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Last U.S. Military Flight Leaves Afghanistan, Ending America's Longest War By Deadline; Official Says, Fewer Than 250 Americans Left In Afghanistan Who Want To Leave; At Least Two Dead, 1 million Customers Without Power After Monster Hurricane Ida Slams Into Louisiana; Secretary Of State Addresses The Nation As Afghanistan War Ends. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 30, 2021 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're following breaking news on the end of America's longest war. We're standing by to hear directly from the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, shortly after the last U.S. military flight took off from the Kabul airport. It is now August 31st in Afghanistan. That is the deadline for American forces to withdraw. All U.S. troops are now out of Afghanistan.
We're told though that 250 U.S. citizens still are on the ground. They are hoping to leave, along with thousands of Afghan friends of the United States as the Taliban tightens their grip on the country that's under threat by ISIS-K terrorists at the same time.
Let's start our coverage as we await the secretary of state. Our Senior White House Correspondent Phil Mattingly is joining us right now. Phil, just moments ago, President Biden put out a written statement on the end of this war.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. Starting that statement by thanking the U.S. military commanders and service members on the ground for completing what he called the largest airlift in U.S. history, helping evacuate in coordination with coalition partners more than 120,000 individuals over a 16-day period, an extraordinary number.
There are still significant questions the president and his team must address. Some you will hear addressed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in short order. But the president in that statement goes on to say tomorrow afternoon, I will address the American people on my decision not to extend our presence in Afghanistan beyond August 31st. For now, I will report that it was the unanimous decision of the Joint Chiefs and all of our commanders on the ground to end our airlift mission as planned. Their view was that ending our military mission was the best way to protect the lives of our troops and secure the prospects of civilian departures for those who want to leave Afghanistan in the weeks and months ahead. And it is that last piece of the statement that Secretary Blinken is expected to address but also that raises the very real questions the administration is going to have to grapple with in the days and weeks ahead.
President Biden, as he continues on in his statement, goes on to make clear this is now a very clear diplomatic effort that the U.S. will be engaged in with allies with international coordination to help get what is approximately 200 to 250 Americans who want to leave the country that are still in the country right now. It is a very complicated moment given the fact the military commanders, as the president says, recommended still ending the operation on August 31st. But this means that the president's pledge to get all Americans out who wanted to leave ends up not coming to the forefront, ends up not coming true, and so that diplomatic effort will be where everyone is looking from here on out.
The president in his statement says as it relates to Americans who want to leave still having safe passage out of the country that the Taliban made commitments to American officials, something they talked about repeatedly over the last couple of days commitments that the U.S. and international community plans to hold them to in the days and weeks ahead. But still very real question about whether that will come to be, what those commitments look like and whether the international community has the leverage they made clear they believe they are, particularly on the economic front but also the diplomatic front to hold the Taliban, not just to commitments related to giving U.S. and coalition partners citizens who are still in the country out but also for Afghans that remain in the country and what that means for those and some of those freedoms that many expect to be taken away in the days and weeks ahead, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, standby, Phil. We're going to get back to you. I want to check in with our Senior National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt. He's over at the State Department right now. We're awaiting the statement -- the remarks from the secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Alex, this is truly a historic moment for the United States, indeed, shall I say, for the world.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. These remarks by Secretary Blinken, a little bit delayed. We expected to hear from him about an hour ago. I think it is important to note who we are hearing from in the Biden administration today. The announcement of the end of this war was made not by the president or the secretary of defense but by the general of CENTCOM.
The most senior administration official we are hearing from today is Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And that does really plan to what Phil was talking about, this emphasis by the Biden administration that this is now shifting to a diplomatic mission. That is something that General McKenzie talked about. He said, it's moving from the military to the diplomatic realm. They call this a diplomatic sequel.
So we are seeing a bit of a preview of what we expect to hear from Secretary Blinken in this statement that you have referred to from President Biden, in which he emphasizes the need going forward to be able to get those Americans, Afghans and others out of Afghanistan if they so desire. And he specifically talks about the airport which, of course, now is no longer under U.S. control.
How will it function? Who will be in the control towers, for example? Will it be the Taliban? Will they work with countries? Will it be a private enterprise?
These are all questions that need to be answered. Wolf, as the U.S. presence ended in Afghanistan, as Phil was saying, there are hundreds of Americans who remain and thousands more Afghans who are desperate to get out of the country. General McKenzie said that in the last few hours, they were ready right up until the last minute to get those Afghans out -- those Americans out, but they were -- but those Americans were not able to get to the airport.
We have heard from the State Department today. They said fewer than 250 Americans remain in the country. That's a similar figure that we got yesterday. Meaning, in these last few hours, not many more Americans were able to get out. And, so, now with the end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, there are hundreds of Americans that remain. 6,000 Americans have managed to get out of the country. That is a fraction of the 123,000 mainly Afghan nationals who have been evacuated over the course of the past few weeks.
But one thing that many are hoping to hear from Secretary Blinken when he speaks is some clarity as to how these Americans, these Afghans, many who have helped Americans and other third country nationals will be spirited if they want to be evacuated out of Afghanistan.
Another thing that we expect to hear from Secretary Blinken is what he is imaging not for the diplomatic presence because there won't be one. The embassy is now done in Afghanistan, the most senior American diplomat that (INAUDIBLE) was on that last flight out, what that American engagement will look like with Afghanistan.
We did hear from a senior State Department official earlier saying that they do have some concrete ideas of how that is going to play out. Of course, we have seen that the U.S. does have direct diplomatic and military ties to the Taliban. They have those direct conversations. They have repeatedly emphasized that they will work alongside these international partners.
But the most immediate concern, when it comes to how a U.S. diplomatic operation will work, are those consular activities, Wolf. How to get those people out who want to get out when there is no longer a U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
BLITZER: Yes. No more military presence. No more military presence. We'll see how they deal with this. Alex, standby, we will get back to you as well. I want to bring in Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann right now. So, Oren, walk us through the final moments of the Kabul airport as the last U.S. troops, the last planes actually departed.
OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: There was a general understanding between U.S. troops on the ground there and the commander on the ground and the Taliban about a general timeframe in which the U.S. would leave. Not an exact time but an understanding that the U.S. would no longer be able to man the gates as its own security is it's got on those flights.
Those flights, 5C-17 cargo aircraft with the last U.S. flights out of Afghanistan. We tracked three of those flights on this flight tracking website. The last one took out, according to General Frank McKenzie, at 3:29 P.M. Local time. That is 11.59 P.M. in Kabul, Afghanistan, one minute before midnight on August 31st, 2021, the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
The question, the U.S. left quite a bit of military equipment back at HKIA, Hamid Kaiza International Airport. But General McKenzie says it was not in working order.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GENERAL KENNETH MCKENZIE, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We have also demilitarized equipment that we did not bring out of the airport. That included a number of MRAPs, up to 70 MRAPs that we demilitarized that will never be used again by anyone, 27 Humvees or tactical vehicle, that will never be driven again. Additionally, on the ramp at HKIA are a total of 73 aircrafts. Those aircrafts will never fly again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LIEBERMANN: The two last people on the ground in Afghanistan getting on to that last flight were General Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne. That was one of the main military groups there, essentially, the commander on the ground as this went down, and the top diplomat there, Ross Wilson.
As for how the Afghans took this and the Taliban, there was celebratory gunfire when the last U.S. flight took off and the Taliban put out their statement on Twitter celebrating what they called the end of the U.S. presence, effectively a declaration of victory as the U.S. withdrew. Wolf?
BLITZER: Oren, the U.S. will maintain what's called over-the-horizon military capability, in other words, capability not in Afghanistan, but is it premature to say this war is over?
LIEBERMANN: The U.S. will maintain what you call a over-the-horizon capability. That's military terms for being able to strike Afghanistan without being in Afghanistan, the ability to fly in drones or fighter jets or bombers from other bases, perhaps in the gulf, to carry out counterterrorism strikes against ISIS-K or Al Qaeda or even perhaps one day the Taliban. The Pentagon has made clear that that capability and that mission will continue.
Is this war over? I think you can say now that this war is over. The question about whether there emerges a terror threat in Afghanistan that is able to emerge and threaten the U.S. homeland, or the homeland of allies sometime down the road, right now nobody is ruling that out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCKENZIE: We would assess that probably there are at least 2,000 hard core ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now. And, of course, many of those come from prisons that were opened a few days ago. So that number is up and probably as high as it's ever been in quite a while. And that's a challenge for the Taliban, I believe, in the days ahead.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LIEBERMANN: The question is how much of a challenge and what does the Taliban do going forward now that it's not only fighting the U.S. but also forced to be put in a position where it is trying to govern a country. Does the ISIS-K fight and that fight for them take away the resources, their time, their attention or do they turn it elsewhere? And how does that affect the future of Afghanistan? All of that is key as the U.S. continues to watch what happens there.
Of course, overall of this is just the fact at this point that the U.S. ability to monitor what's happening on the ground in the country to gather intelligence, all of that severely diminished when that last C-17 took off.
BLITZER: All right, Oren, I want you to standby as well. Once again, we're awaiting the secretary of state, Antony Blinken. He's going to be making statement. You see the live pictures coming in from the State Department right now. We will, of course, have live coverage, anxious to hear what he has to say in this historic day.
In the meantime, I want to bring in our reporters in the region. Our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward is joining us. Our Senior International Correspondent Sam Kiley is with us. Also joining us, CNN Military Analyst, Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.
Clarissa, the reality is many were left behind on this evacuation, Americans and Afghans, friends of United States. I want you to watch and listen and our viewers as well to what the head of the U.S. military central command just said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCKENZIE: No American citizens came out on the last what we call the joint tactical infiltration, the last five jets to leave.
There's a lot of heart break associated with this departure. We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, Clarissa, you have done really excellent reporting on the ground in Kabul. How crushing do you think this moment is for the, let's say, 250 Americans and so many others, thousands of Afghans who were still desperate to try to get out?
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNAITONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it is absolutely crushing. Of course, Wolf. I spoke earlier on in the day with a family of four from Houston, Texas. They told me they had been going to the airport for two weeks trying desperately to get out. They all have American passports. They had gone to Afghanistan to visit the mother's family. And essentially the issue was they couldn't get past the Taliban. They were in touch with the U.S. military. The military was trying to facilitate their departure.
I spoke to another U.S. citizen, a translator, a female translator who worked with the military. She was actually told she could leave but her friend, who was a SIV holder, a special immigrant visa holder, would not be allowed to leave, and so she made the decision so stay.
So there are so many people like that, Wolf, who have either refused or who have had to make the wrenching decision to stay behind, to not leave others. And, of course, they are now awaiting to see what their future holds, what will the Taliban do? Will they stay true to their word? They have promised now and engaged with the international community publicly on this issue, that they will allow people to leave safely if they have the appropriate documentation or if they are foreign nationals.
But for obvious reasons, many people, particularly those who are from the U.S., who worked with the U.S., are deeply concerned that they may not be able to trust that.
I do want to add that some Afghan nationals who were at great risk, including a female politician, who I actually interviewed in her home in Kabul when she was under house arrest, she has now been allowed to leave the country, Fawzia Koofi, thanks to the effort of the Qataris. So there are efforts continuing to try to get people out who might be in very vulnerable positions, should they stay. And it does appear that potentially the Taliban is willing and open to negotiate on those. But we're talking about very specific cases. We're not talking about possibly tens of thousands of people, Wolf, who are still desperate to leave.
BLITZER: Let's hope that officials in Qatar can continue to intervene and help those Afghans get out that certainly we would all like to see get out.
General Hertling, what goes through your mind on this historic day hearing the Biden administration declare the end of this war after nearly 20 years?
LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, you have hit on something I have been thinking about all week, all month, especially in the last few hours. First of all, I'm relieved that the war is over and the U.S. forces are out. But like many Americans, I'm also mixed in terms of my feelings about what has happened over the last few weeks and what it means for the future.
Knowing what has gone into this NEO operation, this noncombatant evacuation operation, I'm extremely proud of what the military and the State Department has described by General McKenzie talked about how masterful this NEO operation was in getting 120 lives out of that country that will be offered a new lease on life.
But at the same time I'm troubled by the SIVs and partners left behind, as well as the few hundred Americans that General McKenzie described. I'm wondering about the potential for dealing with the Taliban in the future, what is that going to entail and what kind of terrorist activity may or may not come out of Afghanistan.
And I'm also extremely concerned knowing many of my colleagues in the military fought for Afghanistan and especially the women of Afghanistan. My concern is about the future of that country and especially about -- about the bevy of Afghan women who knew a new life for 20 years and now are going to have to revert to the old life. All of those things are part of my consideration as I look back at what's happened over the last 20 years.
BLITZER: You know, Clarissa, let me get your thoughts on this. We just got some video in, celebratory gunfire video. You can see it right there. The Taliban really excited. They're pleased. You see them shooting into the air. The Taliban press spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, just issued a statement on Twitter saying tonight at 12:00 midnight Afghanistan time, the last American troops withdrew from Kabul airport and our country gained full independence. All praise and strength are due to God. So what do you think of this, the way the Taliban, Clarissa, is celebrating? WARD: Well, I think it is natural that they would celebrate this
moment. This is something they fought very hard for, for 20 years. But I think also, privately, they would acknowledge that they understand now that the hard work begins because it is a lot easier to be an insurgency than it is to govern. I remember General David Petraeus telling me this. They only have to be right once. We have to be right all the time.
And CNN has actually spoken to a Taliban source who has acknowledge that they have a real problem at the moment with ISIS-K militants, to use his words, melting in to Taliban forces, essentially posing as Taliban fighters, and it is almost impossible for them to distinguish who is Taliban, who is not.
So as they now take on this massive responsibility of governing this huge country, of trying to provide security across that country, they are going to be facing some very tough times ahead. And they are going to be facing a significant threat, as we have just had a taste of, over the last few days since the large attack back on Thursday, from ISIS-K militants who are hell bent, Wolf, on doing whatever they can to undermine and destroy the Taliban and anybody who is seen to be working with them. And if the Taliban can't even differentiate between their own fighters and ISIS-K jihadists, then, clearly, they're going to have their work cut out for them.
So it's natural that they will be celebrating in this specific moment, but now I would say the real hard work begins.
BLITZER: It certainly does. You know, Sam, how bizarre is it to hear the United States officially publically give some credit to the Taliban on its way out the door while still facing obviously very serious threats from emboldened ISIS-K fighters, terrorist, Al Qaeda terrorists, so many of whom were freed from prison in Afghanistan in recent weeks and months?
SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is just a sort of bizarre moment, but we have been building up to this remark made by General Kenneth McKenzie when he paid tribute effectively to the effectiveness of the relationship that they had developed over the last couple of weeks with the Taliban. He described how he had confronted them here in Doha and said this is what we're going to do and we need your cooperation with it and they got it. The Americans got it.
Yes, there was a terrorist attack. There was a failure of Taliban outer security that allowed that terrible terrorist attack with the 13 Americans killed, 170 Afghans. But, frankly, those sort of attacks have happened in Central Paris and all over around the world as well, so there is no perfect security system. But, very clearly, the military found it relatively easy to deal with the Taliban in Kabul. But this was an element of the Taliban in all probability coming from the Haqqani Network that knows Kabul extremely well. They themselves are elements within it had conducted terrorist attacks in the past. They got complete penetration of the city. They have a uniformed elite that's very, very highly trained that we have seen in social media video now actually walking into the airport, walking up to abandoned American helicopters and so on.
So it is an absolutely extraordinary moment, if you flash back to the battle for Tora Bora when the United States was dropping daisy cutters, those enormous fuel air bombs on Al Qaeda position that relatively small numbers of American Special Forces and northern alliance were able to drive Al Qaeda out and topple the Taliban in relatively short order. 20 years later, they're now talking to them face-to-face. There has been radio contact during what effectively is an American withdrawal from that country and the Taliban are back in charge.
But as Clarissa said, this is when the hard work begins. The issue now for the Taliban is that over the next years, weeks and days, they will have to turn their attention to fighting against that insurgency rather than being an insurgency, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, Good point. General Hertling, clearly, we're all watching history unfold, 20 years of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan now over. This was the largest also what's called noncombatant evacuation in U.S. military history. More than 120,000 people got out over the past two weeks or so. But the country is still mourning. Our country is still mourning 13 U.S. service members who got killed in that terrorist attack last week. How are you reflecting, General, on this operation?
HERTLING: Well, those -- you know Wolf, you and I had this conversation yesterday that became quite emotional during that dignified transfer of remains at Dover Air Force Base. The 13 that gave their lives as they were getting 120,000 people out of that country certainly should be honored. But my reflection has been on the 2,100-plus that gave their lives over the 20 years of this conflict as well as the many thousands of those who were wounded and take home the wounds of war not only physically but mentally. So that's where my reflection goes as a former soldier. That's what I'm thinking about. This has been a very difficult 20 years.
You know, I was in the basement of the Pentagon at the national military command center, the other situation room, when this war started. And watching our allies and the U.S. forces fight this conflict over the last 20 years with the ups and downs has brought a whole lot of thought and emotion and it's going to continue, I'm sure, for months, if not, years for all of us who have served in the military over the last decade or so.
BLITZER: It certainly will. And, Sam, let me just get your thoughts. You're in the region. These reports that when the U.S. launched this latest airstrike against an ISIS-K terrorist car bomber, ten Afghans, family members, kids, were killed in that U.S. airstrike. What are you hearing? What are you seeing? What do we know about?
KILEY: Well, it was an extraordinary tragic accident effectively, according to the Pentagon. A vehicle either itself wide with the bomb, Wolf, or carrying suicide bombers but certainly containing explosives was struck by a drone. This was an ISIS-K plot. There was an imminent attack expected against Kabul International Airport and the vehicle was struck.
Then what according to the Pentagon happened is that, instantaneously, you have what's called secondary detonations, which is that the ammunition, the explosive inside the vehicle blew up killing a family of ten, most of them children, including two two-year-olds, absolutely catastrophic moment in a triumphant week of life-saving rather than life taking by coalition forces.
And it illustrates really one of the reasons that it is so important perhaps for President Biden to get out. These sorts of incidents are very hard for a democracy to swallow, to get an even worse, if they do start swallowing them and get used to them and the killing of civilians in these sorts of strikes becomes routine and then something very terrible is happening to the body of politic back home.
So it is a disaster by any definition and particularly, as it would seem, that at least one, possibly two adult victims of this airstrike were actually people who had, in the past, worked with coalition forces, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let me just remind our viewers, we're awaiting the secretary of state, Antony Blinken. He's going to be making an official statement over at the State Department. You see live pictures come in. We'll have that statement as soon as he shows up.
In the meantime, I want to bring up our Senior Political Commentator David Axelrod and CNN Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley. Douglas after, what, nearly two decades, 20 years, America's longest war finally over, what does this moment mean specifically for President Biden?
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, this has never been Joe Biden's war.
You know, he has been reluctant about American involvement in Afghanistan. Famously, he dissented about operation Neptune Spear, the killing of Osama bin Laden, in our intervention in the Pakistan. And when he was vice president, he wanted out.
It is kind of odd that he's going to be tied to the hip with a Trump policy decision, you know, the Doha agreement that Trump made in February of 2020 and that you're going to see these two presidents sort of extraction policy linked together.
But Biden is somebody who cares so deeply about our troops. We have 2,500-plus Americans to mourn who lost their lives in this war, untold wounded warriors. Former President George Bush draws them and illustrating them. Because when we see somebody in that was crippled in the war in Afghanistan, it brings our heart, you know, to tears.
And, so, I think Biden, after the debacle of earlier this summer, he seems in the last week to have found his sea legs. So I think he's done what he could to bring out many of our Afghan partners as possible. He's committed to relocating many in to the United States. But I'm worried, Wolf, about those 100-plus Americans left behind, just like we had POWS left behind in Vietnam. We have some Americans that are there. And I'm worried about something happening to them or being used as a kidnapping tool or executed by the, you know, ISIS-K forces.
BLITZER: What does this say, David Axelrod, to you that the official announcement from the U.S. that the war is over after nearly 20 years was not made by the president of the United States but was made by the head of the U.S. military central command, General McKenzie?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN HOST, THE AXE FILES PODCAST: Yes. It was interesting to me because I thought this would be the announcement that the president would want to make. But they dealt with it as the end of operations there, and they want to be -- the officer in charge to deliver that news, to have Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, explain some of the diplomatic steps. And I think the president will step forward tomorrow and try to put this in some historical perspective. And so, I think they want to get the details of what happened today out of the way and give him a chance free and clear to speak to the larger issues.
And Doug is quite right. I sat through nine intense, passionate meetings in the fall of 2009, in which the Obama administration was trying to develop a strategy that didn't exist for Afghanistan, how that with a goal of trying to figure out how we extricated ourselves from Afghanistan, what is the endgame. And those meetings were, as I said, quite intense and Vice President Biden was very much of the mind that we went to Afghanistan to disable Al Qaeda. We went to Afghanistan to bring to justice the people who had attacked us and we should keep the focus on that mission and not allow it to become something larger. Well, it did become something larger. The argument was we needed to stabilize Afghanistan, train up its military in order to keep it from becoming once again a haven for the Taliban and particularly for Al Qaeda. But, you know, his basic arguments then were the arguments that you're hearing now. I think that the tragic thing and the thing that saddens many is that we did, in fact, provide some hope for millions of Afghans for something better than what they had under the Taliban and now there is a sense that, as we leave, they are to fend for themselves. And that is -- that is tragic.
Let me say one other thing, Wolf. As part of my job with the president, I got to travel with him to Afghanistan and I spent some time with the young men and women in uniform there. And I was so impressed, as I was when I went to Iraq, by these young people and their commitment and their understanding that they were putting themselves at risk in order to serve their country. And the one thing that I don't accept is the notion that their efforts and the efforts of those 2,100-plus who died or the 13 who tragically died this week were in vain. And I hope that we, as a country, honor them, their memory and their families for that service.
BLITZER: Yes. You make an excellent point, David. The only depressing thing is that the Taliban controlled Afghanistan 20 years ago on 9/11. And now, once again, the Taliban control Afghanistan right now, as they just announced in their independence statement.
Clarissa, you had a firsthand look at the situation on the ground as U.S. forces pulled out.
How do you think the chaotic, deadly final days of the war will shape the way we look back one day on President Biden's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the way he handled it?
WARD: I think, you know, having sort of watched this whole thing play out, there is no question that there were no easy answers. There was no obvious solution or quick fix. There was no avoiding the fact that there would be bloodshed and heartbreak and desperation and fear and panic. Because if you started evacuating all of these people very early on, then you would immediately be sending a message that you were undermining the Afghan government and that you were anticipating the Taliban takeover.
And it is important to remember that throughout this whole process and the peace talks with the Taliban, President Ashraf Ghani was very, very stubborn about believing that the U.S. was really leaving and about entering into those negotiations with the Taliban in any meaningful or substantive way.
So, I think it's obvious that the Biden administration has made the best out of a really desperately bad situation. The fact that they have been able to -- you know, when I was on that airfield, Wolf, and they evacuated 9,000 people and there were no planes flying for ten hours, and you just thought to yourself how on earth are they going to manage to air lift out 50,000 people, now, we're talking about well over a hundred of thousands of people. That is extraordinary.
However, there are repercussions. There are repercussions in terms of how America is now seen across the world. When we first arrived here in Pakistan, we immediately encountered a passport control guide who said to us, don't you see now? Afghanistan is a free country. And that's the message that some people are taking away from this, that Afghanistan is free, that the occupiers and the invaders have been defeated and they have been defeated by what is essentially an insurgency. And so, obviously, there is baggage that comes with that with Americas as the world leading super power.
But I think it's always difficult in this moment as things are unfolding and everything is doing the best that they can and, boy, did we see that at that airport, every Marine, soldier, airman, they were doing everything they could to try to mitigate the suffering, to try to get people out safely.
And I think may be for now, that's the important thing to focus on and then in the coming weeks and months and, dare I say it, years. There will be time as well to reflect as a nation on what this meant and what it was all for and what the residue is and what the repercussions could be and what will happen ultimately to Afghanistan as it will now be under Taliban control, Wolf.
BLITZER: And you're absolutely right. Those service members who risked their lives to do what they were doing deserve all praise from all of us and we thank them right now.
Everybody standby. I want to bring in Republican Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas. He's the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's also a key member of the Homeland Security Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us on this historic day after, what, nearly two decades. The war in Afghanistan for the U.S. is now over. So what does this mean for the people of Afghanistan, as well as for Americans and our NATO allies who have been fighting there for the last 20 years?
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): Well, I commend our veterans and they're in a hard place right now. Every veteran I talk to, particularly those with PTSD, I'm worried about suicide rates going up. But I want them to know that what they did was worth it. They stopped the 9/11-style terror attack for 20 years and that was worth it.
When I talked to my ambassadors and others in the Middle East, they see this as a victory for jihadists over democracy. I think our allies view this a little bit weaker. And our allies' adversaries certainly view us as a weaker force in the region.
And, Wolf, I know we're all saying this is the end of the war, and they are pulling out. We are pulling out. I don't think it's the end of the war. I don't think the war was over on September the 10th. And now, with the flood of foreign terrorists, particularly from Pakistan moving in to Afghanistan with Al Qaeda and ISIS-K in there with the safe haven, I predict the homeland will be under threat again.
And I just think -- you know, I have been on the phone all last weekend with the top DOD officials, the State Department and White House trying to get these last people out, trying to get the Americans left behind out. The sad thing is we are leaving Americans in enemy territory. And it didn't have to happen that way.
If we had planned for this and not set an arbitrary date and made it missions-based, we could have saved all Americans, plus those interpreters that you know worked so closely with our special forces. Now they have been left behind and their fate, unfortunately, is very certain.
BLITZER: But how much credit do you give the Biden administration, the U.S. military, especially, Congressman, for the past couple weeks, only about two weeks together with the NATO allies getting more than 120,000, mostly Afghans, but more than 6,000 Americans citizens out of that country?
MCCAUL: Well, I do think the airlifts were very intense at the end. But why do we have to wait until the last couple days before this had to happen? I just rejected the premise of complete withdrawal, no conditions based from the time certain. That's a prescription for disaster. And now we saw ISIS-K hit the airport. And, Wolf, that's when all the gates were welded shut. And so like the girls that were supposed to get in to our SIV applicants to our Americans sitting outside the gate for hours, if not days, not being able to get in as we had calls flooding into our offices, this was not done efficiently.
I mean, you guys hear a lot of stories, Wolf, and some I can't talk about right now because operational security. But now that we're going to be out of there, you're going to hear a lot of stories about what really happened.
BLITZER: Yes. The reason they started this airlift so late is because they were stunned that the Afghan military and the Afghan government simply collapsed and simply gave up, walked away and the Taliban came in to Kabul, came in and took over the entire country. They were assuming -- and maybe this was an intelligence blunder or whatever, but I want to get your thoughts, Congressman. They were assuming that the Afghan government would be in power and the Afghan military, 250,000 or 300,000 troops, would not simply run away.
MCCAUL: I don't think this was an intelligence failure. I got the intelligence assessment since May. Ambassador Crocker and I wrote The New York Times article saying this is what you have to do. The I.C. got this right every step of the way that the Taliban is going to be fast, fast deterioration. Taliban is going to take over. Afghan army is going to implode. And what happened with the army, they saw the United States abandoning and then President Ghani basically left his own people in an act of cowardice. And then when they have no governance, the United States is abandoning them, they're asking the question what are we fighting for? It imploded very fast.
I thought it was very foreseeable. I think the intelligence community thought so, too. The top generals, the president, I think, ignored those warnings and went with this sort of fantasy that we're going to negotiate with the Taliban and everything is going to be fine.
BLITZER: Yes. I think they thought it was going to be at least a few months. They didn't think it was going to be a few days as it turned out to be.
BLITZER: As you know, Congressman, the State Department now says there are fewer than about 250 American citizens who are still there in Afghanistan but want to get out of Afghanistan. How dangerous is this situation right now for any American who is still waiting to evacuate with the Taliban now in control?
MCCAUL: It's a very dangerous situation. I just got briefed in the -- it is actually higher than that number. And the reason a lot maybe they tried to get out at the last minute because of the security concerns they were not let into the airport. But a lot of them actually, Wolf, have family members there that they can't get out with them, And that's part of the problem there also. The ones that -- you know, I think the Americans the Taliban were letting through their perimeter against the Afghan interpreter that they view really are the ones who betrayed their country because they worked with the Americans, the infidel, and they are the ones that have the black mark, the bullet on their back, bulls-eye on their back and they will most likely going to be the ones that are going to die.
BLITZER: We just got some video. The Taliban tweeted some video and I'll show it once again to our viewers, get your reaction. They fired their weapons into the air celebrating what they call our country gained full independence, all praise and strength are due to God. When you see the way they're celebrating now, the Taliban in full control of Afghanistan after 20 years, as I pointed out earlier, they were in control of Afghanistan 20 years ago on 9/11. Once again, they're now in full control of Afghanistan, what is your reaction?
MCCAUL: Honestly, it's disgraceful and I think it's very damaging to our veterans. It is damaging to the women left behind. And you know what, Wolf, this will be one of the hardest 9/11 ceremonies to watch because, as you just saw on that clip, they are going to be celebrating a victory over the United States of America, an unconditional surrender, a victory just like they celebrated over the Soviet Union. And, unfortunately, that will be the history here and the threat will continue, but they are going to celebrate.
And I fear watching that Taliban flag being raised over our United States embassy.
BLITZER: There is no more U.S. embassy in Afghanistan. All the American diplomats have now left on that final flight. All U.S. military personnel are out of Afghanistan. What would you like to hear? We're waiting to hear from the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and I know you know him well. He's about to make a statement. We will have live coverage, Congressman. What would you like to hear him say? MCCAUL: Well, what Ambassador Crocker and I told him back in May. Reassure the American people you will get every American, you're not going to leave them behind, reassure them that our Afghan partners and interpreters are going to be able to get out there. And, lastly, where are you going to put eyes, our capability, your intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance. That's so important, because without that, Wolf, we can't see eyes and ears on the ground what's happening in Afghanistan in terms of threats and how to illuminate them. But also Russia, China and Iran, we can't see them either, and that is a huge national security consequence that is not going to be positive moving forward.
BLITZER: Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, thanks so much for joining us.
MCCAUL: Thanks, Wolf. Thanks for having me.
BLITZER: A historic day indeed. We're following the breaking news on that -- the United States now has completely left Afghanistan. We're waiting to hear from the secretary of state, Antony Blinken. We will have live coverage of that. We will get to that as soon as he shows up over at the State Department.
But at the meantime there's other major news we're following right now. At least two people are dead. More than one million, one million customers are without power tonight after Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana as a category four storm. Now it is a tropical depression.
Brian Todd is on the scene for us just outside of New Orleans. Brian, some of the damage we're seeing is really catastrophic. Walk us through what you are seeing and hearing.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot of catastrophic damage, Wolf, and this area really just king of getting its arms around the total devastation. You mentioned there are power lines down all over the place, people desperate for power, they're also desperate for gasoline.
Check out this line here in Chalmette, Louisiana, on Judge Perez Boulevard here. We have been talking to motorists who have been in line for two and a half, three hours. Check it out. This goes way, way down, probably close to a mile down the road. So these people are going to be waiting in line for probably more than two to three hours because it was shorter when we first got here.
Pivot over here, our photojournalist Jake Shire is going to show the gas station. I talked to the owner over here. He started out the day with 5,000 gallons. He's now down to 2,800 gallons, roughly. He's talked to refinery. He thinks he might be able to get more gas by tomorrow, but he's going to run out in the coming hours tonight. He's already had to call the police to break up one fight here between motorists who are vying for a place in line.
So, again, it just shows you the desperate straits people are in here in the New Orleans area. You know, the Entergy Power Company said they had like 2,000 miles worth of power lines that were damaged or down. They had eight major power lines servicing the city of New Orleans that were damaged. There was an electrical transmission tower in Jefferson Parish that actually just got totally destroyed by the storm, collapsed into the Mississippi River. That gives you an idea, Wolf, it's going to take days, if not, weeks, for the power to be restored here in the New Orleans area.
Also, we just heard from the New Orleans police a short time ago, as night fall is going to descent in a couple hours, that's another concern. This area is going to be pitch black. There's a potential for looting. The New Orleans police deploying anti-looting teams in the city tonight to guard against looting. So a lot of people on edge here, desperate for gas, desperate for power and hunkering down as well.
We don't see in the city or out here a lot of people milling around on the street. A lot of people are either hunkered down or they're coming out in situations like this trying to get some kind of supplies for their families.
BLITZER: Which is totally understandable. Brian, we'll get back to you, Brian Todd just outside of New Orleans.
Let's get some more on the breaking news right now. Major General Keith Waddell, the adjunct general of Louisiana National Guard, is joining us. General, thank you so much for joining us.
I know you are responsible for coordinating the entire Louisiana National Guard. Can you give us a sense, General, of the scope of this rescue mission that is now underway?
MAJ. GEN. KEITH WADDELL, ADJUNTANT GENERAL, LOUISIANA NATIONAL GUARD: Well, thank you, Wolf. I appreciate you having me on this evening and having the opportunity to share our story with the nation and the world. As far as our response efforts, as far as search and rescue goes, that was our priority mission this morning. We started real early on the ground search and rescue around 4:15 this morning and with air search and rescue, we got up around 6:15.
And, really, we worked in 14 parishes, concentrated in southeast Louisiana. And, primarily, the 200-plus that were able to evacuate out were in Saint Charles, St. John and Lafourche Parishes and we also rescued 27 pits.
But I would say concurrently with the search and rescue missions, we have ongoing security missions with the New Orleans Police Department, Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. Our engineer assessment teams have been out in those 14 parishes, looking at the damage that's there, coming up with a plan how best the issue is that were caused by Hurricane Ida.
And our engineering work teams have been working. We actually have some supersize (ph) sent down to Plaquemines to address a levee breach that occurred in that particular area. In our commodities distribution enterprise, we actually had it set and
ready prior to the storm landing, and once we get the missions, which we anticipate going out this evening, hopefully, we'll be opening up distributing commodities in parishes -- three parishes starting tomorrow.
BLITZER: General Waddell, I wonder if you could get into some specifics. How many people has the Louisiana National Guard rescued today? And do you have a sense of how many more people still need help?
WADDELL: It's been about 220 plus, Wolf. And with pets, like I said, 27, I think the bulk of it had been accomplished up to this point. But as we conduct secondary sweeps with the integrated search and rescue and all the local state and federal officials that we're working side -- side by side or hand in hand with, I feel confident that we're getting close.
BLITZER: Your governor, Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, says he expects the death toll from this storm to continue to rise. Based on what you have seen, what your teams have seen, General, you agree with that assessment?
WADELL: I mean, it would be unfair for me to comment at this time. I mean, we're focused on our mission. We support civilian authority. You know, whatever happens happens.
I would just ask for everyone's thoughts and prayers in support of our state and the visitors to our state. I know it's some very challenging times here in Louisiana with Hurricane Ida.
But the one great thing about Louisiana is we're a very resilient state. I'm encouraged by that. We've got a great team assembled with our local state and federal officials. As you know, Wolf, we've got a lot of practice with emergencies and hurricanes here in Louisiana, and we respect that every storm has its own identity.
But a lot of the things in terms of lesson learned, tactics, techniques and procedures, we apply these to different storms and improve our efficiencies, which helps our citizens. And that's what we're in the business to do.
And I can't tell you how thrilled we are to get all the support that we've gotten from other states.
We have compacts for national guardsmen from other states. We've got 13 states that are sending guardsmen here over the next couple of days. On the Title Ten or the active component side, we also got some support.
So we're just very grateful for everyone coming to us and helping us out with Hurricane Ida, as you know, one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to ever hit the state of Louisiana.
And I do want to thank the tremendous men and women we have in the Louisiana National Guard, their families, their employers, our civilian employees. You know, without all of them, our Louisiana National Guard could not do all the great things it's done over the last 18 months specifically.
But, again, I appreciate you having me on this evening, Wolf.
BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts on something that's very unique to this hurricane and the aftermath, COVID. You didn't have to deal with COVID in earlier hurricanes but you clearly have to deal with it now. How has that impacted your efforts?
WADDELL: Well, we actually last year with the hurricanes and three major hurricanes that hit Louisiana with Laura, Delta and Zeta, COVID was a consideration. Obviously it's greater right now with the delta variant.
But all the mitigation measures that everyone talks about we emphasize those things with our soldiers and airmen as they go out and interact with the public and hope about stopping the spread and getting COVID under control. But we still have about 240 soldiers and airmen that continue to do COVID testing and vaccination throughout Louisiana at the shelters, at the universities, mainly in north Louisiana. And we will continue to try to stop the spread.
TAPPER: Well, we thank you for all your efforts. We thank all the men and women who are working with you in the Louisiana National Guard.
General Waddell, thank you so much for joining us.
WADDELL: Thank you, Wolf. Appreciate the time.
BLITZER: Thank you.
All right. Once again we're standing by to hear directly from the secretary of state who will be making a statement on this historic day, the end, at least for the United States, of the war in Afghanistan.
BLITZER: Once again we're waiting remarks from the Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He's supposed to speak at the top of the hour earlier. They said 5:00, earlier they said 3:30. Obviously, he's been seriously delayed. We're anxious to hear what he has to say on this historic day as the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan, the military withdrawal after 20 years of war now complete.
We'll have live coverage once the secretary of state arrives there at that microphone.
In the meantime, let's get analysis what is going on on this historic day.
You know, General Hertling, you're still with us. I want to show you some video that came into CNN. This is a journalist who accompanied Afghan troops into a military
hanger there at the Kabul airport. You see them, they joined the Taliban.
These are the Taliban going into this what used to be the U.S. airport there in Kabul with U.S. military equipment left behind. The Taliban well-armed, you can see this reporter there talking about that. These are well-armed Taliban troops who are in control.
What goes through your mind as they see them begin to take charge of this U.S. military equipment left behind?
LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's unfortunate, Wolf, certainly, because, you know, there are people suggesting we left this stuff behind for the Taliban and in fact, this was foreign military sales to the Afghan army. And given the size and capacity of the Afghan army, I mean, they are going to have over 300,000 AR -- excuse me M4s or M16s, they're going to have machine guns, trucks, not all of the things have been destroyed.
I saw a rollup the other day about the amount of things we've provided to the emerging Afghan army and it certainly is significant. So, in the last few days, I think the military that we're in Kabul, in Hamid Karzai International Airport attempted to destroy as much equipment as possible, but that doesn't account for the amount of stuff across the country, weapons, trucks, Humvees, even helicopters that were given to the Afghan army.
So, those are going to be continuing reminders of how when you arm a foreign force, you have to ensure that the government of that foreign force, the Afghan government stands up and uses that security for the betterment of the people as opposed to letting that force dissolve as unfortunately after fighting so many years, the Afghan army did when their government ran away from them.
BLITZER: Clarissa, we did hear the commander, the U.S. military commander of the Central Command, General McKenzie say earlier that they did certain things to the aircraft to make sure they will never fly again but still, there is no doubt these Taliban troops did capture a lot of very important U.S. military equipment left behind.
CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, absolutely, Wolf. First of all, take for a moment the symbolism of it, walking in as you saw "L.A. Times" reporter Nabih Bulos walking into that hanger seeing those, I believe CH-46s, some of the helicopters that were ferrying back and forth State Department people and embassy officials as they were being evacuated. Whether they can fly those planes or not, it's a significant movement.
And we saw on the ground before the Taliban even took over the country, we visited three bases in Ghazni province which had been under the control of the U.S., the Taliban was now completely in control. Obviously, they seized them from the Afghan army but took a huge amount of weaponry, ammunition. We saw ambulances. We saw Rangers, those Ford Rangers, pickup trucks they have been using across the country, Humvees.
So, there is no question that they have acquired quite a large war chest as a result of this takeover and there is no getting around that and even the stuff that doesn't work, as I just said before, they understand it's a photo opportunity. It's a powerful symbolic moment for everyone in the world to see.
BLITZER: Let me get final thoughts this hour from David Axelrod and Douglas Brinkley.
David, what do you think as we await the secretary of state?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that it's a sad day. It's a messy day, but I think as you'll hear from the president tomorrow we have to step back and ask is, what were the alternatives? How long, it was 12 years ago that Joe Biden asked the generals how long? I mean, how does this end? How long will we have to stay?
And no one had a very good answer for that, and here we are 12 years later, we would have had to re-engage the Taliban if we were going to stay, and how long would we have stayed? Were we prepared to stay forever?
BLITZER: Hold on a second. Hold on. Here is the Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Good evening, everyone.
Eighteen days ago, the United States and our allies began our evacuation and relocation operation in Kabul. As you just heard from the Pentagon, a few hours ago, that operation was completed. More than 123,000 people have been safely flown out of Afghanistan. That includes about 6,000 American citizens.
This has been a massive military diplomatic and humanitarian undertaking. One of the most difficult in our nation's history and extraordinary feat of logistics and coordination under some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Many, many people made this possible.
I want to command our outstanding diplomats who worked around the clock and around the world to coordinate the operation.