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Branson Celebrates Trip to Edge of Space on Rocket-Powered Plane; Taliban Respond to CNN Report on 22 Executed Afghan Soldiers; U.S. Suffering Worst Wildfire Season in a Decade. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired July 14, 2021 - 10:30   ET


POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Like young kids to look forward, not look back at landing on the moon, but to look forward to what we can do and what maybe they can do.


And I know the VSS Unity was named by the late great Stephen Hawking. And he had wanted to go, obviously, before he died. And he had talked about his hope that space travel one day would reach the masses. And I remember when he said and talked about it being a great unifier. And he said, we seem to be able to cooperate with nations in space in a way we can only envy on Earth.

When we landed a man on the moon, it was about unity, American unity against the Soviet Union. Is this, in your mind, about unity now going forward somehow?

RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GALACTIC: Completely. I mean, kids should be able to dream of going to space and then one day, it should become a reality for them. And when you're in space, you just look back and you see this one world, no borders. And it's up to our leaders to make sure that it's truly a world without borders.

And I think that I'm going to devote the rest of my life in trying to tackle the big issues of this world, and I think other people who come back from space will do the same.

HARLOW: So what about the critics who say here is a billionaire going on a joy ride, great P.R. for his company, what does this really do for our worldly problems that are so huge, especially right now?

BRANSON: I think that you need people, modestly, like myself, to -- I mean, if you talk about airplane travel 100 years ago, you had entrepreneurs that built airplanes that now have transformed the world and enabled most people to be able to afford to be able to fly. We're building the beginning of a new space line which hopefully will enable in a hundred years' time many people to be able to go to space, maybe to go from one part of the world to another part of the world in a fraction of the time.

But through this technology, you end up doing a whole lot of new things. So, Virgin Orbit was born out of Virgin Galactic. Virgin Orbit last week put a 747 -- from one of the Virgin Atlantic 747, we sent satellites into lots of different orbits around the world. Those satellites are transforming what's going on back here on Earth.

I think there's one point I would like to make because I think -- I read a piece on somebody wrote for CNN. The environmental cost of what we're doing -- we've managed now to bring the cost of going into space environmentally down to the same price as a Virgin Atlantic upper class ticket from London to New York and back. So, I mean, it's almost -- and then, obviously, we'll offset that as well.

So, for each person that goes up, there's no more cost than, say, two people going on holiday to London or back. And that means that we can now utilize space at a fraction of the environmental cost and a fraction of the actual cost that has happened in the past.

HARLOW: I read that piece as well. I think the argument is you get many more people on a Virgin Atlantic plane from New York to London. But if --

BRANSON: Sorry. I'm talking about one person equivalent to one person going to space.

HARLOW: When you scale -- you said a hundred years. How far away are we from real scale where truly an average person could afford this? A hundred years?

BRANSON: So, we've launched something which I really do thing could be enormously exciting. It's called Amaze. And we said put $10 into a raffle and you and a friend, if you win the raffle, can go to space. Now, the money that people put in, if enough people put it in, we could have dozens of people going for free on the back of that.

HARLOW: Sirisha, for you, you are obviously very young to have accomplished this. You're also one of very few women, the second woman born in India to leave the Earth's atmosphere, the third Indian-born person, 51 women in the United States have gone to space. I mean, you have lamented how rare it is for women, especially women of color, to achieve what you have. How do you change that?

SIRISHA BANDLA, VICE PRESIDENT OF GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS AND RESEARCH, VIRGIN GALACTIC: So I mean, I think mentors and putting more astronauts into the world. When I was trying to figure out how to get to space, I was looking at careers of Neil Armstrong and the Gemini and Apollo astronauts. And all of them were incredible, but I didn't share an identity with them. And when I learned about Kalpana Chawla, I saw someone that I felt like I looked like. And just for some reason, and I don't know why, I just felt like the barriers were much smaller.


HARLOW: By seeing her?

BANDLA: Yes, just by seeing her.

HARLOW: And now they see you.

BANDLA: Someone that looks like me doing something what I wanted to do. And Galactic has over 600 people signed up to go to space, from different backgrounds, different geographic areas. And I see them going to space and going back to their communities. And for a lot of children, that will be the first astronaut they've ever come into contact with and that's powerful.

HARLOW: That's a great point. If you see it, you believe you can do it.


HARLOW: I got to ask you a final question about this, Richard. It was cool to see Elon Musk show up to wish you well at 3:00 in the morning. And we've got Jeff Bezos taking off for space on Tuesday. I wonder if now -- I saw your well wishes to each other on Twitter, et cetera, but have you talked to him since you landed?

BRANSON: I've talked to Elon because he was at the flight. Jeff, we've just communicated, and I obviously wished him the best now for his flight.

HARLOW: Might you call or go like Elon did for you?

BRANSON: If I'm invited, I'd be delighted to go.

HARLOW: All right.

BRANSON: Yes, it's going to be a wonderful thing to watch. Otherwise, I'll watch from my holiday which is where I'm going after this.

HARLOW: Well deserved for both of you, some time off here on Earth. Thank you. It's been great to see you. Thank you, Richard Branson, thank you, Sirisha Bandla.

We'll be right back.



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: This morning, the Taliban is attempting to deny the alleged execution of 22 unarmed Afghan commandos as they tried to surrender in June. This denial comes as CNN obtained not only video of what happened, but eyewitness accounts.

HARLOW: Yes, five of them. But the Taliban still claims it's not real. Before we show you the full video, it's just very disturbing to see.

Anna Coren joins us from Kabul. Anna, your team, you, you guys were able to get in touch with Taliban, get a response. How did they respond to your reporting?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Taliban is on a P.R. offensive to discredit our reporting, to say that it is false, that the footage is fake and basically government's propaganda. But for the record, we spoke to five eyewitnesses from this district who all had the same account as to what took place, that being that these commandos walked out, they had run out of ammunition, they had their arms in the air and that the Taliban shot them. This is not something that we are making up. This is something that happened.

The Ministry of Defense has described this as war crimes, and that it's not the first time that the Taliban has executed military members and members of -- just civilians, really. Amnesty International has weighed into this as well, describing this as war crimes and cold- blooded murder.

But, to be frank, this is not what the Taliban wants right now, to be out there circulating, because they're wanting to project themselves as this legitimate alternate governing body. I mean, they're due to hold peace talks with members of the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar, in the coming days.

SCIUTTO: Anna Coren, so good to have you there. Thanks so much.

We're joined by Afghan Journalist, Producer, former candidate for parliament, Bilal Sarwary, from Kabul. Full disclosure, Bilal and I have known each other for nearly 20 years, since the first time I went to Afghanistan just after the invasion.

Bilal, it's good to speak to you again. And I wanted to reach out because here you are in Kabul as the Taliban is advancing around the country with very little resistance, frankly, from Afghan security forces. I wonder, as you sit there in the capital, are you afraid that Kabul will fall?

BILAL SARWARY, AFGHAN JOURNALIST AND PRODUCER: I think as a father to a young baby girl that I named and my family named her soul at peace, we're all afraid. And I think that feeling is very prevalent among Afghan civilians. Because, for Afghans of my generation, it's, Jim, like watching a horror movie again and again. Perhaps it's a nightmare because we come from a very painful past from the civil war days, which was not a past too distant.

So, at the moment, at least 14 major provincial capitals are besieged in fighting at the gates of these major provincial capitals, the Afghan civilians are caught in the middle of this, especially women and children. People don't have the option of just leaving for the safety of a capital like Kabul.

And you're also talking about the violence increasing at a time when it was the harvest season. So, when you talk about a farmer losing his wheat or farmers losing their pomegranates in the Arghandab River Valley or elsewhere, the economic consequences of this brutal war are immense. The poor of the poorest are impacted.

When you talk about the border crossing Spin Buldak between Qatar and Pakistan, a trader told me that they had reached out to both the Taliban and the government urging them that $600 million worth of goods and merchandise were there, that they should prevent looting, that they should not be burned. So, the private sector is also bearing the brunt of this conflict.


SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, do you feel -- do other Afghans believe the U.S. is abandoning you?

SARWARY: I think there's a deep sense of betrayal. This was a 20 years' long relationship between many Afghans and the Americans. It was generational. It was personal friendships. And one senior Afghan official jokingly told me that the Americans left Afghanistan with their lights off. He was referring to the evacuation from Bagram. A senior Afghan counterterrorism adviser to the Afghan government complained as well. He said, we had been working with the Americans for 20 years. We were promised the release of 6,000 Taliban leaders and fighters would lead to a credible peace process, to a ceasefire.

But, Jim, it's also true the political Kabul is divided. The bickering, the fact that frontline commanders have been let down by the leadership in Kabul, the constant changes in the Afghan national security leadership is also a major factor. So there's a blame game going on, but I don't think one can put all the blame on the Americans.

At the same time, the Taliban have been continuing with their large scale attacks. I think among the military fighters and leaders, the idea of a military victory is quite prevalent. And we hear the Taliban speak about it quite publicly. So, my fear as an Afghan and speaking the other Afghans is also the issue of revenge and grievances, because that is a major problem for people in the province, especially at a district village level, police chief or prosecutor --

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you about that. Because you saw, you're aware of this video of the Taliban executing in cold blood members of the Afghan military as they attempted to surrender. Is that a sign of what follows with the Taliban taking over?

SARWARY: I think we're seeing unprecedented levels of brutality in every corner of this conflict. We're seeing a number of these videos, which shows the execution of soldiers. There was an elderly man who was executed by the Taliban in the city of Taleqan, capital of Takhar province. And I think this is another very tragic reality that what we may or may not see, what CNN reported, perhaps that's the tip of the iceberg.

There might be a lot of stuff happening away from our eyes because phones are down, people are too scared to film. So, the Taliban are also very selective. As Anna Coren said, they're projecting themselves as the positive force. But the reality is the Taliban haven't. They're too (INAUDIBLE), they're the same.

SCIUTTO: That's right, believe what your eyes see.

In my many trips to Afghanistan, one of the most gratifying things to see was the girls schools that opened up that were banned, frankly, attacked under the Taliban and only allowed to resurface after the U.S. invasion. There's a picture there visiting one of them a few years ago. What happens to those girls? What happens to those girls schools now?

SARWARY: I think Afghanistan's gains over the last 20 years are all under immense dangers. Afghanistan in 2001, Jim, was a destroyed society. It didn't resemble a destroyed a country. So, a lot has happened and the country has changed. That's one legacy.

The other legacy, quite tragically, the rural Afghanistan, the villages, the valleys, is where airstrikes and grenades took place, wedding parties were targeted. And I think Afghanistan, unless it finds a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire, unless it does not have a credible peace process, quite tragically, could slide back very easily into darker times, into the times of the Taliban era or even worse.

I also fear that we just simply don't have access to show the world the suffering of the Afghan civilians or women and children, quite tragically. They're just becoming numbers. But they're not numbers. Real ones are part of this. They pay a very big price. And the Taliban, you know, continue to insist that they are not to be blamed. But the reality is that they've not stopped the large-scale attacks against major provincial capitals and districts.

So if you're the president of Afghanistan sitting in Kabul despite all the failures in Kabul, you continue to complain that I've done everything I could for the peace process and --

SCIUTTO: Listen, Bilal, we're going to have to leave it there. I understand. I just want to wish the best to you and your new young daughter. I hope that she finds peace as she is named for peace, whether inside Afghanistan or out.


Bilal Sarwary, thanks very much.

And we'll be right back.


HARLOW: Listen to this. Right now, more than 900,000 acres have been burned by nearly70 large wildfires across several states.

SCIUTTO: It's just hellish. CNN's Josh Campbell is in California. So, Josh, more wildfires burning at this point right now than at any time in the last decade?


JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Good morning from here out west. We see this part of the country, a powder keg in so many places already ablaze in so many others. To look at the number right now of fires, we're talking nearly 67 large fires burning, as we speak. And those fires alone, 1 million acres burned nearly. This is 2 million acres just since the start of this year. We're talking about an incredible amount of damage here. Now, new this morning, as of 12:01 today, we're hearing from the agency responsible for federal fire coordination in the Pacific Northwest. They are now moving to level five, their highest level of preparedness. What that means is that we're going to see additional resources poured in from other areas. Now, all federally qualified firefighters are now standby and ready to battle these blazes that we see just continue to ravage so many parts of this part of the country. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: It is such, such dangerous work for them. Josh Campbell, good to have you on the scene.

HARLOW: Josh, thank you very much. And thanks to all of you for joining us today. We'll see you right back here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

At This Hour with Kate Bolduan starts after a short break.