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Biden Vows U.S. will Complete Dangerous and Worthy Afghanistan Mission amid Warnings of More Attacks; White House Says Another Attack in Kabul is Likely as Mission Enters Most Dangerous Period; Hurricane Ida Now Forecast to Slam Into U.S. Gulf Coast as Life-Threatening Category 4 Storm. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 27, 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 in The Situation Room.

Tonight, President Biden is vowing the United States will complete its mission in Afghanistan despite urgent warnings that another deadly terror attack may be imminent. The White House says a new attack is likely as the operation enters what they are calling the most dangerous period just ahead of the U.S. withdrawal deadline this coming Tuesday.

This as the death toll is rising from yesterday's bombing outside the Kabul airport. 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghans and other civilians are dead, killed by an ISIS-K suicide attacker.

The day after the carnage, airport crowds are smaller but increasingly desperate to get out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, as the evacuations continue with time running out.

We're covering it all with our correspondents, analysts and guests in the region here in the United States.

First, let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, the Biden administration is making it abundantly clear that the terror threat is ongoing, very specific and credible.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. And they're warning that these last few days where U.S. troops are in Afghanistan could be the most dangerous of this entire evacuation mission. President Biden was briefed on this, this morning in the situation room by his top military aides on this threat. But, Wolf, despite those, they are continuing on with this mission to evacuate people from Afghanistan. Though officials are warning we could see those numbers drastically reduced in the coming days.


COLLINS (voice over): The U.S. on high alert tonight as the White House warns another terror attack in Kabul is likely.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The threat is ongoing and it is active. Our troops are still in danger.

COLLINS: The death toll from the airport bombing in Afghanistan is now at 170 civilians and 13 U.S. service members. President Biden's national security team warned him today that more attacks are expected.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: The mission there to be performed is dangerous.

COLLINS: Despite the new threats, the president is vowing to move ahead with the evacuation efforts.

BIDEN: We will complete the mission.

COLLINS: With just four days before Biden's August 31st deadline, Afghans are scrambling to find a way out as U.S. forces prepare to leave with equipment and resources in toe.

PSAKI: This is the most dangerous part of the mission. This is the retrograde period of the mission.

There will be a reduction of numbers over the next couple of days.

COLLINS: The State Department says there are at least 500 Americans still in Afghanistan who want to leave.

NED PRICE, SPOKESPERSON, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: There are approximately 500 American citizens we are currently working with.

COLLINS: After the suicide bomber slipped past Taliban fighters, some Democrats are criticizing the Biden administration's unusual reliance on the militia group to secure the airport perimeter.

PSAKI: We don't trust the Taliban. This is not about trust. But there is a reality on the ground. And the reality is the Taliban control large swaths of Afghanistan.

COLLINS: One Republican lawmaker is calling on some of Biden's top aides to resign following the deadly withdrawal, though officials say that is not under consideration.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): I do believe some people on his national security team should resign. That's up to them and it's up to him.

PSAKI: There is not a lot of time for self-reflection right now. The focus is really on the task at hand.

COLLINS: The president has promised to hunt down those responsible for the suicide blast. Today, he was updated on the Pentagon's plans to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate claiming credit for the attack.

PSAKI: I think he made clear yesterday that he does not want them to live on the Earth anymore.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COLLINS (on camera): And, Wolf, we also got an update from the State Department this afternoon saying that they believes they have the vast majority of locally employed U.S. embassy staff either evacuated or prepared to evacuate from that airport in Kabul as this mission comes to an end. We did just get updated in numbers from the White House on what those evacuation numbers look like today.

And from 3:00 A.M. Eastern this morning to 3:00 P.M. Eastern this afternoon, they say 4,200 total people were evacuated from Kabul. Those were 12 U.S. military flights, Wolf, with 2,100 people and 29 coalition flights. Those are with allies that were carrying about 2,100 people as well.

So, like Jen Psaki cautioned in the briefing today, you are already starting to see those numbers go down as they switch and move this to more focusing on getting troops out of there and getting those resources out of Kabul as well.

BLITZER: And that increases the number of people who have been evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14th to 109,200 evacuees. All right, Kaitlan, thank you very, very much.

Let's go to the region right now. Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is joining us.


Clarissa, so what are you learning about the scene around Kabul airport today?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, what a difference a day makes. It was startling to see just how quiet things were on the streets around the airport today, particularly around Abbey Gate where that explosion took place. And that's partly because what the Taliban has essentially done now is pushed its perimeter further away from the outside of the airport.

They are basically trying to block people from getting close to where those U.S. servicemen and ordinary Afghan civilians and indeed Taliban fighters were killed in that explosion yesterday. And, to be honest, their task is made a lot simpler, Wolf, by the fact that many Afghans are now very afraid to go and try to get to the airport. And this is something that, of course, is complicating those evacuation efforts.

We heard the White House earlier saying that they estimate around 500 U.S. nationals are in Afghanistan and wanting to leave. But, understandably, people now have real concerns about trying to get to the airport, because even though yesterday's attack, it's been much calmer today, there is still the protracted threat of another ISIS-K attack.

This is something that western security officials have been warning about and anticipating for quite some time. And you can see, Wolf, how it was able to happen when you think that this chokepoint with thousands of Afghans, with U.S. forces searching them at very close quarters was continuing for days and even over a week, giving ISIS-K and potentially other groups as well abundant time to sort of rekey (ph) the situation and see the best way to get their weaponry or their explosives past the Taliban.

And it is worth mentioning as well, Wolf, when we were on the ground outside the airport and when we traveled to the airport, the primary thing that the Taliban was looking for when you were trying to get past that initial checkpoint was the appropriate form of documentation to show that you could leave the country.

Weaponry was a secondary consideration. Many people not even undergoing cursory pat-downs as they go through to that next line, which is, of course, U.S. forces conducting those searches at very close quarters, leaving them very vulnerable. And as we mentioned before, of course, anyone who wants to travel to the airport now also feeling exceptionally vulnerable, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa, as you know, the White House has said the United States has no choice but to depend -- to depend on the Taliban to keep the evacuation mission going over those next -- these next few days. But can the Taliban really control the terror threat that's obviously out there?

WARD: Well, Wolf, I think this is a question not just for the coming days as we approach this deadline, but this is a broader question going forward. The whole premise of the U.S. withdrawal was predicated on this promise from the Taliban that they would not allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorists.

And what you have seen quite clearly with yesterday's attack is that a group like ISIS-K, which had been lying low for a little bit of time, but we have certainly seen them launch hideous, grotesque attacks against civilians in Jalalabad, in Kabul, they are still able to operate with some level of impunity on the ground. And something that many viewers might not realize is that the Taliban and ISIS-K are enemies as well. ISIS-K is attacking the Taliban all the time, meaning that the Taliban is now finding itself in a situation where it's having to put out multiple fires at the same moment, all in the initial weeks of its first attempts at governance since the late '90s.

And so the question really does become now, does the Taliban have the security forces, the intelligence services and the wherewithal to keep track of groups like ISIS-K and prevent these types of attacks from happening not just in the coming days as the U.S. completes this withdrawal but in the long-term future as well, Wolf?

BLITZER: Clarissa, I want you to stay with us. We will have you back in just a moment. But there is some other important news we are following right now. I want to bring in our National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood. Kylie, how many Americans are in Afghanistan right now and still want to come home?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. State Department said today that there are 500 Americans that they are in direct contact with in Afghanistan working to evacuate them. It looks like those are all Americans in the country that want to leave the country. There is another group, however, Wolf, of about 100 Americans, several hundred Americans, potentially, according to the State Department, that haven't made up their minds.


They are Americans who potentially have friends or relatives in the country. And they have not told the U.S. that they want to leave.

Now, of course, the State Department is saying that those folks still have a commitment from the United States, even when the U.S. military withdraws on August 31st, that they will try and help them get out. But they also acknowledge that the tactics are going to change. Exactly how the United States would get those Americans out of the country after August 31st remains quite unclear.

And the other group of Americans still in the country, in addition, of course, to the U.S. military presence, are those U.S. diplomats. It is a small number of diplomats. As you'll recall about two weeks ago, the whole entire embassy was evacuated, but some diplomats stayed. And they're helping to run the operations at the airport right now, process visas, do that kind of thing as Afghans get on these evacuation flights.

Now, what we're told is that over the weekend, a significant number of those diplomats are going to leave the country. And then there are also preparations underway at the State Department for a full evacuation of all of those diplomats.

Now, the State Department isn't officially saying that they are drawing down their diplomatic presence completely. You will recall that the Biden administration repeatedly said that they were going to keep their diplomats in the country. Well, the fact that they're preparing to withdraw everyone is a reflection of the reality, of course. It is too unsafe. The U.S. military presence won't be there.

And the other thing to point out, of course, is it doesn't look like the airport will be functioning fully. The U.S. military is running that right now. And U.S. diplomats cannot stay in a country, according to a senior State Department official, if there is no way to get out by air or by water. And, of course, Kabul and Afghanistan, as a country, is landlocked. So, if that airport isn't working, those diplomats have no other way to safely get out of the country. They're also going to have to leave. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Kylie, thanks for that update, Kylie Atwood, at the State Department.

I want to bring back Clarissa, along with Retired General Wesley Clark. He's the former NATO Supreme Ally Commander and CNN Military Analyst, also with us, Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media, and joining us tonight, Lisa Curtis, the former National Security Council, Senior Director for South and Central Asia. To all of you thanks so much for joining us.

General Wesley Clark, another terror attack the White House says is likely. They say, these next few days between now and Tuesday will be the most dangerous period to date. So what are they bracing for exactly?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: So, more of the same. So, the perimeter has been expanded. That makes it more difficult, a truck bomb, a mortar attack, rocket attack. And as these forces are drawn down, who knows, maybe even a ground assault by a group of ISIS- K fighters. You have got to be prepared for any and all of that. And, of course, it is dangerous because once we start to draw down troops, we have less response capability.

Now, obviously we're going to do everything we can to put overhead assets there to monitor from the air, to be ready to strike back and defend from the air, but it's not the same as having the troops on the ground.

BLITZER: Yes. They're also worried about a potential shoulder fired or surface air missile that could take down a plane taking off from that Kabul airport.

Ian, a day after the deadly attack yesterday, the Pentagon now clarifying this was one bombing, one suicide bombing, not two and the death toll has risen to nearly 200 people. How critical is it for the Biden administration to try and potentially thwart some copycat attacks? I know they're bracing for that.

IAN BREMMER, PRESIDENT, EURASIA GROUP AND GZERO MEDIA: Well, I mean it's not the case at this point yet, right? I mean, clearly, the ability -- they were able to warn these civilians, American civilians a few hours in advance. They all got out. And they're very concerned that those 500 American civilians that are left that are trying to evacuate, what happens to them.

But this was the worst 24 hours of the Biden administration to date, there is no question, and they are bracing for it to be worse. They know the images that come out of Afghanistan on 9/11 with the Taliban flag on top of the American embassy at that point, with American material, Blackhawks, other equipment being, you know, sort of paraded around the country and the fact that Biden now has to engage in some kind of direct course to go after the bad guys.

So, he's pulling out his ending the war in Afghanistan, but we're still in principle fighting the war in Afghanistan. This is -- unfortunately, for Biden, right, I mean, if he had been able to avoid terrorist attacks and American service members getting killed, he probably could have avoided long-term domestic political fallout in the United States. That's, sadly, for the Biden administration, no longer possible at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. That's an important point. You know, Lisa, the Biden administration says evacuations will continue until the last moment.


But the numbers we just got seemed to indicate the evacuation effort is slowing down relatively dramatically right now. Is hope dimming to get those folks out?

LISA CURTIS, FORMER NATIONAL COUNSIL SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA: Well, it certainly is slowing down, but I don't think even when all U.S. forces are gone and our diplomats are largely withdrawn from the country, I don't think all hope is lost for getting the remaining Americans, if there are remaining Americans, or even our Afghan allies out of the country. And that's because there are partners of the United States that will still be in Afghanistan. These are countries like Uzbekistan, Qatar. They will continue to have a diplomatic presence on the ground. And the U.S. can rely on their goodwill and the fact that they do have relationships with the Taliban to be able to continue to get people out, to continue those evacuations. Certainly, it will be much more difficult but it will still be possible.

And don't forget, the U.S. will have leverage even though that leverage will be less without U.S. troops on the ground. We still have financial leverage with the Taliban. The U.S. has frozen $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets. The IMF has cut off funding to Afghanistan. There are U.N. sanctions on Taliban leaders. So we still have leverage that we can use to get both American citizens that might be left behind as well as Afghan allies even when our troops return home.

BLITZER: You know, Clarissa, it looks like the U.S. may not have any diplomatic presence in Kabul after Tuesday. That's what all U.S. troops have to withdraw. So what happens to Afghans trying to get out after Tuesday, trying to apply for special immigrant visas or some other way if there is no formal diplomatic presence on the ground?

WARD: Well, this is what the United Nations is bracing for, Wolf. And they've already said they expect potentially in the coming months half a million Afghans to be flooding out or attempting to flood out of the country. They're asking all neighboring countries to keep their borders open as they basically prepare for a deluge of displaced people who are desperately trying to get out.

Now, we did hear from the State Department earlier that the Taliban has pledged to keep its borders open, that the Taliban is saying that people can come and go as they please. But that's simply not what we're really seeing and hearing on the ground.

And, you know, there is a whole other category of Afghans that we need to be talking about here who may not have been directly working for the U.S. government or the U.S. military, but who, nonetheless, are prominent human rights activists, women's rights activists, people of that nature who are currently under house arrest, and I don't want to name names at the moment because I don't want to make their situations any worse than it already is.

But let me just say that there have been ongoing diplomatic efforts to evacuate some of these people and, so far, there is no sense that the Taliban is budging on this at all. So we may well see something of a purge against these types of activists, human rights, women's rights, et cetera, in the coming months, Wolf. BLITZER: Yes, that's what so many people are fearing. General Clark, the withdrawal is a transition. It is not like flipping a light switch. So what is the military on the ground in Kabul doing between now and, shall we say, Tuesday, the deadline for complete U.S. military withdrawal?

CLARK: Well, first of all, they're providing security as best they can around the airport. They're collecting intelligence. They're watching things. They're on guard. They're packing up. It takes a lot longer to get out of an expeditionary situation like this than it takes to get in. So these guys have got to be prepared for air movement, got to figure out how to retrograde in a logical way, so what get moves first, what stays until the end.

And so there's going to be a lot of planning going on that's going on, a lot of leadership attention devoted to getting out in a smooth fashion. There will be still people coming in maybe. Although I'm reading in the press that the gates are locked, that no one is getting in. That there are a few thousand people left at the airport that will be evacuated. So we can't tell what the actual process is going to be for bringing more people in and how many more can get in.

I'm hearing from my sources people texting and other things that they cannot get into the airfield right now, even some American citizens. So there is going to be a real pressure on the troops on the ground to figure out a way to get these last few Americans in and get them in safely.

BLITZER: You know, Ian, I know you say that this massive terror attack that we saw yesterday as a result of that, you say President Biden is now, in your words, all but certain to pay a political price.


What do you expect?

BREMMER: Well, I expect that in -- this is worse than Benghazi, which was, of course, incredibly politicized by the Republicans in a very long time. I mean, I think the midterm elections, at this point our assessment is probably a 40-seat swing to the GOP in the House. And when you talk to senior members of the Democratic caucus, they recognize this is a serious problem for them. In other words, you have seen President Biden's approval ratings take a hit over the last couple weeks.

A big part of that up until now was the delta variant and people getting more fearful about how coronavirus is going, something you can't really put on Biden's watch, but, of course, he is the president. The next set of approval ratings you will see will play in to the fact that this is a debacle and Biden says he owns it. He does own it. He got the blame for it. And of course no one will give him an inch among those who don't support the Biden administration.

So, I do think that this ends up playing out in a significant and painful way if he can't get the trillions of dollars through an infrastructure spend, which we still expect he will, that's going to make a difference. But I do think now, come 2022, Afghanistan and Biden in charge of the Afghanistan withdrawal with the war on terror still going on, with the images that are still in blazing, that's the only thing that's really taken us away from the pandemic, except the events of January 6th in a year-and-a-half now, Wolf. I do think it plays into the election form, I actually do (ph).

BLITZER: Yes. One positive thing is that 110,000 people have been evacuated since August 14th. It is a lot of people that are going to have new lives outside of Afghanistan and I'm sure all of them are very, very grateful for that.

Lisa, are Afghans starting to get a better sense of what life will look like under the Taliban rule after the last U.S. troops leave on Tuesday?

CURTIS: Well, the Taliban has gone on sort of a media campaign, even the spokesperson for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, addressed the media last week, and he said all the right things. He said that girls would be allowed to go to school. Women would be allowed to work. There would not be reprisal killings. So they're putting on a good face.

But the problem is, on the ground, we see something different. We see lists floating around. We see Taliban knocking on doors. So people are still very fearful. There is a lot of uncertainty. I think there is an opportunity for the United States and its allies to try to shape what's going to happen and move forward. But people are scared. They're fearful.

BLITZER: And understandably so, indeed. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, we will discuss the risk of more U.S. military casualties in Kabul and the Biden administration's strategy with an Afghanistan war veteran now serving in the U.S. Congress.

Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.



BLITZER: A chilling warning from the White House today saying another terror attack in Kabul is likely as the U.S. mission to evacuate Americans entering, , and I'm quoting now, the most dangerous period just ahead of the completion of U.S. withdrawal next Tuesday.

Joining us now to discuss all of this, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow of Colorado, he is a key member of both the Armed Services and The Intelligence Committees. He's a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for your service to our country.

How does the U.S. military try to thwart another deadly bombing like the one yesterday that killed 13 American service members? REP. JASON CROW (D-CO): Yes. Thanks, Wolf. I mean, this is a terrible tragedy and I'm mourning with all of America for the loss of these 13 service members and I extend my sympathies to their families and, of course, as the country will continue to support those families and then the years ahead.

Afghanistan is a dangerous place. It's been a dangerous place for 20 years now. We have lost 2,400 young men and women over the last two decades. And that's one of the reasons why I agree with the administration and the president. It was time to bring our troops home. But this isn't the first time we've had an ISIS attack and it won't be the last. This is a dangerous situation and this mission is not without risk. But the mission must continue.

Now, every time we've lost a soldier over the last 20 years, you know, those over 2,000 young men and women, they were always on a mission, but we never stopped that mission. Because we don't allow terrorists, we don't allow our adversaries and our enemies to tell us when to stop a mission. The mission is we have to bring our Americans home. We can't leave American citizens behind who want to come home and our Afghan partners. We have to get that job done.

BLITZER: But the president is vowing to complete the mission. He's not budging from the Tuesday deadline for the full withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan. You had called on him to push back the withdrawal. Do you still want him to extend this mission knowing U.S. troops right now are clearly in harm's way?

CROW: But this isn't about extending the mission, Wolf. This is about actually accomplishing the mission. Accomplishing the mission requires that we bring Americans home. And accomplishing the mission requires that we actually do that. That doesn't end tomorrow, August 31st, September 2nd, September 3rd until we actually bring the folks home.

I have been pushing the administration to actually make sure that we define the mission's success as bringing the Americans home and saving our Afghan partners who wish to come to safety and who qualify for that evacuation.


It should not be a calendar deadline. And I think it's really important here that we not allow terrorists to dictate the terms what our mission has to be, what our moral and legal obligation is to our own people, that we actually define that mission, that we put the resources in place to get it done.

BLITZER: So what should happen after the Tuesday deadline?

CROW: Well, we continue the mission until it gets done. And that is not without risk. We've been saying all along, this is risky. Afghanistan is an extremely risky place. And those servicemen who died yesterday gave their life in pursuit of liberty and freedom, just like the president said.

We have to make sure that we are doing everything possible to put the troops and resources in place to protect them, to protect that airport, to extend that perimeter, put air cover in place, have the intelligence capability to detect these attacks in advance and do everything possible, that this is imperfect stuff.

We're asking these folks to do different things under very difficult circumstances and certainly not without risk. But that doesn't mean that we stop the mission because we cannot, we cannot and must not ever leave hundreds of Americans behind who have raised their hand and said that they want to be evacuated.

And I'm getting stories, you know, even today, just a couple hours ago, I talked to somebody on the phone. This is -- they had four Americans that haven't heard from the State Department in days who are waiting for evacuation. They don't know what's going to happen. I'm hearing a lot of those stories.

And I do not see a path to getting that done between now and Tuesday. That's why we have to not have this deadline of Tuesday be the deadline. It has to be the accomplishment of the mission. And there are moments like this in a crisis. We can't allow this crisis to take on a life of its own. We have to take a step back, take the deep breath that we need to take and say we're going to control this situation. We're going to do what's necessary, put the resources in place and we're going to get the mission done.

BLITZER: Well, the mission will be done in terms of the military on Tuesday. Then it's over. So what you are suggesting is that over the horizon there is going to be a U.S. military presence outside of Afghanistan that occasionally can come in and complete various military operations?

CROW: No. I'm suggesting that we not withdraw our military forces by Tuesday. And I have said that all along to the administration. When we withdraw our military forces and our boots on the ground, our abilities, the options we have able to us drastically shrink.

And our ability to safely and successfully get American citizens and Afghan partners out of the country become extremely diminished. And what I'm saying is that we should not constrain ourselves like that. We have an obligation to get our people out and we should not be forced to reduce our capabilities significantly on Tuesday just because of the calendar deadline.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, on that issue, you clearly disagree with the president. He says all U.S. troops will definitely be removed from Afghanistan by Tuesday. We'll see what happens. But, once again, Congressman Crow, thanks so much for joining us and thanks again for your service to our country. I appreciate it very much.

CROW: Thank you.

BLITZER: Let's get a closer look right now at the group ISIS-K, the terror group claiming responsibility for the Kabul airport attacks. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us right now.

Brian, ISIS-K has a very bloody and ruthless track record. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It does, Wolf. A more extensive track records of these kinds of attacks than many of us knew about previously. And with the latest attack in Kabul, look for ISIS-K to draws some new support from jihadist groups. We have to warn viewers some of you may find some of the video in this story disturbing.


TODD (voice over): Carnage and slaughter in Kabul, the claim of responsibility coming from ISIS-K, a group claiming to be branch of the main Isis network which swept through Syria and Iraq in 2014, a terror force with the means and motive to launch attacks like this.

DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS, CEO, VALENS GLOBAL/TERRORISM ANALYST: ISIS-K is known for attacks that are able to slaughter a large number of civilians. This includes suicide bombings. They have had for some time an attack network that operates within Kabul.

TODD: Analysts say ISIS-K has had no qualms about murdering innocents in their pursuit of a Caliphate in Afghanistan. In May of this year, they attacked a school for girls in Kabul, killing at least 85 people, according to Afghan officials most of them girls. In June an ISIS-K attack on a British American de-mining charity killed at least10 people. But even then, they weren't beginners.

ROSS: Back in November, an hour's long assault at Kabul University that killed 22, a suicide bombing at an education center in October that killed 24. And a gun attack on a hospital maternity ward back in May of 2020 that also resulted in 24 fatalities.


All of that shows a capable militant network.

TODD: But there are other terror networks in Afghanistan as well, experts say, extremist movements allied with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and other cells which pose a threat inside Afghanistan and beyond.

TIM LISTER, CNN PRODUCER: One, for example, is a weaker (ph) extremist group that has been active in Syria, a lot of people have moved back to eastern Afghanistan and that little part of Afghanistan up in the northeastern corner shares a border with China. And the Chinese are very concerned.

TODD: But ISIS-K remains a prominent threat, officials say. A top U.S. military official saying there are imminent threats from ISIS, ranging from rocket strikes to vehicle-borne suicide attacks. And with the latest attacks in Kabul, killing scores of civilians and U.S. service members, experts say ISIS-K ramps up its profile in jihadist circles, which could bring the group more money, weapons and other assets.

ROSS: They hope that this will benefit them directly via other militant factions and other potential recruits and others who can help them within the country.

TODD: Another concern, experts say the Taliban, a sworn enemy of ISIS- K have little control over the areas where ISIS-K and other groups operate and an insufficient security force to go after that. As for the U.S. intelligence footprint in Afghanistan going forward --

LISTER: Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said quite clearly our capabilities are not going to be what they were because we don't have the presence on the ground. Everything has to be done remotely.


TODD (on camera): Now regarding President Biden's pledge to go after the terrorist who launch that attack in Kabul, terrorism analyst say the U.S. may have to use surrogates to do that. One former CIA officer told us ISIS-K is a very difficult target. They don't have significant camps or other installations. It is a lot of jihadist fading into the mountains communicating remotely with each other. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you very much, Brian Todd reporting.

Let's discuss with the former Defense Secretary William Cohen. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for coming in. These next four days between now and Tuesday are going to be incredibly tense. Everyone is very worried there will be more terrorism. What is the U.S. military capable of doing between now and then to try to prevent it?

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, the military does have an asset we're taking put over the city itself and certainly next to the airport, over the airport to try to detect any kind of movement that would pose a threat to our troops. That's going to be difficult. Any time you have a gathering of people of any significant size, one of them could be armed with a bomb or an RPG or something else.

So, I think it's going to be difficult. But I think the military is prepared to do whatever they can. We saw the bombing that took place. I just want to say to Congressman Crow, who has been out there, he's a very fierce advocate for doing more. But my wife and I, you know, we feel with part of the military family and we were in mourning for the last 24 hours just thinking about the families of those 13 and the wounded who will be at Walter Reed military installation.

So this is a terrible blow to the Marines and to the Army and to families generally, those who were serving us. And every time we say thank you for your service, I think we should say thank you for serving us, thank you for saving us. That's what the military is doing on a day-by-day basis.

BLITZER: And we're already told some of the wounded, and they're pretty severely wounded U.S. military personnel have already been flown to the Ramstein Air Base in Germany and eventually, I assume, they will be flown here to Washington for treatment.

COHEN: Well, we have been to Dover to receive the bodies that came back from the bombing of our embassies in East Africa. We have been to Arlington. We have been to the Tomb of the Unknown. We have just interred the body of the Lieutenant Colonel Michael Blassie and had it re-interred in St. Louis. The military feels very strongly that these are the people who stand up and say, we don't have to go, we don't have to join, but we are joining to help serve and save this country. And we have to pay them all the respect we've got.

BLITZER: When you start seeing the pictures of these young men who were killed, the 13 U.S service members. You know, they're young, they're wearing their uniforms. And you know that their families, understandably so, are distraught and we send our deepest, deepest condolences.

COHEN: Wolf, I hope that we can have a rhetorical ceasefire. There's going to be plenty of time to go after President Biden and the administration. But right now, the next four days, to say the least, we need to stop criticizing everybody, second guessing what would I do if I were there, did we do enough, could it have been different. All of those things will be explored.

Right now, we are in a very serious trouble trying to get everybody out that we can. And those soldiers and Marines and airmen, and co- that were saying, they are all in danger. So we ought to focus on them and the mission completing it as best we can and stop going after Biden and his administration for the time being.

He has to be accountable. He will be accountable. All those who serve will be accountable. And I hope those on Capitol Hill will also be accountable as they are stoking once again the insurrectionists to come to Capitol Hill.


I think that's something we have to be concerned about as well.

BLITZER: Yes indeed. And these next four day will be incredibly difficult and very, very tense. I'm extremely nervous, I can assure you, based on my conversations with top officials here in Washington. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

COHEN: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, there is more important -- there's more very important news that we're following right now. A hurricane warning up for parts of the United States' Gulf Coast with Hurricane Ida now expected to slam into Louisiana as a major category four storm. We have a new forecast just in. We'll share it with you.



BLITZER: Tonight, President Biden is vowing the U.S. will complete the dangerous mission of evacuating Americans from Afghanistan, even amid serious warnings right now of more terror attacks like the one that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 others at the Kabul airport.

Let's get some more. Joining us now, CNN contributor, Evan Osnos, a biographer of Joe Biden. His book, "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run and What Happens Now." Excellent book, by the way.

Thanks, Evan, for joining us.

Now, we know the president always keeps a card in his pocket of the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He always ends his speeches trying to honor U.S. military personnel. This, by far, yesterday, the 13 American service members killed in a terror attack, was the worst day so far for him in his presidency.

EVAN OSNOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No question about it. Look, this is the first time in his presidency that that card he carries in his pocket has been updated with the numbers of people killed on his watch.

This is a reflection of his focus. And, you know, you cannot separate this, Wolf, from the personal element here. Joe Biden, after all, is the first president since Jimmy Carter to have a son or daughter in a combat role. Before that, it was Eisenhower.

This is something that is very personal for him. Jill Biden, the first lady, she formed a group to help spouses of military families. So they had felt very close to military families throughout. And now, of course, they are facing a reckoning in the White House, a real crisis point for this White House on the very matters that matter to them.

BLITZER: Thirteen Gold Star families now added to that list. And we know the president after all the families have been notified, the next of kin have been notified, have an opportunity -- those who want to speak to the president, he will want to speak to them, right?

OSNOS: Yeah, he does. You heard a bit of this in his comments yesterday. You talked about a sense of a hole in your chest pulling you in. This is something he has thought about, talked about with a lot of people grieving, a lot of people suffering over the years. It's actually something he comes to reluctantly early in his life, as we all know. He lost his wife and his daughter in a car accident.

He did not want to be a portrait of grief, an agent of grief. And he found that actually people were coming to him. They were asking him, how did you get through this?

And over the years, he became in his own way sort of proficient at grief, and it's something that he struggled against but eventually sort of accepted and now does it in a way that he thinks will help you.

BLITZER: I covered the president when he was vice president and senator, what, for 36 years. So I know he always considered himself a real expert on national security, foreign policy. He was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. We spent a lot of time talking in those days.

And he always spoke when he was running for president as someone who understands national security and foreign policy. How do you think he's reacting to what has happened now in these past several days in Afghanistan?

OSNOS: This is part of the challenge for him. He after all staked his reputation on the idea that I'm confident. I'm experienced. I know how to do this.

And part of the challenge is not just the next four days which is a very dangerous period, keeping Americans safe, but once we get into what will be the after action report period, looking back and saying with clarity, here is what we do right, here is what we did wrong and here is what we will learn from.

One of the questions has to be about internal decision-making. Was there enough of an exchange of views? Were people able to say, Mr. President, I'm not sure this is the right path? And that's going to be the hardest questions, not just the strategic and tactical questions, but about how the administration itself makes decisions and the role that he plays in that.

BLITZER: Evan, thanks very much for coming in. We always appreciate your thought because you understand the situation really well. Appreciate it very much.

OSNOS: My pleasure. Thanks.

BLITZER: Coming up, evacuations now underway as Hurricane Ida now threatens to slam into the U.S. Gulf Coast as a major life threatening storm. We have a grand new forecast just in.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: A new study out tonight on the dangerous delta variant of coronavirus. It finds that the dominant strain here in the United States doubles the risk of hospitalization compared to the once common alpha variant.

Let's discuss with CNN medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen. She's the author of a very important brand new entitled "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health."

Dr. Nguyen, thanks for joining us.

This new study from the Lancet finds this delta variant doubles the risk of hospitalizations compared to the alpha variant. How should the results of this study inform our behavior?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: This is a really important study because previously, we know that the delta variant is a lot more contagious than all the other variants but we weren't sure as to whether it's more virulent, whether it causes more severe disease. This is a really well-conducted study with more than 43,000 people with COVID-19 in the U.K., and they found that people with the delta variant, compared to the B-117, the alpha variant, are twice as likely to be hospitalized. They are one and a half times more likely to end up in the emergency department and I think we really should see the delta variant as being more severe and that it also causes potentially a greater burden on our health care system, as well. BLITZER: Let's get through some other important issues right now. The

president says he spoke with Dr. Fauci about potentially shortening the window of the planned COVID-19 booster shot program from eight months potentially down to as little as five months.

In Israel for example, it's six months, you can get that booster, that booster shot. Three million Israelis have already gotten it and the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, told the president today it's working out really well in Israel.

Do you think the potential timeline change is a good idea?

WEN: I do and here is the reason why. Nothing magic happens at this eight-month mark. Probably what is going on is there is some degree of declining immunity, waning immunity over time. Now, there are some people that will look at those data and say, hey, as long as I'm sell will protected against hospitalization and death, I don't want a booster shot.


But other people are going to say, but I don't want a breakthrough infection. I'd rather get a booster on the earlier side.

So, I think the Biden administration could allow people to get boosters earlier if they choose, but not recommend the boosters until the eight-month time period. That would be the best of both worlds.

BLITZER: The U.S. intelligence community was not able to determine, Dr. Wen, the origins of the COVID-19 virus following a 90-day investigation. They released a declassified summary of their report earlier today.

How important is it to learn the true origin of this virus in order potentially, God willing, to be able to prevent another pandemic down the road?

WEN: Longer term, of course, is important for us to understand the origin, although we should remember for other viruses that it takes years for the origin to be found. I think short term, though, we know that right now, we have to focus on getting people vaccinated. We have to focus on getting indoor masking and regardless whether it's lab leak or natural origin, we have to do a lot more when it comes to improving lab safety and also to reducing the spread of viruses between animals and humans.

So, we have to do all these things anyway. And so we should continue to encourage the investigation but not let the lack of a final result impede the work that we have to do in the meantime.

BLITZER: What's the latest right now on children, 5 to 11, potentially getting -- getting the shot?

WEN: I don't know, and this is an important issue because I really hope the FDA will be a lot more transparent about where they are in this process. We know that Pfizer, their timeline keeps getting moved back. Initially, they were saying August, September, now maybe September, October for getting the results. We don't want for any shortcuts to be taken, of course, in the science.

But I also hope that the approval process is going to be expedited given right now we're at this point in the pandemic when more children are hospitalized than at any point before. So I think that they should really be an urgent need especially with this more contagious and now we know more severe delta variant.

BLITZER: Yeah, that's why I asked the question because a lot of kids are suffering right now. Dr. Wen, thank you so much for joining us.

WEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's another major story we're following right now. We're tracking Hurricane IDA now forecast to slam into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Sunday as a major category four storm.

CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar is joining us right now.

Allison, there is a new forecast just out from the national hurricane center. Tell us what it says.

ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: It's talking about intensification. The storm is strengthening, not that we didn't anticipate it would, but that is the key message, that this is going to be a very strong storm. Already right now, sustained winds of 80 miles per hour gusting up to 100 miles hour, but we anticipate further strengthening especially once it gets over the Gulf of Mexico because it's not just bath water, you're talking Jacuzzi warm water and that's going to be fuel for this particular storm.

It's anticipated to strengthen to a category 4 and likely stay there through landfall, which is not what we to hear, as it continues to make its way into Louisiana on Sunday, likely Sunday afternoon for that landfall, time before continuing to push further inland. Storm surge will be a big issue along the coast. The pink area here, about 10 to 15 feet, just to the west of that, in the purple area, 6 to 9 feet and east side 7 to 11 feet.

So, again, very dangerous storm surge conditions here, but winds will be a factor. Look at the widespread damaging winds, even as far inland as Jackson. You're talking about 60 mile per hour winds. That's enough to bring down trees and power lines.

Rainfall, that's going to be the most widespread, however. Look at how far inland this comes, southern Ohio could end up getting several inches of rain from this storm but certainly along the coast, you're talking 6 to perhaps 10 inches of rain in terms of how much rain this storm can dump.

Now, there has been a lot of comparison to Katrina, because for many, this is a storm they remember that just devastated areas of eastern Louisiana. One thing to note is that Katrina was a category 3 at landfall. Ida is anticipated to be a category 4, so potentially much stronger winds with Ida than we have with Katrina. But one other thing, Wolf, that is important the forward speed of Ida

is going to play a very vital role. The slower the storm is at landfall the more time it has to dump a tremendous amount of rain.

BLITZER: Meteorologist Allison Chinchar, thank you very, very much.

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

I'll be back, this is important, I'll be back this weekend with special editions of SITUATION ROOM tomorrow from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and Sunday, from noon to 3:00 p.m. You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now. See you tomorrow.