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Pentagon Ramping Up Kabul Evacuation Efforts As Many Struggle To Reach Airport Amid Chaos And Taliban Crackdown; CNN Reports, U.S. Diplomats Warned Last Month Of Potential Catastrophe In Afghanistan, Need For Quick Evacuations; State Department: 6,000 People At Kabul Airport Awaiting Planes, 20 Evacuation Flights Expected To Leave Afghanistan Tonight; Source: Capitol Hill Bomb Threat Suspect Didn't Have Viable Explosive But Did Possess Suspected Bomb-Making Material; Three U.S. Senators Test Positive For COVID-19 In One Day. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 19, 2021 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer with our breaking news coverage of the crisis in Afghanistan.

Tonight, the United States is ramping up frantic evacuation efforts. Many people are struggling to reach the Kabul airport amid chaos and a widening Taliban crack down on opponents. The State Department says 6,000 people are at the airport, they are awaiting flights right now with 20 planes expected to leave tonight. This as the White House is struggling to contain the fallout from President Biden's defiant denial of any mistakes in the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

CNN now learning that U.S. diplomats wrote an internal memo last night warning of a potential catastrophe in Afghanistan and the need for quick evacuation. This hour, I will get reaction from the president's deputy national security adviser. He's standing by live. Our correspondent and experts are also standing by as we cover this breaking story.

We begin with CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood. She's over at the State Department for us. Kylie, this is major. What are you learning about this memo?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what we're learning is that about two dozen diplomats wrote this classified dissent memo to the Secretary of State Tony Blinken in mid-July. And what they were saying is that they were urging the department to take more actions to prepare for what they saw as a massive evacuation effort that would be needed to get these Afghans who would apply for these different visas and refugee status in the United States out of the country.

The context in which they were making this suggestion is the fact the Taliban were making these gains across the country. They thought it was inevitable that this was going to turn into a pretty bad situation. They wanted more steps taken to mitigate against a situation where the chaos was just out of control.

Now, of course, the backdrop here, what we are seeing is President Biden not saying that anything went wrong in terms of his administration's planning for this situation, saying it was frankly inevitable that there was going to be chaos ensued when the United States withdraw.

So there are questions tonight about such statements. And I think that those on Capitol Hill who said are going to be investigating this were going to be interested in this memo from these diplomats to the secretary of state. And we should note that dissent memos are only written by diplomats when they feel that their advice has gone unheard and they want to elevate it, they want to tell the secretary of state about what they are seeing on the ground. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Kylie, this is significant. We're following up on it. Kylie Atwood, reporting on the State Department memo, by the way, comes as President Biden is suggesting the chaos in Afghanistan was unavoidable.

Let's bring in our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, so, what do you make of this as the Biden administration is clearly on the defensive once again right now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And, Wolf, one big reason the president is saying this chaos was unavoidable is talking how quickly the capital of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. But this is a question that even Democratic lawmakers who are normally allies of this White House are raising, which is why they did not move to evacuate more of these endangered Afghan nationals sooner given something like this, what we are witnessing right now could happen.

We do know that is a process they are very much in the middle of right now, which is trying to get thousands of people out of Afghanistan, and the State Department says there will be 20 planes leaving Afghanistan tonight. They say that they have 6,000 people processed and ready to go as they are trying to move as swiftly as possible here.

Though, Wolf, we should note, it is unclear how many of those 6,000 people will be on these 20 flights that are leaving. But what President Biden has made clear to aides is that he does not like want to see any empty seats on these planes.


COLLINS (voice over): The race to evacuate thousands from Afghanistan is underway tonight.

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: We are processing people as fast as we can.

COLLINS: The Pentagon says approximately 2,000 people were evacuated in the last 24 hours, still short of their goal to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day.

MAJ. GEN. HANK TAYLOR, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, JOINIT STAFF REGIONAL OPERATION: It is not about the math. It is about what's ready to fly.

COLLINS: Of the 2,000 evacuated overnight, the Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby says roughly 300 were Americans. Thousands more U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon can't say how many.

REPORTER: How many American citizens remain in Afghanistan?

KIRBY: I don't know.

NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: In every country, Americans register with the embassy. So it is a voluntary -- it is a voluntary thing.

COLLINS: As he rushes to meet an August 31st deadline, President Biden has privately told top aides he doesn't want any empty seats on any flights leaving Kabul.


TAYLOR: We intend to maximize each plane's capacity.

KIRBY: We're not holding up a plane just to fill it with Americans and then setting it off.

COLLINS: Taliban checkpoints have made the journey to the Kabul international airport a perilous one. The U.S. is relying on commanders of the Taliban to let people fleeing the Taliban access the airport.

KIRBY: We have seen reports of the Taliban harassing and physically so some Afghans that were trying to move to the airport.

COLLINS: Biden was briefed on the latest by his top advisers in the situation room today. Yesterday, he told ABC News he doesn't recall if some of those same advisers urged him to keep a military presence in Afghanistan despite several reports that they had.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.

COLLINS: The president says U.S. troops will stay in Kabul past the August 31st deadline if Americans are still there.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS HOST: Are you committed to making sure that the troops stay until every American who wants to be out gets out?

BIDEN: Yes, yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How about our Afghan allies? Does the commitment holds for them as well?

BIDEN: The commitment holds to get everyone out that, in fact, we can get out.

COLLINS: Biden has remained defensive over the tumultuous draw down now saying any exit from Afghanistan would be chaotic.

BIDEN: Getting out would be messy no matter what it occurred.

COLLINS: That's not how he portrayed the exit in recent months.

BIDEN: We'll not conduct the hasty rush to the exit. We'll do it. We'll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely.

COLLINS: The quick fall of Kabul has shaken U.S. allies and left several European leaders questioning this promise from President Biden.

BIDEN: I also wanted to put the world on notice, America is back. America is back.

COLLINS: German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the U.S.-led exit, quote, sparked a domino effect that ultimately culminated in the Taliban's return.

ANGELA MERKEL, CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY: This is a very bitter development, bitter, dramatic and terrible, especially for the people in Afghanistan.


COLLINS (on camera): And, Wolf, we should also note from that Pentagon briefing today, we found out that there are U.S. fighter jets flying over Kabul to ensure the security of this mission, this evacuation effort that is currently underway. Though officials have said there have been no hostile interactions between the Taliban and U.S. officials so far. All of this is likely to be front and center when there is a virtual briefing by the top national security aides in the administration with senators tomorrow, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Kaitlan, I want you to standby. I want to bring you back in just a moment.

But right now, I want to go to the Afghan capital for a firsthand report of what's actually happening right now on the ground. Here is our CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, things had been relatively calm in the capital. Up until today, we heard a lot of gunfire this afternoon, pretty much continuous for about half an hour. And our Colleague Najibullah Quraishi was actually out on the streets and saw a large number of people running down the street, telling him that essentially Taliban fighters had opened fire on a crowd of people who had gathered and who were waiving the Afghan flag.

Today is Afghanistan's Independence Day. Those people participating in a sort of march or parade in support of the Afghan flag. Up until now, Wolf, the Taliban had say you can fly whatever flag you want. But yesterday, we saw them crack down on a protest in Jalalabad where people took down the Taliban flag and put up the Afghan flag and, again, we're seeing that today in Kabul. So some concern, apparently, shopkeepers started to put down their shops, close up. There was a little bit of panic for a moment. It is calmer again now, Wolf, and all eyes really continue to be on the airport. The scenes there are continuously biblical in proportion, crowds of thousands of people, particularly by the east gate, desperately trying to get in, still seeing those Taliban fighters around the front, beating people back.

Also seeing another rim of people, of Afghan commandos who are working with U.S. forces beyond that first barrier of Taliban fighters. So it is pretty much impossible for Afghan nationals, no matter how long they worked with the U.S. to get in to the airport at this stage. It is pretty much only westerners who are able to get in and get out.

And I should add that as a result, what we're hearing from inside the airport is that those flights have not been full and there has been a hold up in getting those flights packed up with people and off the ground. We are now hearing, though, that there are more flights scheduled tonight, trying to reduce that bottleneck and get this evacuation effort moving. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Clarissa. Clarissa Ward in Kabul for us, thank you very much.


I want to bring back Kaitlan, she's over at the White House, along with CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen. He advised four U.S. president, and Global Affairs Expert Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. Guys, thank you very much.

Ian, this dissent memo from diplomats and officials at the U.S. embassy in Kabul last month is not something to be taken lightly, but these diplomats felt they were being seen as simply alarmists because they had a different perspective on how awful the situation was unfolding in Afghanistan. Does that speak to an apparent lack of urgency inside the Biden administration?

IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP AND GZERO MEDIA: It certainly speaks to a lack of honesty with President Biden's speech this week to the public. I'll tell you, I mean, I haven't been talking to the diplomats that wrote that dissent memo but I have been talking to the diplomats from America's allies, Canada and all across Europe in NATO.

And if they have had the option to write a dissent memo, they would have. They have been expressing privately very loudly their animosity, their anger with the United States, that the U.S. decided to make this -- execute this withdrawal completely unilaterally.

They weren't talking with the allies despite them fighting side by side with us for 20 years. They were deeply concerned. The Brits are so concerned that they even floated the prospect of the French and the Germans staying on the ground with the U.K. in a coalition of the willing without the United States. The Germans and the French said no.

But it's very clear that the Biden administration, which so many allies had seen as being a real departure from America first of the Trump administration, today, no matter what the Biden administration says, that they could do no wrong, the fact is that American allies, our closest allies around the world are seeing this very, very differently.

BLITZER: Yes. And so, so disturbing. You know, David, President Biden told ABC News there was no consensus, his words, no consensus on the intelligence but, clearly, there were top military and diplomatic officials on the ground seeing what was going on in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. They were raising the alarm last month, weren't they? David?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, I'm sorry. Yes. Listen, I think this -- that we've had real problems now with allies around the world, just as Ian said, we also had a problem with our allies in Afghanistan, and both are really critical to us. Our allies -- one of the biggest problems the president has now, what is threatened is his credibility. Up until this time he said, listen, I'm a straight shooter. You can count on me to tell you the truth. And so far, in his presence, he's done that. But in this instance, I'm afraid that's not been the case.

On several occasions, the president said things that either contradict the fact or contradict himself. He said we would protect all the friends, thousands of friends we have in Afghanistan that put their lives on the line to support Americans when they have been in Kabul and other places in Afghanistan. And now it looks increasingly like a lot of them are not going to make it out.

You know, we have not had orderly planning. Who planned the path, getting from people houses to the airport, which has been such an obstacles? Why wasn't that in the plan so that that could be made safely? You know, it is almost as if sometimes when you listen, you think, are they getting ready to put a great banner and saying, mission accomplished.

BLITZER: Yes. It's obviously awful what's going on right now.

You know, Kaitlan, the Biden administration clearly attempting damage control. But the situation is around the Kabul airport is dire right now. The U.S. can't guarantee safe passage for American citizens, friendly Afghans, third country individuals who want to get out. They can't provide that safe passage to the airport. What will it take? What are you hearing from officials over there to get a real handle on this crisis?

COLLINS: Well, those are big questions that are also facing the Pentagon, which is right now, they are saying, our mission is solely at the airport. That is where we are staying. We are directing traffic. We are in control of the airport. And that's our capability right now, not to actually go up into Kabul and get those Americans who some reports have been unable to get to the airport.

Or if you look at the journey and you look at Clarissa's reporting just how treacherous it is to go out in public and try to get to the airport, you know, you are really taking a lot of risk to do that. And the State Department has been clear that they cannot guarantee the safe passage to the airport.

And the defense of the White House when you ask officials about this is we have been warning people for months to get out. And, of course, now it is still their responsibility to help those U.S. citizens get out but also those endangered Afghans who are trying to make their way to the airport as well.

But, Wolf, if you look at how dire this situation is, it really all hinges on the Taliban. The Taliban right now are the ones who have the checkpoints set up on the way to the airport and they're making decisions about who they are letting in to those checkpoints.


Those are the people, the endangered Afghans, who are fleeing Afghanistan because they feel like they have targets on their back by the Taliban and now they're counting on them to let them through these checkpoints to get to the airport. To just give you a sense of the White House is saying, yes, we have got this under control at the airport, but, still, on its faces, this is a pretty dire situation.

BLITZER: Very dire indeed. Ian, what do you make of President Biden saying he can't, in his word recall, if any of his military advisers ever recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to stabilize the country?

BREMMER: Well look, I think, unlike Obama and even Trump, who both ended up negotiating with senior generals and as a consequence stayed in Afghanistan, in the case of Obama even expanded troops beyond what they wanted to do, Biden had made a very strong and strategic decision that he was going to get out. And as a consequence, he wasn't engaging in those negotiations and senior generals felt like they weren't being listened to. That's part of why you have this dissent memo that you were just talking about.

But I also think that the Biden calculus is that, you know, as long as they get the Americans out, and there are reasons to believe the Taliban wants these Americans out too, and the lives of these Afghans are incredibly important but maybe not to the average American that, ultimately, this isn't so much of a political crisis for Biden at home, that $3.5 trillion in infrastructure matters a lot more than $2.2 trillion wasted over 20 years on Afghanistan. I do think, Wolf, that's the calculus.

I'm just concerned that the knock on damage to America's relationships and legitimacy around the world is quite significant and isn't being taken into consideration.

BLITZER: It's very significant. All right Ian, thank you very much. David, Kaitlan, thanks to you as well.

Just ahead, CNN is learning, once again, the breaking news, that top U.S. diplomats warned last month of a potential catastrophe in Afghanistan and the need for quick U.S. evacuations. We are going to talk about that and more with President Biden's deputy national security adviser. He's standing by live at the White House. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLITZER: We have breaking news tonight, sources telling CNN that U.S. diplomats in Kabul warned last month a potential catastrophe in Afghanistan as Taliban forces swept the country and also warned of a possible need for quick evacuations.

All right, joining us now to discuss this and more, President Biden's Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer. Jonathan, thank you very much for joining us. I know these are hectic moments for you and everyone at the White House right now.

These diplomats in Kabul, we're told, warned the U.S. wasn't prepared for a rapid collapse of Afghanistan which they saw unfolding. Why did they feel ignored and why did they have to resort what they called this dissent memo?

JONATHAN FINER, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: First of all, Wolf, I want to say I worked at the State Department in a previous administration. I have enormous respect for the expertise of our career diplomats and the risk that they take every day, none more so than in places like Kabul where these diplomats referenced were working.

I'll let the State Department speak to the details of this same cable. But I will mention a few key points. One is that the cable, as I understand, had predicted the potential fall of the Afghan government in the aftermath of a U.S. troop drawdown on August 31th. Obviously, that will happen even more quickly than the cable, which was quite concerned about this possibility projected.

The second thing the cable asked for was evacuation flights by the U.S. government of special immigrant visa applicants, Afghans who work alongside our mission in Afghanistan. They asked for those to begin by August 1st. We began those flights in July.

And so, look, I think what we have said all along is when we are assessing the situation in Afghanistan, we take a number of inputs. We get intelligence, we get diplomatic reporting from our embassies in the field, we read open source reporting and watch the reports of our news organizations, like CNN, and we make the best assessment that we can. And I think the cable reflects what we said all along, which is that nobody had this exactly right in predicting that the government and army of Afghanistan were going to collapse in a matter of days.

BLITZER: The president, as you know, says there was no consensus as far as intelligence. But how can he argue that this chaos was inevitable when just over a month ago he promised an orderly withdrawal?

FINER: Look, Wolf, what I would say about this is when a country's army and its government go from existing to essentially melting away in a matter of days, there is a degree of turbulence that is going to be inevitable in that situation, particularly in a place that is politically as complex and had the sort of history in recent decades that Afghanistan has.

But we had a plan in place for this eventuality and that is why the president prepositioned U.S. military forces in the gulf so that we can flow those forces directly to Kabul as soon as things started to melt down. That is why we are able to evacuate our embassy, drawdown our diplomatic presence to a core that is now functioning at the airport in Kabul. And that is why we're able to start within a matter of days these evacuation flights on a pre-significant pace that is escalating day by bay, getting thousands of people out of the country, U.S. citizens, Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. and other Afghans who are in urgent need.

BLITZER: You're the deputy national security adviser to the president. Is the nation, Jonathan, more secure right now than it was before President Biden announced this full withdrawal from Afghanistan?


FINER: I'm not going to make an assessment yet as this is evolving in real-time, the situation in Afghanistan. We are extremely focused right now on one mission, on securing the airport facility. And we've got several thousand troops now in place to make that facility as hard as it possibly can be to outsiders who may be trying to target it and flowing our aircraft into that facility so that we can evacuate people who are in need in Afghanistan. That is job one, two and three. And I will leave it to others for an overall assessment because we are very focused on the day-to-day right now.

BLITZER: The president has acknowledged that U.S. troops could remain in Afghanistan pass the August 31st withdrawal deadline if Americans still need evacuating. How much longer past that date, Jonathan, could we see U.S. troops in Afghanistan?

FINER: The one thing I want to make very clear is we are committed to helping any American in Afghanistan that wants to get out of the country to get out of the country. We believe we can do that by August 31st, and we are working in real-time to execute that mission. We have been in close and constant communication with American citizens in Afghanistan from the beginning of this administration and, frankly, before, urging them to get out of the country.

As the situation continued to deteriorate in recent weeks and months, we sent messages warning of that deterioration, including even offering financial assistance for people who might need it to get commercial flights out of the country. We communicated again with American citizens today, offering to help facilitate their exit from Afghanistan and we are committed to getting that done.

BLITZER: A lot of them apparently can't get even to the embassy. So is there a date? Is it going to be a few days into September or a few weeks, months? Will it be forever? What's your assessment?

FINER: I mean, again, I will say we believe that we can get out Americans who want to get out by the deadline of August 31st. And we are working day in, day out, hour-by-hour including some extraordinary efforts on the ground right now in real-time, by our military personnel by our diplomats to facilitate American's exit from Afghanistan. That is the number one mission that they've got.

BLITZER: Let's see if that happens. Jonathan Finer, good luck. Thanks so much for joining us.

FINER: Thanks very much.

BLITZER: Coming up, thousands of Afghan refugees who helped American forces are trying to flee the new Taliban regime tonight. But despite risking their lives for the U.S., some say they're not welcome here.

Plus, new details right now. The hours-long standoff up on Capitol Hill between police and a man who claimed to have a gun.



BLITZER: We have breaking news tonight. Thousands of people desperately waiting at the Kabul airport to flee the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan, not only Americans but many Afghans who worked with the United States over its 20-year presence in the country and other Afghans the State Department calls vulnerable.

Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. He's working this story for us. Brian, growing controversy here in the United States right now about bringing these Afghan refugees to the United States.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. There could be as many as 30,000 Afghan refugees in the pipeline to come to the U.S. as a result of this crisis. Tonight, some Americans are hitting on the need to get them here, saying many of them are heroes who work with Americans in Afghanistan. But others say they will place an undue burden on the U.S. and are even talking about security risks.


TODD (voice over): Tonight, some Afghan evacuees who have been granted so-called special immigrant visas or SIV's arriving in the United States and some governors have stepped up to say they're welcome in their States.

GOV. TONY EVERS (D-WI): We have open arms here in Wisconsin.

TODD: Governor Tony Evers is a Democrat. At least nine Republican governors also say their States will welcome Afghan refugees. So far, the U.S. government has relocated around 2,000 Afghan visa applicants to the United States during the current crisis but could potentially bring in up to 30,000. Some have landed at Dulles Airport near Washington. Others are being housed temporarily at Fort Lee, Virginia. Pentagon officials say military bases in Texas and Wisconsin may also house some. But in the long-term --

KRISH O'MARA VIGNARAJAH, LUTHERAN IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE SERVICE: For some, they may have a family tie. For others, they may want to go where other Afghans have gone before. So as a result, we see particular concentrations in Texas, California, the D.C. metro area, including Maryland and Virginia and then Pennsylvania.

TODD: But tonight, there is push back from some conservative political figures on the plan to bring Afghan evacuees to America. Stephen Miller, former top adviser to President Trump, went on Fox News to say that resettling Afghans is little more than a costly political move.

STEPHEN MILLER, FORMER TRUMP SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Those who are advocating mass Afghan resettlement in this country are doing so for political, not humanitarian reasons. It is extraordinarily expensive to resettle a refugee in the United States. They get free health care, they get free education, they get free housing, they get free food.

TODD: Plus, Miller suggested without evidence that Afghans who have been granted those visas could pose security threats.

MILLER: We no longer are in control of the central apparatus in Afghanistan to be able to vet anybody.

TODD: Advocates who have helped Afghan refugees are pushing back hard on Miller, saying it is unconscionable for him to reject those who helped U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and in some cases, saved American lives.

MATT ZELLER, CO-FOUNDER, NO ONE LEFT BEHIND: There is no us and them. There is just an, us. And you know what, Stephen Miller never wore a uniform a day in his life.

TODD: Krish O'mara Vignarajah, whose group has helped resettle thousands of refugees, points out in the past, refugees like those from Vietnam, by and large, made their American communities stronger.


As for any possible security risks among these arriving Afghans --

VIGNARAJAH: That couldn't be farther from the truth. These are individuals who went through a 14-part process in order to enter the U.S. they went through bio metric checks. They went through CIA and Interpol databases, in-person interviews, medical examinations.


TODD (on camera): Krish O'mara Vignarajah, also says these Afghans are arriving in the U.S. with valuable skills. They served as interpreters, engineering, doctors, drivers, meatpackers, security guards, she says, people who are especially needed in the United States right now given the labor shortage caused by the pandemic. Wolf?

BLITZER: Good point, Brian Todd reporting, thank you very much.

Let's discuss this and more with the Retired U.S. General Joseph Votel, the former commander of the U.S. Military Central Command, currently a distinguished Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute. General, thank you so much for joining us. You were one of the first Americans deployed on the ground in Afghanistan back in 2001. You were CENTCOM commander from 2016 to 2019. What goes through your mind, General, seeing Afghan partners now afraid for their lives?

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL (RET.), FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. CENTCOM: Thanks, Wolf. It is great to be with you. And, you know, to answer your question directly, I think all veterans, everyone that served in Afghanistan is processing this differently. For me, I'm viewing this with sadness and disappointment. I had hope that we build and to deliver more for the Afghan people and certainly conclude this in another way.

But for these people that have served us over these 20 years, I firmly believe we have a moral obligation to follow through in our commitments and bring them to the United States and make sure that they stay safe. They put everything on the line for us, and we should not allow obstacles get in the way right now to prevent us from doing right by them.

BLITZER: Yes. These are wonderful people that deserve that. I totally agree.

General, how hard is it to see the Taliban now in near complete control, if not, complete control of Afghanistan after, what, two decades of U.S. efforts?

VOTEL: Well, certainly, this is not anything that anybody who served there, and I'm speaking for myself, certainly I had ever hoped we would see. I think we all recognize the difficulty of operating in Afghanistan, the challenges of Afghanistan with its, you know, far flung provinces and challenges with governance. But I think we always hoped that we would be able to do something better for the Afghan people. So it's a very, very difficult to watch this.

That said, you know, as I reflect back on my own service, you know, I'm glad that I served there. I'm glad I had an opportunity to try to help the people of Afghanistan, of course, to perform an important mission at a time and need for our nation.

BLITZER: What is your reaction, General, to President Biden arguing this withdrawal is not a failure, that the chaos was inevitable?

VOTEL: Well, I mean, this is a very complex situation. And certainly any time you are trying to evacuate a withdrawal out of conflict areas, it is going to be difficult. You know, I think military leaders, diplomatic leaders, others here always have an obligation to do everything they can to reduce the risk and minimize the opportunities for things getting out of control.

Having watched this now, I'm very proud of what our military has done to bring order from chaos within the confines of the airport in Kabul. Certainly, there are more challenges to be dealt with here but these are very difficult operations, difficult situations. And there is going to be an element of chaos in this, but we certainly have to do this stuff up front to minimize that. BLITZER: What happens, General, to all of the U.S. bases, all of the military equipment, the tanks, the armored personnel carriers, the artillery, the fighter aircraft that have now fallen into Taliban hands? These are highly sophisticated U.S. military equipment. It is now in a country where Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters may also now potentially have free rein.

VOTEL: Sure. I think the things I would be most concerned about are the things that are immediately useful to the Taliban. Of course, this is small arms, machine guns and motors. Maybe artillery pieces, vehicles that they could use. I know there are helicopters. I know there are other things that are there. These are more difficult -- will be more difficult for them to operate and sustain. And over time I think they will prove less useful for them. But it is these other items that are more useful to them right now that will likely be the things that will be able to aid them as they continue to conduct their operations.


BLITZER: Yes. We're told more than 2,000 armored vehicles in U.S., a lot of U.S. humvees left behind for the Taliban to use now in whatever way they want.

I want to read to you, General, what one top military war official said about this war in a lessons learned interview. This was obtained by The Washington Post, that he said, and I'm quoting now, I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant even before I went over and nobody could, close quote. What are -- were Americans, General, it's a tough question lied to about what was possible to militarily in Afghanistan?

VOTEL: Well, I'll just speak for myself. I don't think I lied to anybody. I think in my communications, we tried to paint the situation as clearly as we could. We certainly recognized the challenges of the Afghan forces. But we also saw, and I personally saw this, places where the Afghan forces appointed themselves quite well, a lot of my experiences with the Afghan special operations forces, and they were quite good.

Yes, they were very dependent upon our capabilities and our advice and assistance as they conducted their operations. It was likely they would be for a long period of time. But there are many good Afghan soldiers and units that did do their duty. I don't think we should lost sight of the fact that the Afghan forces absorbed horrendous casualties in conducting operations on behalf of their government and on behalf of their country.

BLITZER: What's so depressing is that when the U.S. decided to withdraw, those military forces of Afghanistan simply evaporated and didn't really put up a fight at all. General Votel, thanks for your service. Thanks so much for joining us.

VOTEL: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a bomb threat shuts down Capitol Hill for hours today, and we're learning tonight new details about the suspect.



BLITZER: There is more breaking news we're following tonight. New details on the bomb threat that led to an hour's long standoff earlier today up on Capitol Hill.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is on the scene for us working the story.

Ryan, I understand you have new information about the device found in the suspect's truck.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, that's right, wolf. Capital Police telling us tonight it was not a bomb that was found inside this pickup truck more than five hours this afternoon. But they did find what they are calling bomb making materials. And this all comes after 49-year-old Floyd Roseberry parked that truck in front of the Library of Congress and proceeded to have a long standoff with local police and law enforcement.

He went on Facebook and did an extensive livestream with a long list of grievances about politics, about President Joe Biden, about the situation in Afghanistan and the crisis on the southern border. Roseberry claimed that the material he had in his truck was powerful enough to blow up several city blocks, and led to that a massive evacuation across several blocks here on Capitol Hill, including the Supreme Court, office buildings and the capital itself around the United States Capitol.

Now, when it was all said and done, Roseberry ended up surrendering to police left outside his pickup truck and was taken peacefully into custody. But, Wolf, there is no doubt this left Capitol Hill with a degree of anxiety still hung over from what happened here on January 6th. It is not often we hear of suspicious packages, suspicious vehicles around the capital. And no longer are they not taken with the utmost -- taken utmost seriousness by everyone in this area.

This ended peacefully today, but, Wolf, there is definitely some concern that it could have been much worse.

BLITZER: Yeah. Because for days now, maybe for the past few weeks I have been hearing from law enforcement, U.S. capital police and others that they're not only worried about the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11 next month, but they're also worried about other crazy plots out there as well, so they dramatically beefed up security. I wonder what you're hearing.

NOBLES: Yeah. That's absolutely right, Wolf. After what happened on January 6th, Capitol Police, law enforcement, FBI, Secret Service, they're taking any threat towards lawmakers or the capital itself very seriously.

With the ongoing rhetoric that continues to come from former President Donald Trump and his supporters, about the election results, his false claims about the election firing many of his supporters up, that's leading to serious concerns from law enforcement about extremism and how they're willing to take it. Today is an example of that threat, even though it turned out to be not as serious as it could have been.

BLITZER: Yeah, but there was a lot of nervousness and fear on Capitol Hill today for five hours.

Ryan Nobles, thank you very, very much.

Also tonight, the coronavirus surge is hitting the U.S. Senate and hitting the Senate hard. Three members announcing positive tests within hours of one another. They are Angus King of Maine, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, all fully vaccinated.

Let's bring in our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, is this a reminder of the risk of what are called break- through cases with this awful delta variant raging right now?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I think that that's exactly the case, Wolf. We understand that they all have mild symptoms but otherwise doing okay.

I think there's two issues here. You know, for a long time, people were vaccinated and really weren't getting tested, so I don't think we had a good idea of just how common these breakthrough infections are. But there is something else. If you look over a period of time, you can tell there has sort of been a drop-off in terms of the overall effectiveness of the vaccine.


There's two groups that were there was two groups that were studied. One was health care workers. One was primarily people in long-term care facilities.

There's been a drop-off. So this is not surprising. And again, we wish them well. One thing I want to point out, this is just a graph from San Diego County.

As much as we talk about what needs to be done, the vast majority (AUDIO GAP) vaccinated. So it's primarily still that are unvaccinated that are getting sick enough to be in the hospital and primarily the unvaccinated that are --

BLITZER: All right. Sanjay, we've got some technical issues. We'll figure it out. We'll get back to you. But thank you very, very much.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta with the latest on COVID here in United States.

Coming up, why California's Democratic governor may actually, may actually lose his job to a pro-Trump radio talk show host. Stand by.


BLITZER: In California tonight, the high stakes gubernatorial recall election is now less than a month away. A pro-Trump radio talk show host has emerged as the leading Republican challenger to the embattled Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

Our senior national correspondent Kyung Lah is joining us from Los Angeles right now.

Kyung, update our viewers. What can you tell us?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this recall has really taken a turn in the eyes of Democrats. Democrats here outnumber Republicans 2-1. But what they are seeing now on the Republican side, a smaller group of voters is an incredible amount of energy surrounding Larry Elder.


LAH (voice-over): California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder won't stop to answer our questions outside his public rally. What he prefers, the preferred stage and his fans.

Elder is the leading Republican candidate in the recall election of Democratic Governor Newsom.

LARRY ELDER (R), CALIFORNIA GOV. CANDIDATE: This man I'm going to defeat on September 14th.

LAH: A Trump supporter, and talk radio fixture, Elder is energizing the Republican base.


JULIE HARGROVE, CALIFORNIA VOTER/ELDER SUPPORTER: I know it's a Democratic state. Larry Elder is the one that can save us.

GARY LANE, CALIFORNIA VOTER/ELDER SUPPORTER: The momentum is going with the Republicans, hopefully.

ELDER: Good morning, rogue rangers (ph).

LAH: A first-time candidate, he's never held office. Better known for inflammatory, take no prisoners talk in conservative radio.

His sharpest comments are on race and gender.

ELDER: I argue that the welfare state has incentivized women to marry the government.

I've always felt that minorities and women complain too much about racism and sexism.

LAH: In May 2000, Elder penned this editorial, writing: Women know less than men about political issues, economics and current events, adding the less one knows, the easier the manipulation.

On family leave, Elder tweeted in 2016: You have no right to maternity leave.

Just this week, Elder said employers should be able to ask women if they plan on getting pregnant.

ELDER: I believe that a female employer could ask questions of a female employee or a male employee that directly impacts whether or not that person is going to be available to work a full time, a full 40-hour week.

LAH: On climate change, this was Elder's position in 2008.

ELDER: The bad news is, that global warming is a crock.

LAH: It's a position his campaign indicates he's evolved from, now believing man maybe partially involved in climate change.

But Elder spent years online promoting global warming as a myth. He also posted a ten steps to fix America plan, which include abolish the IRS, eliminate corporate taxes, take government out of education, arguing it could be in the hands of the private sector. Legalize drugs and abolish the minimum wage.

That position has not changed. Elder tweeted this month, the ideal minimum wage is zero.

One position shifting just this month, who won the 2020 election?

To the Sacramento Bee --

ELDER: I do believe that Joe Biden won the election.

LAH: Just two weeks later, after blowback from the Trump base --

ELDER: Do I believe that Joe Biden won the election fair and square? Give me a mulligan on that one, Jen and Grant, no, I don't.

Was there election fraud in 2020? Are you kidding me?

LAH: But the flip-flop isn't sitting well with Trump supporters.

HECKLER: Mr. Elder, you're beating around the bush. Do you believe that Joe Biden won the election fairly and squarely? Please address the question.

ELDER: I'm answering the question.

HECKLER: No, you're not.


LAH: He didn't want to talk to us about it, either.

There was that last question, the second to last question -- ELDER: Why don't you talk about what else I talked about? Concerned

about any of those things?

LAH: He didn't stick around long enough for me to ask.


LAH: So how real is the threat of Elder to Newsom? Well, the governor's camp is so concerned, they released an attack ad talking about Elder, and, increasingly, Wolf, you're hearing Newsom mention Elder by name at public appearances -- Wolf.

ELDER: It's very significant coming up in a few weeks.

Kyung Lah in Los Angeles for us, thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thank you very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.