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U.S. Defense Secretary Makes Surprise Trip to Afghanistan; U.S. Secretary of State Blinken to Attend NATO, EU meetings; Netanyahu Faces Centrist and Right-Wing Opposition; Europe is Facing Another Surge in Coronavirus Cases; U.K. Officials Condemn Violent Bristol Protests; U.K.'s Royal Family Considers Naming Diversity Chief. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired March 22, 2021 - 04:30   ET



ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: In a surprise visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed some lingering questions about the U.S. military presence in the region. He was asked whether the Taliban had met conditions to ensure a U.S. troop withdrawal by May 1st. A date agreed upon with the Trump administration last year. CNN's Barbara Starr has more from the Pentagon.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Amid a very tough security situation, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin making an unannounced visit for several hours to Afghanistan to talk to Afghan leaders there about the situation in that war-torn country.

Austin said he was not there to discuss the May 1 deadline in particular, the Trump negotiated deadline for all U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan, but he was there more to listen to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and hear about his concerns.

Nonetheless, Austin, when talking to reporters, did not take the opportunity to specifically endorse the May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration. Have a listen to what the secretary had to say.

LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: In terms of an end date or setting a specific date for a withdrawal, that's the domain of my boss. That's the decision that the president will make at some point in time, in terms of how he wants to approach this going forward.

STARR: President Biden has already indicated that he may not adhere to the May 1 deadline. No decisions, we are told, have been made. One option we're hearing being discussed is a potential six-month extension for U.S. troops in that country.

We do know that many military leaders in the Pentagon would like to see some type of U.S. capability there in Afghanistan, or in the nearby areas, quickly able to move in if they do have to conduct continuing counter-terrorism missions against ISIS, or even still, al- Qaeda.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


CHURCH: The U.S. Secretary of State is traveling to Brussels today to attend meetings with NATO with NATO foreign ministers as well as top European Union officials. It'll be the first time Antony Blinken will speak to his transatlantic counter parts in person. And he is seeking to strengthen those ties after four years of harsh rhetoric from the Trump administration.

The trip also comes at a time of escalating tensions with Russia and China. And CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson joins me now from London. Good to see you Nic. So what are the expectations and challenges for Antony Blinken as he meets with NATO and EU officials after these pretty tough four years?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, a face to face talks that's one thing that the State Department is stressing the first time that Secretary of State Blinken is going in that capacity as Secretary of State, and many NATO officials to speak to. And Afghanistan, as you just heard, will likely be one of the topics. It was a topic last NATO meeting with the defense ministers. All the nations agreeing that they will move together. So undoubtedly keen to learn whatever President Biden is currently thinking about troop deployment to Afghanistan.

But on China and Russia, there might be differences of opinion on what to do about Russia. Certainly there's tensions between the United States and Germany as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that connects Russia directly with Germany. So that will be an issue that will undoubtedly get discussed in some form.

But I think on the point of China -- and this is a priority for the United States, and we saw that because secretary Blinken went to both Japan and North Korea to discuss China extensively and then come back and have meetings with -- fractious meeting actually with Chinese officials in Alaska.

It's going to be about, you know, the shared values that underpin the NATO transatlantic alliance and that is democracy. A shared value of democracy. Of the global and rule of law, of human rights and these issues. So I think on that account, expect Secretary Blinken to be looking to NATO allies to shore up their buy in on these particular topics, which are undoubtedly, they share.

But expect him to sort of try to corral that in the direction of whatever limitations the United States wants to put on China and its cyber issues, its human rights issues, all of those.


And of course, you know, when it comes to Russia, again, you know, the tensions there with Germany and then China, too. There're similar tensions between many of those NATO members and the United States over what to do about China because the EU went ahead right before President Biden was sworn in and his inauguration, to sign off on a trade deal with China. So it's not going to be an easy ride for Secretary Blinken at all -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: Yes, indeed. Nic Robertson bringing us the very latest there from London. Many thanks.

Israelis are a day away from voting in the country's fourth election in two years. It is largely viewed as a referendum on Prime Minister Netanyahu. He is facing opposition from centrist and right wing, as well as a corruption trail. Hadas Gold has the latest now from Jerusalem. She joins us live. Good to see you Hadas. So some calling this a referendum on Netanyahu. What are the expectations of the outcome?

HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rosemary, obviously, the world is a much different place today than the last time Israeli's headed to the polls just one year ago. Of course, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized for how he handled the coronavirus pandemic. But the one bright side of course, has been the robust vaccination program, which as you can see at the central market in Jerusalem behind me, it has brought a sense of normalcy back to Israeli life. Of course, the question will be whether that sense of normalcy, whether Israelis react to just how he's handled vaccination rollout, will be enough to keep him in power for an unprecedented another term.


GOLD (voice-over): Benjamin Netanyahu has been crisscrossing the country ahead of Israel's fourth election in just under two years, hammering the message that he's the one that turned the start-up nation into the vaccination nation and brought historic peace agreements with Arab countries.

With his corruption trial now underway, Netanyahu is desperate to win enough seats in Tuesday's election to remain in power.

On the ground, this election is almost entirely staked on whether voters are for Netanyahu or against him.

Yair Lapid, a smooth-talking former television anchor, sits out in front among the anti-Bibi block. His centrist Yesh Atid party looks set for a strong showing. The approach is low-key, refusing to rise to Netanyahu's provocations until finally issuing a challenge to a TV dual.


TEXT: You said I was your opponent. So come and face me. You asked, "Where is Lapid?" Here I am.

GOLD (voice-over): Out on the streets, it's hard to miss those who want the leader gone.

GOLD: The ani-Netanyahu camp up and down the country is passionate, dedicated and loud, having weekly protests here in Jerusalem against the prime minister. But it's not clear if the energy will translate into the actual numbers that they need to form a cohesive opposition that could unseat Netanyahu.

GOLD (voice-over): The big challenge for the opposition is stitching together left and right. One of Netanyahu's former cabinet ministers, Gideon Sa'ar, broke off to form a party called New Hope, claiming he's the true bastion of the Israeli right. But Sa'ar's support has ebbed after a strong start.

Then there's Naftali Bennett, another former Netanyahu lieutenant whose Yamina Party may end up holding the keys to Netanyahu's future. Their seats could help put Netanyahu over the 61-seat majority he needs to hold onto power. Or, by joining the opposition, they could be the ones to sink him.

Despite the many challengers, protests, a corruption case in which he has pled not guilty, not to mention his fourth election campaign in almost two years, Netanyahu presses on. One of his most loyal aides explains it like this.

TZACHI HANEGBI, MEMBER OF KNESSET: The knowledge that you have to learn from your own mistakes in order to get better. And the feeling, the inner feeling that you are there because God sent you to save the people of Israel, and to lead them in troubled times. I think this give him the power and support of the people.


GOLD (on camera): One of the interesting, of course, quirks of the Israeli system, even if Netanyahu wins the most seats out of the other parties, it will likely not enough for him to get that majority. And so actually what we really need to keep an eye on tomorrow night when the polls close, is some of these smaller parties that might align with him. And if they have enough votes that can get him over the edge and keep him in power -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, Hadas Gold joining us live from a normal-looking Jerusalem as live does return to what we're used to seeing. Fantastic. Good to see you. Thank you so much.

An alarming uptick in COVID cases is sweeping much of Europe, as countries continue to play catch up on the vaccine rollout. We are live in Berlin with the latest on that.



CHURCH: Well more now on the U.S. vaccine trial results. Just released by AstraZeneca, the company says an independent committee found it caused no increased risk of blood clots. The vaccine was found to be 79 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 and 100 percent effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization. The company said it will apply for an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA in the coming weeks. That's the next step on the path to becoming the fourth vaccine available in the United States.

Well, a third wave of coronavirus infections is now advancing through much of Europe. A steep rise in cases paired with a slower than expected vaccine rollout is cause for alarm. German Chancellor Angela Merkle will meet with state leaders today and is expected to implement another round of tough new lockdown measures.

And French leaders won't be pleased by this. Scenes of revelers in Marseilles over the weekend. Where many people attended a carnival despite COVID restrictions. And CNN's Frederick Pleitgen is in Berlin. He joins us now live. Good to see you Fred. So Angela Merkel expected to meet with state leaders today as COVID cases rise. What is the latest on all of this this?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well you know, one of the things you said, Rosemary, is absolutely correct. The vaccine rollout here is slower than expected. I would even say that's a big understatement. \

I just checked earlier this morning on the vaccination dashboard of the German government and less than 4 percent of the population here have actually gotten both doses of the vaccine no matter which vaccine that is. So it's nowhere near enough to stave off the third wave that has now fully grasped this country and of course, many other European countries, as well.

I was checking the amount of new infections and up by double digits compared to the same day last week.


So certainly, right now this country and many countries on the continent, are in a big problem that they aren't vaccinating fast enough because they don't have enough vaccine. And at the same time you have the third wave really taking hold and really accelerating. And so, what we're hearing from the German government and also hearing from sources around the German government, is that there are pretty strict lockdown measures that are right now being debated.

One of them is a nighttime curfew for places that have a high incidence of new coronavirus infections. Unclear what exactly the number will be, but that certainly is a step that so far, the German government simply hasn't taken in that form.

There's talk about closing schools that have been opened before. And again, in places where there's high incidence of these new coronavirus infections. And then of course, one of the things that many people are looking toward right now -- probably in the U.S. as well -- certainly here in Europe -- is the Easter holidays that are upcoming very soon. What we expect to see is that there could be some restrictions, further restrictions you already have on any sort of travel over the Easter holidays, both domestically here inside German, but also in Europe, as some destinations are trying to reopen once again.

So certainly some tough lockdown measures that seem to be in store for this country, as you can feel that third wave really taking hold, and right now the government's only answer at this point, is to keep tightening down those lockdown measures because the vaccination campaign right now remains very, very sluggish -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: Yes, it is such a big problem there. Frederick Pleitgen, many thanks, joining us live from Berlin.

Well two police officers in the U.K. were seriously injured and at least two police vehicles were set on fire when a protest turned violent in Bristol. Demonstrators gathered to rally against a bill in Parliament that would give police new powers to limit the noise and duration of street protests. And CNN's Scott McLean joins us now live from London. So Scott, what is the latest on this protest? And, of course, the police bill that triggered it all.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Rosemary, yes, these are scary pictures coming out of Bristol, a city in southwest England. And the video that we can see, you can actually see windows being smashed of the police station in the downtown of that city. At least two police vehicles, as you mentioned, were burned. And in this video, you can see one police van on fire while officers are trying to move two others.

And you can see protesters on top of those vehicles. One of those vehicles with while it's being moved. Some smashing on the hood. And there's one person who appears to be trying to light the other vehicle on fire while police are inside.

Police also said that at one point someone in the crowd threw fireworks at them. They say that other projectiles were thrown their way, as well. Officers from neighboring forces actually had to be brought in to help to restore calm. One officer ended up with broken ribs, another with a broken arm.

The chairman of the local police force, he did not mince words. He condemned what he called a mob of animals. The Conservative Home Secretary who's responsible for policing in this country, she condemned what she called unacceptable, thuggery and disorder.

Now the primary point of contention is this bill that being protested, is powers that would potentially give police the ability to put restrictions on otherwise peaceful, nonviolent protests. So for instance, it would be able to, you know, crack down on one man protests if it's deemed too noisy or too disruptive. And for larger protests, even larger static protests, they would be able to set start and end times for those demonstrations.

The government said that, look, they're spending too much money on police resources on some of the ongoing demonstrations that we've seen in recent years. And they say that, look, most protests won't be affected by this. Critics though are obviously quick to point out that this is a slippery slope.

The Bill is in committee stage now. And so it still has quite a while to go before it would become law. But there is a Conservative majority in Parliament, so there's not a whole lot of obstacles. The irony here though, Rosemary, is that look, what happened in Bristol yesterday was very much not a peaceful, nonviolent protest. The kind that people are trying to protect in this country. This was very much a riot.

The local Labour opposition MP said that, quote, you don't campaign for the right to peacefully protest by setting police vans on fire or graffitiing buildings.

The mayor of Bristol, he had a very similar sentiment saying, look, attacking police officers, smashing windows, there isn't making the bill any less likely to passed. In fact, it's probably going to be used as ammunition for proponents of the bill to say this is exactly why it's needed -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: All right, and many thanks, Scott McLean bring us that live report. Appreciate it.

And just ahead, weeks after that bombshell interview from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Hear how Buckingham Palace may address the issue of diversity. We're back in just a moment.



CHURCH: Welcome back everyone. Well Buckingham Palace may consider appointing someone to spearhead its efforts around diversity. That is according to a royal source who said more needs to be done to address the issue and this comes about two weeks after Harry and Meghan's bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey when they claimed a member of the royal family had made racist remarks.

And for more on this, let's bring in CNN's Max Foster. He joins us from Hampshire, England. Good to see you Max. So the royal family apparently considering appointing a diversity chief. What are you learning about this, and what does it mean exactly?

MAX FOSTER, CNN ROYAL CORRESPONDENT: Well it's interesting, what the palace is basically saying they were working toward addressing diversity issues within the royal households. But this is obviously speeded things up. All this attention on diversity in palace and the accusations of racism as well coming from the duchess.

Also there is not much you can do about the diversity of the family itself, particularly when the duchess has left senior role -- a role although she's still in the royal family. But what you can do is address diversity within the wider palace household and it is largely white, is a largely white institution.


So what the palace has said through a royal source, diversity is an issue which has been taken very seriously across the royal households. We have the policies and procedures and programs in place. We haven't seen the progress we like in terms of representation, and more needs to be done. We can always improve. So an acceptance there that they need greater representation within the palace.

And to your point about the appointing someone to oversee all of this, someone in charge of diversity, they said they have someone they're looking at this, certainly the idea of someone to spearhead this work and look at diversity and inclusion across the three households is something that has to be considered. I think a lot of people would agree with that. Because most big organizations these days have someone.

If it isn't their sole job to look after diversity, there is someone with that responsibility. I think a lot of people would be surprised if there wasn't someone with that in the palace. So whatever anyone thinks of the Oprah Winfrey interview and what the duchess said there. It does seem as if she is having a real impact now, and policies within the palace.

CHURCH: Yes, it looks that way. Max Foster joining us from Hampshire, England, many thanks.

Well, here in the U.S., the power of prayer may have helped one college basketball team advance in the NCAA men's tournament. This is Sister Jean, the 101-year-old chaplain of Loyola University's team in Chicago. She delivered a pregame prayer Sunday asking for special help so Loyola could overcome number one seed Illinois and win the game. Her prayer apparently worked. Her lower ranked team beat Illinois 71- 58 to advance to the next round in the tournament.

And thank you so much for your company. I'm Rosemary Church. "EARLY START" is up next. You're watching CNN, have yourselves a wonderful day.