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Biden Defends U.S. Withdrawals, The War In Afghanistan Is Now Over; At Least Five Storm-Related Deaths Confirmed After Hurricane Ida; Al Qaeda Praises Taliban For Taking Control Of Kabul. Pediatric Doctors: About 204,000 COVID Cases Among Children Last Week, Five Times Higher Than a Month Earlier. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 31, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM with breaking news.

President Biden just delivered his most forceful defense yet of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, declaring America's longest war is now over. The day after the last U.S. military flights left the country, the president is now calling the evacuation operation an extraordinary success, disagreeing with critics who said it could have been in a more orderly way.

He says 100 to 200 Americans remain in Afghanistan, and he insists there is no deadline to get them out. The commander-in-chief vowing to continue the fight against ISIS-K terrorists who killed 13 U.S. service members, warning, and I'm quoting him now, we are not done with you yet.

Let's begin over at the White House with our Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. Jeff, the president waited, what, 24 hours after the U.S. withdrawal to declare on camera that the operation was a success.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this was the decision that President Biden has long wanted to make, but as commander in chief, he could finally set the course to end America's longest war. He spent far more time talking about the merits of that decision rather than the questions that do, in fact, still remain about the operational decisions that led to a frenzied, chaotic, and even deadly final chapter of this war. He was defiant as he spoke today here at the White House but left no question he believes he made the right decision. He said it was time to end this war.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not extending a forever exit.

ZELENY (voice over): Tonight, President Biden defiantly marking the end of America's longest war.

BIDEN: I take responsibility for the decision. Now some say we should have started mass evacuations sooner. And could this have been done in a more orderly manner. I respectfully disagree.

ZELENY: The president defending the chaotic departure from Afghanistan as a military success. The final act of a 20-year odyssey filled with triumph like the killing of Osama Bin Laden and tragedy at failing to defeat the Taliban.

BIDEN: Maybe August the 31st is not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives.

ZELENY: The president said more than 5,500 American citizens were evacuated with 100 to 200 still remaining behind in Afghanistan. He vowed to rescue them if they choose as a diplomatic mission, not a military one.

BIDEN: For those remaining Americans, there is no deadline. We remain committed to get them out if they want to come out.

ZELENY: But leaving Americans behind is at odds with the pledge the president made two weeks ago in an interview on ABC news.

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

BIDEN: Yes. Yes.

ZELENY: The president hailed the success of the evacuation led by the U.S. military, with more than 124,000 people air lifted to safety from Kabul. But starting it sooner, he said, would have sparked even more chaos.

BIDEN: The extraordinary success of this mission is due to the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomats and intelligence professionals.

ZELENY: He said the war should have ended a decade ago, as he argued as vice president during the Obama administration. He also noted he inherited a deal President Trump signed with the Taliban, to remove troops by May 1st.

BIDEN: We were left with a simple decision, either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan or say we weren't leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war.

ZELENY: Tonight gripping images of the last soldier shown leaving Hamid Karzai International Airport, just before midnight in Afghanistan, Mayor General Chris Donahue who leads the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and was deployed 17 times to the country.

Not long after, celebratory gunfire from the Taliban now fully back in control of the country and these images of Taliban fighters surveying U.S. military equipment left behind. History will show the war's remarkable toll with 2,461 American service members killed, including 13 just last week, more than 20,000 injured and more than $2 trillion in U.S. spending.

BIDEN: To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask, what is the vital national interest? In my view, we only have one, to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.


ZELENY: On that front, the commander-in-chief delivered a blistering warning to those who launched last week's deadly attack.

BIDEN: To ISIS-K, we are not done with you yet.

We'll hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and you will pay the ultimate price.


ZELENY (on camera): So the president said he would -- he vowed an unforgiving, precise strategy to go after the terrorist threats of today, not from two decades ago, drawing a distinction there. Of course, so many questions remain how his government, the U.S. government, will still try and get out those 100 to 200 American citizens remaining in Afghanistan, and beyond that, how this government will deal with the Taliban.

But as for the tone in the president's voice, Wolf, it was stronger than we have heard him speak at any point about this. It was defiant. It was forceful, but his national security adviser said it should be viewed as one of conviction. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you very much. It certainly was forceful.

Let's get reaction to the president's speech from our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward. She's joining us from Pakistan after doing some truly excellent reporting for all of us in Afghanistan.

Clarissa, the president called the evacuation, as you heard, an extraordinary success. You saw the conditions firsthand in Kabul. How does that tone resonate in the region?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think that people in Afghanistan were looking for reassurance and recognition from this speech. Nobody was expecting President Biden to apologize for the way the U.S. ended this war. But at the same time, they wanted to feel that there was a commitment to helping America's allies, to helping all those people who are still on the ground, the tens of thousands. We don't have a precise number who worked as translators, who worked with the U.S. military, the U.S. Embassy, various international organizations, women's rights activists, human rights activists, all of these people who really bought in to the American dream and who are now very much worried that their future is hanging by a thread.

So they were hoping, I think, to hear more reassurance. We did hear President Biden say, you know, we'll continue to use diplomacy as the primary tool to try push for human rights and women's rights. But, of course, the reality is that the U.S. doesn't have a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan anymore. It is now in Qatar.

I think on the other thing, recognition, again, nobody was looking for an apology and nobody is even saying that this has been a disaster in terms of, at the end of the day, 120,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan. That has to be seen as something remarkable in and of itself. But what I think some people felt was lacking from the speech was a tone of recognition of the enormity of the suffering of the Afghan people, of the desperation of these people who were willing to crush themselves into Taliban checkpoints, to physically grab on to the fuselage of American aircraft carriers because they are so petrified about what the future holds and also recognition of the enormous impact that the U.S. presence, both good and bad, has had on Afghanistan over these last two decades.

It almost felt like the Afghan people were kind of a side note or an appendix in this speech as President Biden essentially announced the end of two decades of a war that has claimed, you know, tens of thousands of Afghan lives and had a profound impact on the Afghan people.

So, I think there will be a little disappointment that there wasn't more in the way of reassurance and recognition. But I also think people understand that the Americans are really drawing a line under this and that this speech was intended, Wolf, for domestic consumption, not for international consumption.

BLITZER: Yes. We're showing our viewers some video of Afghans who were so desperate for food. The country is in horrible shape right now.

Clarissa, President Biden urged the Taliban to allow safe passage out. You were at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier today. Do Afghans have any real hope to get out safely either via the air or on ground?

WARD: Well, all the Afghans have to go on right now is the Taliban's word. And no one knows what that really means or what that really counts for. And so you are seeing is the airport remains closed. Although, the Taliban said it would be opening in the coming days. You are seeing people, of course, heading to land borders as well. But neighboring countries don't want to take a flood of refugees.

We were here in Pakistan. We were all day at the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan.


You're right next to the Taliban flag, Taliban fighters, a long line of people trying to get in. But the Pakistanis have said, listen, we have 1.4 million Afghan refugees here. We simply can't take anymore. And so, essentially, this border is closed. Unless you have some kind of documentation that would allow you to come into Pakistan or they are making certain cases of dispensation for people who have serious medical needs. But unless you fall into one of those two categories, you are being met with basically a no at the border.

And the United Nation has said, this is a big concern right now. 3.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. There are real concerns about food insecurity, the health care system being challenged to the brink, and so this is a problem that's not going away, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly isn't. Clarissa, I want you to standby. We'll have you back in a few moments.

But right now, we have new information about a secret deal the U.S. struck with the Taliban to help get Americans out of Afghanistan. Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr broke the story for us.

Barbara, what can you tell us?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Wolf, we have all known for days that the U.S. was communicating with the Taliban on the ground and had what they were referring to as a pragmatic relationship with them, communicating about operations, communicating to make sure there was no misunderstanding.

But we have learned tonight that all of it went much deeper, that, in fact, the U.S. negotiated this secret agreement with the Taliban to help evacuate Americans out of Kabul. Now, look, a lot of Americans did report they were not able to get past Taliban checkpoints. There is no question about that. But this separate arrangement involved Americans being told to go to certain muster points, if you will, rally points and the arrangement called for the Taliban to go there as well, pick them up and get them past the crowds at the airport and guide them towards the gates that were manned by American forces who would be watching for them and could get them through the gates and on to the airport grounds.

Officials that described this to us say they really do believe that it had a success in getting hundreds of Americans out while they acknowledged many Americans had problems with the Taliban.

There was also another chain of events we have learned about. U.S. special operations forces established their own secret gate, if you will, at the airport and they worked phone call centers, talking to Americans, guiding them, vectoring them into this arrangement saying, where are you, walk here, walk there, literally guiding them step by step to get into the airport.

At the end of the day, the U.S. says close to 6,000 Americans got out. They very much acknowledge here at the Pentagon there could be as much as many as 200 Americans still waiting to get out, and that will be left, they say, to a diplomatic initiative. Wolf?

BLITZER: Let's hope they make it. All right, Barbara, thank you very, very much, excellent reporting.

Clarissa is joining us once again along with our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Dash, CNN Military Analyst, Retired Major General James Spider Marks and CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen. He's the Author, by the way, of a brand new, very important book entitled, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.

Dana, the president hit back on his critics over this massive evacuation and withdrawal. What did you make of his clearly defiant tone?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Defiant bordering on defensive. And that clearly underscores how he is feeling about the intense criticism that he has been getting over the past two, almost three weeks. And that was underscoring and sort of undergirding the message that he intended to send and did send in a very detailed way, the most to date, to the American people about what happened, what really happened from his perspective and over the past three weeks but also leading up to the deadline during the Trump administration, and even going back to the beginning of this war.

And there is a reason it is called the forgotten war, Wolf. You know this better than I. And it is because, for so long, America just kind of stopped largely paying attention to what's going on there, which is why the president needed to come out and speak and give a more fulsome explanation of why he felt it was necessary to leave and what the mission was initially and how it changed or, from his perspective, was met ten years ago, which was to make it so that Afghanistan wasn't a breeding ground for terrorists.

There are a lot of unanswered questioned still, a lot of them, a lot of them that he couldn't answer, because they're not really answerable right now.


But the reality is that he wanted to make clear, just like I remember George W. Bush did when he was back at a candidate in 2000, the man who launched the Afghanistan war, that nation building, especially in a place like Afghanistan, which is tribal, which is not -- he said not welcoming to democracy, was a fruitless exercise, and that's why it is not in America's interest to stay.

Those topics have not been explained in the more robust way that he did today until he did today. I'm not sure how much of that got across with his, as you call it, defiant tone.

BLITZER: That's a good point.

You know, General Marks, the president called this evacuation mission an extraordinary success. This was, in fact, the largest noncombatant evacuation in U.S. military history. More than 120,000 individuals, mostly Afghans, were evacuated. The U.S., NATO allies are doing the evacuation. But how do you think all of this will be judged.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, what we have seen over the past couple of weeks was the sausage being made, right? The way it's going to be judged, I think, is at the tactical level -- and we've had this conversation before -- the tactical level, our service members always just do wonderful in terms of the tasks that they have to take on and the execution of those tasks and they make their bosses look good. At the strategic level, it will be criticized, and it should be. There were other things that this administration could have done to get out of Afghanistan.

And I think the president continues to beat the drum on the decision to depart Afghanistan, which, frankly, I think the American public is well behind and is really not the point. The point now is how, over the course of the last several weeks, did we execute this task to depart?

I'm saying when the administration hopes that this becomes ancient history and won't become a topic of discussion. But when the president was inaugurated, he could have very easily taken Afghanistan as topic number one and said, look, we're going to end this thing and we're going to begin our withdrawal. Having conducted NEO operations, not to this scale, but they are chaotic. They are messy. But over the course of many, many months, this administration could have had more than one point of departure, could have had multiple points of departure with a larger footprint in place that could have been bolstered to facilitate this departure.

So, I think those kinds of topics at the military level will be discussed in some detail. But I must say, I do appreciate the president's final comments at the end of his presentation today is when he acknowledged the human cost and the sacrifice of combat like this. So I thank the president for that.

BLITZER: Yes, indeed.

You know, Peter, the president also said it is time now for the United States to learn from its mistakes. And, clearly, he believed there are many mistakes. In fact, he thinks the U.S. should have gotten out of Afghanistan ten years ago. The last ten years have been a huge mistake, he suggested. How momentous is this shift?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think his speech was kind of a remix of some arguments we've heard and made before. He's also presenting this either/or. We either have to leave completely or it's nation building and kind of the invasion of Normandy. But, in fact, we only had 3,500 American troops and, very importantly, we had 7,000 allied NATO troops and 16,000 contractors that are keeping the Afghan Air Force alive, and that force was big enough basically to maintain the fragile status quo.

Go back three weeks, the Afghan, -- you know, every -- the Afghan government held every provincial capital. You know, now we had the Taliban completely in control. Every Jihadi group in the world is kind of pouring according to the United Nations. We're going to have a split screen on 9/11 where the Taliban will be celebrating their close allies, according to the U.N., remain closely aligned. They will be celebrating too. And, really, this is sort of a debacle. And, you know, Dana and you talked about his defense term. It was even really defensive. It was more, I think, angry and irritated, as if the challenges to him were sort of not correct. And, yet, I mean, there are so many factual inaccuracies in speech he made, not the least that we have all these terror threats all around the world. Well, which country has more terrorist today than any country in the world? It's Afghanistan, a place that we're leaving overnight. And it's great that we got 120,000-plus out. But we left a lot of people behind, not least the thousands of students and alumni and staff at the American University of Afghanistan, 3,900 of whom did not get out and only about 100 did.

BLITZER: Yes. That's so sad, indeed.

You know, Clarissa, you spent a lot of time over there. The president may be ready to put this behind him.


But clearly Afghans don't have a lot of answers on what their future will look like, do they?

WARD: No, they don't have a lot of answers at all. I mean, and you only need to look at the lines outside the banks in Kabul to see what that fear looks like. People are lining up for hours and hours trying to take their entire life savings out of their bank accounts because they are so uncertain.

This isn't just a question of people who might, on a personal level, fear reprisal attacks or fear that women's education is going to be stunted. This is about the very real fear. Can the Taliban effectively govern a country? They have been an insurgency for 20 years. Before that when they were governing, they weren't doing it in a terribly good manner. Can they now effectively govern? What will this transitional government look like? And most importantly, and speaking to Peter's point, can they provide security? Because the whole premise of this withdrawal was predicated on the notion that Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.

We spoke to an ISIS-K commander on the ground. We have seen the attacks that have been taking place. They're clearly there. They're proliferating. And the question becomes, is the Taliban able to contend with that threat and contain it?

BLITZER: All right, everybody standby. We will continue our special coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just ahead, we will get another take on the president's defense of the Afghanistan mission. I'll speak with a Republican Congressman who was just in Kabul during the evacuation. Representative Peter Meijer is standing by live.


[18:25:00] BLITZER: More now on the breaking news this hour. President Biden very forcefully defending the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, declaring the 20-year war is now over. Let's get reaction from Republican Congressman Peter Meijer of Michigan. He's a member of the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs Committees. He's a U.S. Army veteran, served in Iraq, has spent time in Afghanistan as an NGO. So you know the area well, Congressman. You heard the president say the U.S. evacuation mission was an extraordinary success. What is your reaction to his assessment?

REP. PETER MEIJER (R-MI): Although our airmen, our soldiers, our Marines, our sailors, our diplomats on the ground did just heroic and tremendous work and really pulled off a logistical feat, we can't forget that we have left not only American citizens in the hundreds but also thousands of loyal Afghan allies behind. So this is not a mission accomplished moment. This is a mission that must go on and it must continue. And I think it is important that we remember that.

We may have closed out the chapter where American troops are on the ground but that war within Afghanistan continues, our issues with Islamic extremism in the region continue and we need to acknowledge that sad reality.

BLITZER: The president promised that the mission to get those Afghan friends, the remaining U.S. citizens out will continue through diplomatic pressure, through international pressure, economic pressure. He says that is not going to stop. They are going to work full-time to help those folks. Is that good enough for you?

MEIJER: I mean, the sad reality is that's all we can really do at this point. We might be able to do one off missions otherwise through creative means, but we have lost each and every bit of leverage that we have, which is all the more frustrating as that was a mission, the evacuation of our allies that we were urging the president, bipartisan group of us in Congress were urging the president to do since April. And we feared that this day would come. It came sooner than the president thought, but at this point today, that's the best we can hope for and it is shameful that it's come to that.

BLITZER: After your controversial trip with the Congressman Moulton to Kabul last week, you told CNN the U.S. was wholly dependent on the Taliban. Do you think the president can still make good on his word that every American who wants to leave Afghanistan, we're talking about 100 to 200 people, according to president's estimate, will eventually be able to get out? Some of those Americans apparently don't want to leave because they have large families there they don't want to abandon.

MEIJER: Yes. I think the operative word there is, eventually. I mean, we missed our window at the airport, that window that closed last night with the final American flights leaving. And we are committed in Congress to making sure that happens. And our office is handling hundreds of open cases, perhaps over a thousand open cases that we are trying to manage, American citizens that we're trying to help get out, including hundreds of our allied Afghan individuals who served as interpreter or other roles. So, again, this mission will continue. We will have to get creative through diplomatic channels, but that's a hard promise for the president to make.

BLITZER: Yes. And he says the U.S. will work with other countries that may have better relations with the Taliban, like Qatar or Turkey, for example, or Pakistan, to help get those people free. The president says he does take responsibility for his decision but disagrees with those who he says the evacuation could have been earlier and in a more orderly fashion. How do you respond to that?

MEIJER: I think that is flatly inaccurate. If we were evacuating two plane loads of our loyal Afghan allies, I mean, again, American citizens who had the opportunity, many were not preparing to leave, and assuming based on the State Department and based on military guidance that the government would stand for six to nine months after August 31st, they were on a different calendar.

But when it came to our loyal Afghan allies, a lot of those folks who were just waiting on administrative and bureaucratic delays for their visas, we could have sped it up. May 1st, we could have been evacuating 500 people a day and then you do not have the crowds at the airport.


You do not have the crushes. You don't have the situations that put the Marines at Ghost Company into an impossible position to risk their lives to keep those gates open.

So I think it is a lot of revisionist history to think this is the best way it could have gone. I honestly am frustrated that he didn't heed Congress's advice to speed up process up sooner. And I think the idea that would have caused the rush to the exits, when the airport was still open, when Emirates was still flying, so Dubai, when Turkish Airlines was still flying to Istanbul, nobody was panicking. That was the perfect time to be getting out the folks who are ready to leave then rather than waiting and waiting as we ended up doing until it was too late.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman Meijer, thank you so much for joining us.

MEIJER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to stay on top all of the breaking news involving Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But we're also following other breaking news, including the death toll from Hurricane Ida now climbing tonight to at least five people and in the storm's wake more than a million people are still without power. They're suffering amid all the scorching heat and the humidity, and this could go on for weeks.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us from New Orleans right now. Brian, it is clearly a desperate situation for so many people where you are.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We're in the Algiers neighborhood in Southern New Orleans, heavily damaged by the storm. Take a look at this, this massive tree just slammed into this house here and into this house over here, so two houses out at once. We went to these houses today knocking on doors to see if people were okay. We got no response from everyone inside. They may not been home. But this neighborhood very badly hit.

Some people here also taking their own desperate measures just to get by while local officials are also warning people of the dangers that remain.


TODD (voice over): Even as hundreds of flood water rescues have been carried out, the death toll inches up, the damage is assessed and the clean-up begins. Millions of residents along the gulf coast who survived Ida's wrath now facing new threats.

GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS (D-LA): Please don't come home before they tell you it is time.

TODD: More than a million people are still without power. Officials warning that could last as long as a month for some customers.

EDWARDS: I'm not satisfied with 30 days. The (INAUDIBLE) people aren't satisfied with 30 days. Nobody who is out there needing power is satisfied with that.

TODD: This as heat advisories are in effect for the entire region where Ida made landfall.

EDWARDS: The heat index will be 100 degrees for the next two weeks. Now is really the most dangerous time over the next week, a couple of weeks. And so we're asking people to be patient. We're asking people to be careful.

TODD: Add to that limited drinking water, a lack of cell service, shattered grocery stores and gas lines that are three hours long, making the situation dire.

MITCH LANDRIEU, FORMER NEW ORLEANS MAYOR: The deck is stacked against us at the moment. We're going to dig our way out of it. We always do. But people shouldn't underestimate how tough this is going to be and how long it's going to take.

TODD: In a lower-income neighborhood of the Algiers Section of New Orleans, residents are on edge.

LEA MACK, RESIDENT, ALGIERS NEIGHBORHOOD OF NEW ORLEANS: The biggest failure is this colossal failure of Entergy Corporation. They are the only game in town, nine parishes or counties without power. Nine, really?

TODD: The Entergy Corporation has given no specific timetable for when power will be restored, saying it is still working to assess the damage and that residents should be prepared for the recovery to take some time. This line at a food and water distribution center in Algiers snakes around several blocks.

RONALD PEGUES, RESIDENT, ALGIERS NEIGHBORHOOD OF NEW ORLEANS: The food issue, the water issue, I don't think they have these things out quick enough.

TODD: Yolanda Teague lives with her eight children, her mother and others in this house with the roof and ceiling were damaged by Ida.

YOLANDA TEAGUE, RESIDENT, ALGIERS NEIGHBORHOOD OF NEW ORLEANS: When it rained last night, it was water all over.

TODD: With no end in sight to the power outage, just getting basic supplies is a huge concern.

What's your biggest worry right now, Yolanda?

TEAGUE: Well, we are already running out of food and beverages. And I have son with a heart condition. So that's my biggest concern is him now.

TODD: Teague's concerned that the oppressive heat that set in following Hurricane Ida will make her son's condition deteriorate even more.

How worried are you about how bad that's going to get as the days go by with no power?

TEAGUE: To the people, it's going to get rough. You know what I'm saying? No electricity. People don't know what's their next move, so it's probably going to get rough.


TODD (on camera): And we have this just in from the Mayor of New Orleans, Latoya Cantrell. She said that based on an assessment from the Entergy Company that runs the power in New Orleans, they expect some level of transmission of power into New Orleans by late tomorrow afternoon or early tomorrow evening. This is a quote from the mayor. That does not mean we will see immediately all lights on in the city. But based on the assessment from Entergy Corporation, Wolf, they are getting some indication that some level of electricity or light could be transmitted into the city by Wednesday evening or Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday evening, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, let's hope that happens. All right, Brian, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on the breaking news, joining us now the Louisiana Lieutenant Governor, Billy Nungesser.


Lieutenant Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

Now, that you have had a chance to survey the damage from Ida, what are your first responders, the citizens there up against as rescue and recovery missions clearly are underway.

LT. GOV. BILLY NUNGESSER (R-LA): Right. We flew over St. John, Lafourche Parish with the governor, just got back a little bit ago. Wide devastation, still areas of South Plaquemines are underwater. Lafayette, the island of Grand Isle was covered with sand, a lot of destruction there. But we are still looking for people to rescue. And once we finish rescuing those people that rode it out, they will be going house to house checking for bodies for the people that may have stayed behind. But it is critical to get the power back on and water back to these people, especially the hospitals. It's so critical.

BLITZER: It is indeed. Your governor, John Bel Edwards, he's been warning that the death toll will likely rise due to the very dangerous conditions. What do you want your residents to be aware of as they start cleaning up and preparing to rebuild?

NUNGESSER: Well, you know, we have been through this before. I rode out Katrina 14 miles from the eye. It looked like there was no hope. We will get through it. Louisiana is tough. But we've got to get in the next couple days a game plan for Entergy. Listen, there are 25,000 men and women out there in this heat trying to get the power back on. Nobody likes it when the power is out.

As soon as they get a full assessment, hopefully, we can start getting portions of the state that have been the major damage, the power back on and get power back. With so many special needs children and seniors, this heat will take a toll if we can't get them back in some air-conditioning.

BLITZER: I understand, Lieutenant Governor, that some hospitals in the region have actually been forced to evacuate patients due to the loss of power and water. How has the coronavirus pandemic further complicating your response to this story?

NUNGESSER: Well, we're going to need some help with the federal government. We had the head of FEMA with us today. We've got to get some assistance, some kind of temporary medical facility. You know, the nurses and doctors who've been pushed over a year with COVID, now this on top of it, to have them hunker down, take care of those patients through the hurricane and now dealing with no power and water in a hospital having to evacuate two of them, it just adds to the problem.

So, hopefully, we'll come up with some solutions here in the next couple of days that we can increase those medical facilities, possibly get some kind of temporary medical facility so we can care to those people, plus the people that are going to be coming in injured or hurt in this recovery. So we've got to have room for them as well.

BLITZER: Well, good luck. Good luck to you. Good luck to everyone in Louisiana right now. This has been devastating indeed for Louisiana. Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser, thanks so much for joining us.

NUNGESSER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have more on the impact of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on the region. We're going to talk about that and more. CNN'S Fareed Zakaria is standing by live.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news, Al Qaeda now praising the Taliban for taking control of Kabul and consolidating power over Afghanistan just ahead of the U.S. withdrawal after a 20-year war.

Let's dig deeper with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. He's the Host of Fareed Zakaria GPS.

Fareed, as you know, Al Qaeda issued a statement just a little while ago, praising the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, saying in part, and I'm quoting now, we congratulate you on this great victory against the Crusader alliance, adding, the Afghan debacle marks the beginning of the end of the dark era of Western hegemony and military occupation of Islamic lands. Fareed, what do you make of that?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: Well, it doesn't surprise me at all that they would delight in this. But the important thing to ask one's self is what is Al Qaeda today. It really is a shadow of the organization that it was in 2001, not just militarily because it's been on the run. It's been destroyed.

But the much larger issue is that Al Qaeda sought to represent the hopes and aspirations of millions of Muslims, particularly in the greater Middle East. That's no longer -- that's no longer true, if it ever was, because the big revelation of the last 20 years, Wolf, is not the war between the west and Islam, but the war within Islam, between the moderates and the fundamentalists, the militants. And I think it's pretty clear the moderates have won.

Look at Saudi Arabia, which 20 years ago, was playing footsie with terrorists, funding Islamic fundamentalism and religious conservatism all over the world. Saudi Arabia is now at the forefront of efforts to modernize, liberalize, open up the country. You look everywhere around the world and the fundamentalists are on the defensive.

So I feel like, of course, whatever is left of Al Qaeda is going to be delighted but they have a much bigger problem, which is that most of the Muslim world has very decisively turned their backs on Al Qaeda and its ilk.

BLITZER: That's pretty critical. The president, President Biden, acknowledged today that the United States has to learn from its foreign policy mistakes.


How do you think history, Fareed, is going to judge President Biden for his role in this war and the way it ended?

ZAKARIA: It's a big question. And I think that, you know, as Philip Graham said, we journalists, we write the first draft of history but we don't get to write the final version. My sense is this: He pulled the curtain from behind a mission that had

failed. Let's think about it this way, Wolf. We spent $2 trillion 20 years, a surge where troops went up to 130,000. And the government and the army, we stood up could not -- could not withstand seven days of our Taliban advance. In fact, it had been slowly capitulating over the last year.

That should be -- that should be the biggest wakeup call that we need to hear, which is what will we be told for 20 years, what will we being told in 2014 and '15 after the surge when the Taliban was gaining ground? You know, we had been unable after ten years, after a surge. Nothing had worked. And, yet, we convinced ourselves that somehow this was sustainable.

And remember, we were sustaining this at $50 billion a year. Plus, massive numbers of Afghan casualties. So, I think that Biden really forced us to look at that failure in a way that is commendable.

The exit itself does strike me as very poorly planned, and it could have been executed better, particularly in the first phase. But, you know, that's, frankly, the larger story is the extraordinary failure of the last 20 years and the deception -- think about all the generals and all the experts and all the cabinet officers who were convincing themselves and the American people that this was something that was working. They were inventing metrics by the Afghan army which by the end we were told 350,000 and the best trained ever -- those are words of one of the commanding generals.

That's the big failure. And I think Biden in a sense shown a spotlight on it. Nobody wants to see failure, but it was there.

BLITZER: That Afghan army melted away within a matter of a few days.

Fareed, thank you very, very much as always.

Coming up, a disturbing surge of COVID cases among children here in the United States. We're going to talk about it with our Dr. Sanjay Gupta when we come back.



BLITZER: Tonight, very disturbing new evidence COVID-19 infections among children here in the United States are on the rise with more than 200,000 cases just last week.

Let's discuss with our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Good to have him here THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Sanjay, thanks very much for doing this.

These numbers are pretty serious, pretty awful. I'm very worried about these kids. GUPTA: Yeah, 200,000 cases diagnosed last week. That's a significant

increase from the week before. You know, school is about to start. We think about the fact the likelihood of severe disease is obviously much lower in kids, but it's not zero when you start to get denominators this high. You're going to get more and more kids getting sick.

Just give you context, Wolf, about 450 children have died from COVID. That's two to three times worse than the worst flu season we've had over the last, you know, 20 years or so. This is significant. Obviously, they can transmit if they have unvaccinated parents in the home or other people. That's a concern.

And then the concern about the long term symptoms in these kids. So, you know, there's a lot of concern about this and some strategies, as well. There's some modeling.

I just want to show you this, the predictions are now, Wolf, that after school starts, it has started in some places already, about 75 percent of children will be exposed to the virus within the first three months of school.

Now, if you put in masking, if you have universal masking, 24 to 50 percent. So, it does make a significant reduction. You add in testing, as well. It can go as low as 13 percent.

There is no question it's a contagious virus. Kids will become infected. But look at that, Wolf. Without vaccines that can make a huge difference.

BLITZER: Yeah, and a lot of parents are reluctant to give their kids 12 to 17 the vaccine.

GUPTA: I am -- I'm not reluctant. You know --

BLITZER: You've got kids between the ages of 12 and 17.

GUPTA: I got three that fall into that age group and I've looked at the data. I've done the homework. I'm a parent first. I'm a dad first. And my kids all got vaccinated.

I mean, it's -- yes, it's true again that the risk of severe disease is lower, much lower in kids but, you know, when Dr. Gottlieb and others say this could be the worst viral illness they suffer in their lifetime and it can be prevented, I mean, they have the option to do that.

BLITZER: What also worries me is even if they don't go into a hospital or God forbid die, there could be long term effects for these kids.

GUPTA: I hear about kids taking several hour COVID naps during the day and developing brain fog, losing their sense of smell. These are significant problems. They could be an indication of something more significant going on that's going to be long term in the brain. You know, you don't want this virus and there is ways to avoid it. BLITZER: What about a vaccine for the kids under 12, the 5 to 11-

year-olds? A lot of parents are anxious to see that happen.

GUPTA: I know. And, you know, you wish it could be quick. I think the FDA is taking time on this and to be fair, Pfizer hasn't even submitted all the data yet. The FDA really can't be blamed for not moving fast enough if the data has not been submitted.

What they have asked for is longer term safety data. They want six months worth of safety data. Remember, it was two months for adults back last year. They want a lot more for kids. They also doubled the enrollment size in the trials.

So if you look at it all, put it together, September, October, sort of time frame before that data submitted and a couple weeks after that, you could have an authorization.


BLITZER: Sanjay, always great to have you on the show, but especially good to have you here in Washington, in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for all the great work you do.

GUPTA: Thank you.

BLITZER: We so appreciate it.

We'll have more news right after this.


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