks at this point like that may be part of the reason General Milley put that out on the table earlier today here at the Pentagon, President Biden also endorsing that idea.


They are going to have to get Taliban permission, acquiescence? Not very clear how the Taliban would react to this.

We know that military leaders in Afghanistan are talking to the Taliban. We're told the talks are about de-confliction, a Pentagon jargon that can mean a whole lot of things but basically trying to sort out who does what and reduce the violence and let people through, negotiations with the Taliban. That in itself is remarkable but they will have to come to some agreement if U.S. troops are to stay and the Taliban promised not to challenge them, and you believe Taliban promises, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Barbara, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, for all practical purposes, acknowledging there was a major intelligence blunder that the U.S. military was caught completely off guard by the speed at which the entire country of Afghanistan, the military, the political leadership, simply collapsed. Tell us about that.

STARR: It was a remarkable moment from General Milley, very candid that they simply -- they had a lot of intelligence scenarios. They have a lot of ideas about what could happen, but this was not one of them. Listen to what he had to say.


GENERAL MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The time frame of a rapid collapse, that was widely estimated and ranged from weeks to months and even years following our departure. There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.


STARR: So you can bet there are going to be months, if not, years of questions to the military leadership, to the Pentagon, about how they missed all of this and how on earth it could have happened with nobody noticing.

BLITZER: Well, as I say a major, major U.S. intelligence blunder. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

Let's bring back Clarissa Ward. She's on the scene for us in Kabul along with our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash is with us, Retired Major General, CNN Military Analyst Spider Marks, and our National Security Analyst Peter Bergen is with us. He is the author, by the way, of an important brand-new book The Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden.

Dana, President Biden seemed to try and argue this wasn't a failure before taking a second stab at the question, but he still is arguing this chaos was unavoidable. What's your reaction when you heard that?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a different point of view and a different message than the one we heard from him just a day and a half ago, which was much more, to borrow a term, straight talk, much more making the point that he promised that he would level with the American people and that this happened more quickly than anybody thought.

That certainly is what General Milley said earlier today. But how can you say this happened more quickly than people thought and then say, I don't have any regrets and this was unavoidable? The two kind of contradict one another.

And the fact is, as Barbara said, this is going to be looked at for weeks, months, years as to what actually went wrong, but a lot went wrong. And just looking at the pictures and seeing what's happening and seeing the look on the face of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that, in and of itself, speaks a thousand words.

And so he came across as a bit more defensive than I would have thought given how we saw him sort of try to guide the country just a couple of days ago.

BLITZER: Yes. And the Taliban has taken control of the entire country. The military fell apart. Political leadership escaped in only 11 days. That sounds like a total failure to me.

General Marks, the president is now admitting the U.S. withdrawal deadline could slide if they can't evacuate all Americans by August 31st. So, this deadline is apparently no longer a real deadline, is it?

RET. MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's fair to say when the president said that everybody would be out or at least the operation would be terminated by 8/31, that was arbitrary. And now, what the president has done is wisely establish some conditions, right? This was not conditions-based initially. This was a hard date and the United States was going to be gone, at least wrapped up an operation and be gone by the 31st.

He is now stated, quite frankly, we have a mission to accomplish. We have priorities for departures. We're going to address each one of those priorities. And if we're not complete by a date certain and we're going to push that date out. So I think that's a good thing. It certainly allows the planners, and we know that any plan, once it reaches contact with the enemy or the conditions, it's going to change, this is a changing plan, and that's a good thing.


BLITZER: You know, Peter, does it raise red flags, and you've studied Afghanistan now for decades, does it raise red flags to hear that the United States is now dependent on the Taliban to evacuate people safely?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I mean, the Taliban, you know, they want to -- they don't want to complicate the fact they just took power. So I'm sure that they don't want to antagonize us.

But I do want to address something that came up in the Milley conversation, which is the oldest trick in the Washington, D.C. playbook is to dress up a policy failure as an intelligence failure. You know, in fact, the intelligence last reported by Barbara Starr was, you know, that the Taliban could fall in 30 to 90 days, and that was about two weeks ago, I would say. So, you know, that intelligence assessment wasn't completely off.

And, really, the big problem was we announced we were leaving in April, the Biden administration, and then again in July, and the Taliban read the -- understand the media. And they had a plan. I mean, and so I think to blame the intelligence community for a policy failure is fairly typical Washington play but not actually what happened here.

BLITZER: You know, Clarissa, you're there in Afghanistan. We're already seeing signs the Taliban is cracking down big time on protesters, not only around the airport but elsewhere. Do you expect this new regime to show more brutal side as the U.S. evacuation continues, and God only knows what's going to happen after the U.S. evacuation is complete?

WARD: I think it's pretty inevitable, Wolf, that we're going to see a sort of tightening of controls. You mentioned today at that protest in Jalalabad, a bunch of people took to the streets, they pulled down a Taliban flag, they put up the Afghan flag. Taliban fighters then started firing on the crowd. And that's probably just a taste of what may be to come.

This moment, as Peter said, the Taliban knows they need to get this right. They want to get the U.S. out. They want to have the world kind of sort of have a sigh of relief and sort of a transition of power. They want to be vaguely accepted. But in the mid to long-term, the expectation from most people on the ground is that, absolutely, they will begin to implement their draconian version of Sharia law.

And I should just say that that was always understood. Despite the best efforts of the Taliban to sort of rebrand themselves as a more moderate political force, I don't think anyone who was participating in the peace talks is naive enough to imagine that they were going to somehow become progressive, okay? It was always, I think, understood that they would probably resort to this kind of behavior.

BLITZER: All right, Clarissa, stand by. Everyone stand by. I want to bring in Republican Congressman Peter Meijer of Michigan, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

I know you served in Iraq, you later worked in Afghanistan for an NGO based in Kandahar, you know the challenges there. But do you accept the argument from President Biden that this wasn't a failure, this withdrawal, that the chaos we're seeing now was simply the price the U.S. had to pay in order to withdraw after 20 years of warfare there? REP. PETER MEIJER (R-MI): I don't accept it. There certainly was never going to be a positive outcome but we could have prevented it becoming this nightmare scenario. The thing that we really missed was in the mid to late July and in early August the degree of local level negotiations, regional level negotiations between power brokers, between warlords and the Taliban companions.

Everyone was looking for their own skin. And as a result, that moved up, accelerated greatly the Taliban takeover and led us to being completely overwhelmed by the timeline.

BLITZER: And you've heard the breaking news, President Biden now hinting that the U.S. could stay in Afghanistan with military force longer than the August 31st deadline. If Americans still need to be evacuated, should U.S. troops stay on the ground until every American is evacuated?

MEIJER: Absolutely. I think I've been long troubled by this August 31st deadline over the past several days. It's 12 days away. We still have thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of loyal Afghan allies we haven't gotten to. And if we leave, we abandon them, we lose all control and the situation could spiral even worse.

BLITZER: After nearly two decades of war, did you ever think, Congressman, you'd see a situation where the United States would be forced to rely on the Taliban -- the Taliban to try and evacuate people from the country?

MEIJER: You know, if you would have said this was happening or where we are today, if you would have said that a month ago, you wouldn't have been believed. But we had dozens of members of Congress, a bipartisan group, urging the Biden administration going back to April to speed up the special immigrant visa process. And they failed to heed our calls. They said the nightmare scenario wouldn't come to pass. And it's so incredibly disappointing that we saw that over the weekend what we all feared.


We had time. We lost months, and this is here we are. BLITZER: Thanks for your service once again, Congressman, and thanks

for joining us. Congressman Peter Meijer, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

And we're going to stay on top of what's going on in Afghanistan, but there's also other breaking news we're following. President Biden speaking out about his administration's new recommendation that vaccinated adults could receive a booster, a COVID booster shot and receive it soon. We have details of who should get one and when, lots of news when we come back.


BLITZER: We're following a truly chaotic situation unfolding right now in Afghanistan and President Biden's defiant defense of the U.S. withdrawal as thousands of Americans remain stranded in that country right now.


There's also breaking pandemic news that we're following, President Biden saying just a little while ago that the booster shots are the best way to protect Americans from the COVID-19 delta variant. This comes just hours after his administration announced that people will be eligible for a third vaccine dose starting next month based on when they received their second dose.

CNN National Correspondent Athena Jones has the very latest.


DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: The time to lay out a plan for COVID-19 boosters is now.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): With new COVID cases and hospitalizations surging to where they were in November, before the first vaccinations began, the White House announced plans for a broad rollout of vaccine booster shots next month. Starting September 20th, the administration recommending vaccinated adults receive a booster eight months after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, presenting data suggesting waning immunity over time.

BIDEN: This will boost your immune response. It will increase your protection from COVID-19. It's the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that could arise.

JONES: Booster doses still must be approved by the FDA, which is still reviewing the data. But experts warn --

DR. RICHARD BESSER, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CDC: Boosters is not going to end this pandemic. What's going to end this pandemic is finding a way to motivate the 30, 40 percent of people in this country who haven't gotten any vaccines yet.

JONES: It's the unvaccinated that have hospitals around the country stressed. In the five hardest hit states, intensive care units are more than 90 percent full. Alabama reporting it is out of ICU beds.

DR. JEANNE MARRAZZO, PROFESSOR OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA AT BIRMINGHAM: It's really just a domino effect that then clogs up our E.R.s, clogs up everything else.

JONES: With more than 121,000 new child COVID cases reported in the U.S. last week, Texas and Florida lead the nation in new pediatric cases. While in Mississippi, a 13-year-old died just one day after testing positive for COVID.

ERICA EPTING, PARENT: I thought it was a cough. The child went to the hospital but they sent her home the same evening knowing she was sick. They should have sent her to a hospital to get her some help.

JONES: But the debate over masking in schools rages on. Schools in Broward County Florida instituting mask mandates as students return to class today, in defiance of Governor Ron Desantis. The state Board of Education voting to punish counties like Broward and Alachua for violating the governor's ban on such mandates.

In Hillsborough County, Florida, where parents can opt out of the mask requirement, almost 10,000 students are quarantined due to COVID cases. One school district outside Dallas, Texas, getting around the governor's ban on mask mandates by making masks part of the dress code. President Biden directing his education secretary to take additional steps to protect children.

BIDEN: This includes using all of its oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators.


JONES (on camera): And the debate over mask in schools isn't just continuing. It's heating up in some places. And it's not just shouting matches. In Austin, Texas, one parent reportedly ripped the mask off one teacher's face during a meet the teacher event Tuesday night, prompting the superintendent to call on everyone to treat each other respectfully. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Athena, thank you, Athena Jones reporting.

Let's get more on the breaking pandemic news. Joining us, our Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, she's the author, by the way, of a very important new book entitled Lifelines. There you see it.

Sanjay, does this plan, we're talking about boosters for all Americans, 18 and over, 18 and over, eight months after they had received their second shot, does it make sense when you look at the data presented today on waning vaccine efficacy?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Let me put it this way. I think it makes the most sense for people who are high risk and vulnerable. People who are high risk from continued exposures, frontline workers, health care workers and people who are living in long-term care facilities, who are vulnerable because of advanced age, things like that.

Let me show you the data, Wolf, that they're talking about here. This is some new data. Remember, up until today, it was really data that we are looking at primarily from other countries. So, what they were showing, left is the group of people who are health care workers, frontline workers, and look at pre-delta in the yellow versus what things look like with delta, this is in terms of vaccine effectiveness against infection.

So it dropped a fair amount with nursing home, long-term care facilities started off lower and dropped lower as well. So I think those two populations, you know, are probably the most at risk and most likely to benefit from this. One thing I want to point out, there're two messages here, Wolf. The vaccines, as they are right now, work really well at preventing hospitalization and death, the things we've been talking about since the beginning.


There does seem to be some decreased effectiveness against milder and moderate illness. And what they are basically saying today is we're worried because we see some waning and mild to moderate illness, that we may ultimately see decreased effectiveness on serious illness. So, let's get ahead of the ball is essentially what they're saying and that's what's driving these boosters.

BLITZER: Which is so, so smart. Dr. Wen, you are not shy as far as criticizing the administration from time to time. What do you make of this announcement today and how effectively health officials are communicating on this booster plan?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: I actually think that the administration got things exactly right today because they are being responsible. It would be irresponsible for them to hold back these data that Sanjay is showing. It would be irresponsible for them to wait until we now are having vaccinated people dying when they could have been protected.

That's obviously not what's happening but I think we're seeing this safety signal right now. There is a warning sign. And the administration is saying, we acknowledge this warning. We are letting the American people know that boosters are coming. We're not saying everybody needs to go to pharmacies and get boosters now but rather that we're going to have a plan to get boosters in place.

I think a lot of us in public health have been wondering why is the U.S. so far behind other countries. Israel, the U.K, Germany, they've already started doing booster shots. Why is the U.S. so far behind? Now, we finally see our own data, and I applaud the Biden administration for their work.

I understand that it may feel like whiplash because, only last week we were talking about immunocompromised people having access to a third dose. But I think the data are coming out now for everybody else, and I think we should be ready to get that additional booster when we are eight months past our initial vaccinations.

BLITZER: And very quickly, Dr. Wen, eight months -- and some of those other countries, whether Israel, U.K, Germany, they have to wait maybe five or six months, so why eight months?

WEN: Well, that's what the data show, but I would also hope that the administration allows for some latitude here. We know over a million Americans have already taken matters into their own hands and have gotten an additional booster dose. So, I hope that people will discuss with their doctors about their own medical risks and then decide whether a booster right now or waiting until it's time is the right option. BLITZER: Sanjay, as you know, people with weak immune systems, they already can get their booster shots, the third shot. But does the recommendation of the third shot eight months after full vaccination mean that the most vulnerable Americans will, for all practical purposes, be prioritized?

GUPTA: Yes, yes, it does because it's just the calendar, Wolf. I mean, so September 20th is when this may start. It's still pending FDA authorization. They have got to look and make sure the safety data and the efficacy data is in, so there're a couple of steps still.

But if it all goes, September 20th, so anyone who was vaccinated January 20th or earlier, basically, you can go at that time. And for the most part, that were -- you know because the prioritization in the early days was of the most vulnerable populations, because of the way the calendar works, it will essentially translate now into eight month after for those same people.

BLITZER: And just to be precise, only for Americans 18 and older, if you are under 18, from the 12 to 18, you're not going to get the booster shot, at least not now. Sanjay, thank you, Dr. Leana wen, thanks to you as well.

Coming up, we'll have more on the breaking news, President Biden now raising the possibility that U.S. forces will stay in Afghanistan past their withdrawal deadline at the end of this month.



BLITZER: More on the breaking news this hour, President Biden defiant and defensive as the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves thousands and thousands of Americans stranded and Afghans fearing for their lives. Listen to this.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Back in July you said a Taliban takeover was highly unlikely. Was the intelligence wrong or did you downplay it?

BIDEN: I think there was no consensus if you go back and look at the intelligence reports. They said that there was more likely to be some time by the end of the year.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You didn't put a timeline out when you said it was highly unlikely. You just said flat out it's highly unlikely the Taliban would take over.

BIDEN: Yes. Well, the question was whether or not -- the idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that the -- somehow the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was going to just collapse. They were going to give up. I don't think anybody anticipated that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: We've all seen the pictures. We've seen those hundreds of people packed in a C-17. We've seen Afghans falling --

BIDEN: That was four days ago. Five days ago.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What did you think when you first saw those pictures?

BIDEN: Well, I thought was, we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport, and we did.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't think this could have been handled the size, it could have been handled better in any way, no mistakes?

BIDEN: No. I don't think it could have been handled in a way that -- we're going to go back in hindsight and look but the idea that somehow there is a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens. I don't know how that happened.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So for you, that was always priced into the decision?


STEPHANOPOULOS: All troops are supposed to be out by August 31st. Even if Americans and our Afghan allies are still trying to get out, they're going to leave?

BIDEN: We're going to do everything in our power to get all Americans out and our allies out.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that mean troops will stay beyond August 31st, if necessary?

BIDEN: Depends on where we are and whether we can get -- ramp these numbers up to 5,000 to 7,000 a day coming out. If that's the case, they'll all be out.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because we've got like 10,000 to 15,000 Americans in the country right now, right? And are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out --


STEPHANOPOULOS: -- gets out?


STEPHANOPOULOS: How about Afghan allies. We have about 80,000 people.

BIDEN: Well, that's --

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that too high?

BIDEN: That's too high. The estimate is somewhere between 50,000 and 65,000 folks total, counting their families.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the commitment hold for them as well?

BIDEN: The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out and everyone that should come out. And that's the objective. That's what we're doing now. That's the path we're on. I think we'll get there.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So Americans should understand that troops might have to be there beyond August 31st.

BIDEN: No, Americans should understand that we're going to try to get it done before August 31st.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But if we don't, the troops will stay?

BIDEN: If we don't, we'll determine at the time who is left.


BIDEN: And if there are American forces -- if there's American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them all out.


BLITZER: All right. Let's dig deeper with chief political correspondent Dana Bash, CNN political director David Chalian and our chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

David, let's talk about what we just heard from the president. What's your reaction when you hear what he's saying now, at one point saying, I don't think it was a failure in terms of the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yeah, not a failure, and no mistakes. That chaos ensuing was inevitable.

Well, if that's the case, why didn't President Biden prepare Americans for that being the scenario for what withdrawal would look like? He didn't really lay any groundwork for that, if, indeed, he believed chaos ensuing was inevitable.

I think sort of no contrition whatsoever for the chaos we've all seen on our screens and the heartbreaking images that we've seen with defensiveness from the president. I mean, where he remains so committed, Wolf, and where his confidence remains highest is in this ultimate policy decision to ultimately withdraw U.S. forces. That's where he wants to keep this conversation. But obviously these last several days have taken it elsewhere and he seems defensive about it.

BLITZER: And he had made the point, David, just a few weeks ago at the NATO summit and when he went to Geneva that America is back in terms of the world. But America's allies are very nervous. They're worried right now about the United States.

America's adversaries, Russia and China, they're gloating right now. They're thrilled how the U.S. has been embarrassed. Talk a little about that. CHALIAN: Yeah, remember, one of the calling cards for Joe Biden that

he presented to the American people is 45 years of experience in Washington dealing with foreign policy matters that he was going to be a steady hand. And, obviously, what we're seeing right now out of Afghanistan and this withdrawal is anything but steady.

So it's not quite the America is back image that I think the president was portraying when he said that on the campaign trail and first took office.

BLITZER: Dana, how do you see it?

BASH: Exactly the same. And, you know, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that there are two different questions here. The first question, which as David said is the one the president wants to stay focused on is whether or not the idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan was right. And he's standing by that and he has multiple polls show the majority of Americans behind him for lots of reasons.

Then the second question is, the competence with which America made that policy happen, pulled the troops out, pulled America out. And it's just not really on brand for Joe Biden, the man who said I can do things and the man who said I am and continues to say I'm going to tell it straight to you, the American people, to say that that was done well because we see it differently with -- not well, but that he has no regrets and that it was executed as he thought it would be executed because that's just -- flies in the face of what we're all seeing. And so -- go ahead.

BLITZER: No, no, finish your point.

BASH: No, I was just going to say, the question that I think we all have to remember is, as bad as those images were, what is it going to look like August 31st or afterwards? Because ultimately, that is how he is going to be and should be judged.

What happens to the Americans who are there right now? And whether or not those 60,000 people, according to his number, of Afghans and their families who helped America, helped the U.S. allies and want to get out, whether they will be able to get out.


BLITZER: And as you know, Jeff, this president ran on the record he said 40 years of national security experience, international affairs. He was going to get the job done. But this is a rather awkward moment right now.

ZELENY: It is no question and this is one of the biggest tests and challenges of the Biden presidency. It would likely for any president. This is someone that ran on this.

But if you look back at the history of Joe Biden's tenure here in Washington, he's not always been on the correct side of these foreign policy discussions. In fact, that is one of the things that sort of infuses all this. He came into office with the promise to end America's longest war in Afghanistan.

So when I talk to officials here, that was the over riding principle, but questions that will be asked and, you know, they will be beginning next week on Capitol Hill when congressional committees beginning to have all these officials under oath asking questions, were enough hard questions asked about how this was going to happen? The exit, yes, was coming but was it too swift? Was it too abrupt?

At the end of the day we saw the president still defiant and defensive, there are many things unfolding and we don't know how this is going to end -- from the State Department, to the Pentagon, to the intelligence community, everyone is still not on the same page here. So we did not hear the president, you know, he said that he thought chaos was inevitable. Well, if that is the case, he said he's surprised by the fact that the military crumbled so quickly, if that were the case, why was that the case? Why was this, in fact, such a surprise?

Many long-time observers of the Taliban in Afghanistan predicted just that. So did the president, was he so forceful on ending the war, were there other conversations around his National Security Council, was he fully briefed?

So, I talked to one official here today who said, you know, we're lucky Democrats control the House and Senate otherwise there could be Benghazi-like committees and investigation. But there I can tell you, Wolf, many Democratic officials are very concerned, worried about this. And there are many veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq war who are now serving in Congress. We've seen them on our air, and they want to get to the bottom of this.

So, these hearings that begin next week will indeed be uncomfortable for this administration. So, this is not -- this is very much in the moment still unfolding here but that August 31st date of course, is that something we're keeping an eye on. Will that be extended? The president does not want that because he does want to end this war, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah. All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you. David Chalian, Dana Bash, thanks to you as well.

Meanwhile, Russia and China, they are seizing on the Biden administration's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. We're going to take a closer look at the global reaction, the backlash that has followed.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the crisis in Afghanistan. President Biden is denying the pullout is a failure, even as U.S. adversaries and allies are questioning his policy and his credibility.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen has more from Moscow.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Tonight, as the Biden administration faces global criticism for chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: American scared --

PLEITGEN: Kremlin controlled media isn't even trying to hide it's glee with the clear message the U.S. can't be trusted.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Now the whole world saw American disgrace and failure and how U.S. diplomats and staff are rushing around Kabul airport while all U.S. allies have pathetic excuses from Biden and Blinken.

PLEITGEN: Russia is still angry at the U.S. for Washington support of the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now, Moscow cynically saying at least the Soviet retreat was orderly.

Apparently, we overestimated the talents of our American colleagues and this army gave up without a fight, he says.

The unraveling in Afghanistan comes only two months after President Biden on his tour of Europe assured allies that on his watch, the U.S. would once again be a global leader.

BIDEN: We're going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges.

PLEITGEN: But so far, Biden hasn't done much to signal coordination with NATO or allied countries since the Taliban overran Kabul, as leaders voice disappointment in the failed U.S.-led mission.

ANGELA MERKEL, GERMAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): Developments in Afghanistan are obviously also bitter for Germany and other ally nations which for the 20 years following the 9/11 terror attacks fought against terrorism in Afghanistan under the leadership of the United States and NATO.

PLEITGEN: Meanwhile, Russia is not the only adversary looking to capitalize on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Top Chinese officials recently met senior Taliban leaders to extract security guarantees and revise China projects in Afghanistan.

Beijing's message, don't count on the U.S.

HUA CHUNYING, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESPERSON (through translator): Has the United States foreign policy failed? Will allies think it's untrustworthy? The United States and relevant countries will have their own thoughts and conclusions.

PLEITGEN: With the U.S. looking to wrap up evacuation flights from Kabul soon and allies in shock, China and Russia seem to be savoring this moment of American failure while repairing to deal with Afghanistan under Taliban rule.


PLEITGEN: And you know, Wolf, while the Russians are taking a wait and see approach towards the Taliban not recognizing them, the Foreign Minister Sergei has come out saying he's getting positive signals from the Taliban. Russians are also saying that their ambassador in Kabul has spoken to the Taliban and they have, as they put it, a positive attitude towards the Russians -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah. Russians and Chinese, the Iranians, they're all very, very pleased. The allies, NATO allies especially disappointed. Not happy at all.

Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thank you very, very much.

And we just received this new photo. Look at this. This is heartbreaking. This young child is sleeping on the floor of a U.S. military plane draped with a coat of an air force member. The child is now a refugee fleeing the Taliban regime as thousands more desperately right now are trying to get out.

For more information on how you can help Afghan refugees, go to and impact your world.

So, so heartbreaking what's going on.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE STIUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.