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U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan now Underway; Delta to Resume Booking Middle Seats on All Flights Tomorrow; Dozens Dead after Crush at Religious Event in Israel. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired April 30, 2021 - 10:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: This morning, as the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is now officially underway, the terror, Al Qaeda, is warning that despite U.S. military personnel leaving the country, its war against the U.S. is far from over, promising a war on all fronts, disturbing words.

Joining me now to discuss this and more, including the U.S. threat and relationship with China, Admiral James Stavridis, he's the former supreme allied commander at NATO and the author of the new book, 2034, A Novel of the Next World War. It is a page-turner. It is based on a lot of facts. I'm reading it myself. Actually I'm listening to it, I should say, and you should as well. Admiral, thanks for joining us this morning.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS, U.S. NAVY (RET.): Pleasure to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: I do want to begin, given that news in Afghanistan. I've spoken to Republicans and Democrats who are made nervous by the U.S. full withdrawal from Afghanistan. I wonder given the terror threat still emanating from there, as we see from this Al Qaeda threat, has the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan dangerously?

STAVRIDIS: If I were advising the president, I would be advising him not to pull out that very small contingent of troops. Jim, as you know, I commanded that mission. It's NATO mission. And when I did so, I had 150,000 troops under my command in Afghanistan, from 50 different nations. Today, we're down to 2,500 American troops.

And, in many ways, we've already pulled the troops out of Afghanistan. We pulled 98 percent of them out. So that tiny remainder, I think, could have been a force to ensure that we don't have a re-flash from the Taliban, that we don't have Al Qaeda.

I'll close by saying, you know, I'm coming to you from my native state of Florida. The Talban are like gators. You don't want to turn your back on one. They're very lethal and they're a lot quicker than they look. Yes, I'm worried.

SCIUTTO: General Mark Milley uses the image of kind of a finger and a dam. You take your finger out of the dam, this forces and then dam breaks.

I do want to ask you about the U.S. and China. Central message of President Biden's address to Congress is that the U.S. must stand up to China. Now, your book envisions the U.S. going to China just 13 years from now, in the year 2034. And I recognize a lot of threads in that book that are not drawn from fantasy. There are things happening already.

In your view, is war with China inevitable?

STAVRIDIS: It's not inevitable. And, Jim, the point in writing the book was to create a cautionary tale. This is set 10 to 15 years from now. We still have time to reverse-engineer this thing and avoid a war with China. But the trends aren't good. You see a more assertive China, stepping up its pressure in Hong Kong, pressure on Taiwan. They claim the entire South China Sea as territorial waters, a vast body of water, half the size of the United States of America. They continue with unfair trade and terror practices, in my point of view, in many cases. So the tensions are there.

And then, secondly, China's military capability is rising. So it's like in Ghost Busters, those two strains, you really don't want them to cross, that of capability and intent. And, boy, it looks to me like they might cross in the 10 to 15-year future.

SCIUTTO: Goodness. One bubble, it strikes me, that your book attempts to burst is this idea that the U.S. military is unbeatable, right? And I wonder, is that thinking already outdated?

STAVRIDIS: Well, I will tell you this about the novel 2034. Any number of my colleagues, friends, peers, senior military officers, senior policymakers have said to me, Admiral Stav, you have written a great book, you got one big thing wrong, the date. This is actually much sooner.

So we are concerned, we in the national security community. This is a looming tower. And I think the Biden administration gets that. And understand, this is a Bipartisan issue. We can work to ensure that we don't end up in a position to lose a war with China in 2034.

SCIUTTO: Looming tower, similar missed warnings about Afghanistan, pre-9/11.

I want to speak specifically about Taiwan, because I speak to many in the military, senior levels, who fear that China might just up and invade Taiwan. And it was alarming to hear that the admiral, and you and I have spoken about this, leading the U.S.-Indo Pacific command, Admiral Philip Davidson, he said as much in public testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that China could attempt to take over Taiwan by the end of the decade. Do you share that concern?

STAVRIDIS: I do. And I think Phil actually deployed the number six, as in this could happen as soon as six years from now, and I think that's realistic and ought to be very concerning to us.

[10:35:07] Taiwan is not an obscure little island. It's got 35 million people. It has roughly the 32nd largest economy in the world. It has its own history, language, culture. It's a vibrant democracy. I visited there. I've met with the very formidable president, Madam Tsai. They will not go gently into that good night, in my view.

And we ought to support them not for independence. I think that would be a red line. But we ought to enable them to defend themselves. That's where we ought to be headed.

SCIUTTO: And, listen, they own most of the world's production of semiconductors. I mean, that whole supply chain goes to hell.

Just quickly, would the U.S. go to war to defend Taiwan?

STAVRIDIS: I think it would depend on the circumstances under which China invade it, if you will. A big overt invasion, I think, would provoke a sharp military response from the United States.

SCIUTTO: Admiral James Stavridis, author of the book, 2034, rather, A Novel of the Next World War, thank, so much for joining us.

STAVRIDIS: My pleasure, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next, a major airline is ending a pandemic policy, a popular one, starting tomorrow. What the new change means for travelers.



SCIUTTO: Tomorrow, Delta Airlines will become the last of the four major airlines to resume flying in full capacity in the United States. Delta set to begin selling middle seats again despite the CDC saying that blocking middle seats can reduce coronavirus transmission.

CNN Aviation Correspondent Pete Muntean explains why Delta thinks the move is safe.


PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The newest changes to pandemic air travel will make it look more like before the pandemic. Delta Airlines will resume selling middle seats starting Saturday, a move made by all other major carriers months ago.

RANJAN GOSWAMI, VICE PRESIDENT, DELTA AIRLINES: It is safe to get back out there to go out into the world and see the folks in your life.

MUNTEAN: Ranjan Goswami heads Delta's in-flight operations. It's latest estimate, almost 75 percent of Delta passengers have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

GOSWAMI: The vaccination rate is really helping. We know our customers are feeling confident about it or they wouldn't be booking in such large numbers.

MUNTEAN: Airlines say they could not continue capping capacity without a serious increase in fares. But the latest modeling from the CDC says leaving middle seats empty reduces the risk of coronavirus exposure by as much 57 percent. But the airline industry slammed the modeling for not considering vaccines or the impact of masks now mandated on planes by the Biden administration.

Harvard University found masks and heavily filtered air onboard makes coronavirus transmission rates very low regardless of where you sit.

DR. LEONARD MARCUS, HARVARD SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: It's the many things together at the same time do greatly reduce the risk of air travel and in particular provides a safe opportunity for people given the ventilation, given the wearing of masks, given the disinfection on the planes, given the individual and personal hygiene attention that does allow for that middle seat to be occupied.

MUNTEAN: Industry groups think flying will look more like normal as more people get vaccinated. Some airlines are now bringing back in- flight food and drink service, something flight attendants fear could blur the message.

SARA NELSON, ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: As these policies are going away, and we're seeing fuller aircraft, it is more important than ever that we are vigilant about those mask policies.

MUNTEAN: New ideas to bring passengers back are coming from all corners of the aviation industry. Plane maker Airbus envisions a future of seats arranged in pandemic-friendly pods. This design from the University of Cincinnati imagines a productivity class, part plane, part coffee house.

ALEJANDRO LOZANO ROBLEDO, UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI: I'm excited, you know, to see the future where some of the ideas may take us and where the industry may go in the future. So every crisis can also be an opportunity.


MUNTEAN (on camera): Delta says capping capacity onboard cost it $100 million in March. That's when pandemic air travel started to surge and the numbers remain high. The TSA screened 1.5 million people at airports across the country on Thursday, near a pandemic record. Jim?

SCIUTTO: There it is, the financial incentive to all this for the airlines, who, by the way, got a lot of federal help through the pandemic. Is there demand there to fill these middle seats? In other words, once they open, are those seats going to be sold?

MUNTEAN: Delta feels that the demand is there. It thinks that the planes that are already flying with the middle seats empty will be full relatively soon just because these numbers are so high. We've had seven weeks straight where the TSA numbers have been above a million people each day, so they think the demand is there, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, the extra space was good while it lasted. Pete, thanks very much.

Devastating scenes, really just devastating ones from Israel, dozens killed in a stampede, a crush at a religious festival. We're going to be live in Israel with the latest.



SCIUTTO: Right now, Israeli investigators are searching for the cause of a deadly stampede that has killed at least 45 worshippers at a mass religious gathering there. It happened overnight on Mt. Meron located in the northern part of the country.

Elliott Gotkine joins me now from Tel Aviv. Elliott, tell us what happened, what do they believe happened, and what is the scale of the loss now?

ELLIOT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Jim, the festival of Lag BaOmer is supposed to be one of joy. But as we saw, it very, very quickly turned to tragedy. From what we understand, there were tens of thousands of people there in the north to venerate the tomb of a second century sage and mystic and that at around about 1:00 in the morning, a number of people tried to leave this gathering and to do so required them to pass through kind of narrow passage. That sent them into a bit of a bottle neck. It was slippery and also on a slope. Someone slipped and fell and everybody fell over on top of one another in a kind of human avalanche.

And eyewitnesses gave harrowing testimony as to what they saw.



WICE ISRAEL, FESTIVAL ATENDEE: I was there. And inside the bonfire, it was crowded. And there were around 60,000 to 70,000 people, no place to move. And people started to fall to the ground. A lot fell to the ground.


GOTKINE: And we say there were tens of thousands of people there. There were actually far fewer people that have been there in previous years. But, of course, now, the grisly the task of identifying the bodies is still ongoing. It's taking place at this place building behind. It's the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Israel located Southern Tel Aviv.

And, of course, we understand that many people are inside the building there going around the bodies to try to see if they can identify friends, loved ones or members of their own family. Jim?

SCIUTTO: When you describe the scale of this, thousands of participants, then you see that narrow passage way that they were going through, I mean, this gets to planning issues in advance, does it not?

GOTKINE: Well, as I said, you know, this is -- this was not the biggest crowd that they've ever had there. And there has never been anything like this before. But, of course, one of the big questions they will be asking as part of this investigation is, first of all, how come so many people are allowed to take part in this event, you know, who is responsible, and what can they do to ensure that something like this never happens again?

But, certainly, when you look at those pictures of the narrow passageway and the sheer volume of people that were there, it is kind of a wonder that perhaps something like this hasn't happened before. But now, of course, they're dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy. Jim?

SCIUTTO: No question, and all those families. Elliott Gotkine, thank you very much. And we'll be right back.



SCIUTTO: Over the past six decades, late-night television has grown from a shot in the dark experiment to a thriving and money-making cultural phenomenon. Now, the new CNN original series, the Story of Late Night, examines how late-night television not only keeps us laughing but shapes how we see the world.

Our Brian Stelter takes a look at the challenges the late night shows have faced defining the funny and just getting on the air during the COVID-19 pandemic.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT: I a'm coming to you from the Late Show's new temporary set, the historic Ed Sullivan, my house.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The story of late night contains a strange 2020 chapter that likely changed the shows forever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From Trevor's couch in New York City to your couch somewhere in the world, this is The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah.

STELTER: As the pandemic arrived in the U.S. like slow motion storm, iconic late night shows stopped having studio audiences. And within days, the stars left the studios too.

JIMM FALLON, HOST, THE TONIGHT'S SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON: Welcome to The Tonight's Show. I am so excited to be doing the show from my panic room, I mean, the living room.

STELTER: The new at home vibe reflected our new reality, famous celebs just working off webcams, figuring out where in the house to record.

COLBERT: You are watching the very special social distancing edition of The Late Show, or as I now call it, The Lather Show with Scrubbin's Colbert.

STELTER: With every host finding humor at home. And you know what, it was actually great T.V., relatable, personal, sometimes even sweet.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE: We've watched Frozen 2 more times than the animators who drew it have watched Frozen 2.

STELTER: In some cases, celebs are easier to book, from Kim Kardashian-West to Meryl Streep and, yes, Hilary Swank's bird.

HILARY SWANK, ACTRES: This is Bert (ph). He is our latest rescue.

STELTER: To politicians and former presidents, all joining via webcam.

These capabilities will outlast the pandemic, leaving a lasting mark on how T.V. looks and feels.

Some comics have slowly come back to their studios.

KIMMEL: They divided the office into zones. We zone A, zone B and zone C. It's like I'm -- I'm not sure if I'm hosting a show or boarding a Southwest Airlines flight.

STELTER: And Jimmy Fallon brought back small numbers of fans.

FALLON: I've never been so excited to do a show for 58 people in my entire life. This is --

STELTER: Now, the late night shows are like the rest of us, having mixed feelings about getting back to whatever normal used to be.

SETH MEYERS, HOST, LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS: Well, you guys, it's is just nice to be around people again.

STELTER: A new late night story is just starting now.


Brian Stelter, CNN, new York.


SCIUTTO: The all new CNN original series, The Story of Late Night, premieres.