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Crisis in Afghanistan. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 12, 2021 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DR. GABRIEL TRUJILLO, SUPERINTENDENT, TUCSON UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT: And, again, it is just absolutely unfortunate that this public health crisis has become another theater in the ongoing culture wars here in this country.

[14:00:07]

And it shouldn't be. We should all be able to come together around public health.

ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Gabriel Trujillo, thank you for all you do. Thanks for taking the time with us today.

Thank you at home for joining me. I will be on assignment tomorrow. So I will be back here on Monday.

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @AnaCabrera.

The news continues right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell.

We're beginning with the breaking news out of Washington and the sense of urgency at the White House because of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy is urging all Americans to leave the country immediately.

And CNN has learned the U.S. is considering relocating the embassy to the Kabul Airport. The Taliban, as you know, is tightening its grip across the nation. And they have now claimed their 11th provincial capital. That's igniting a growing humanitarian crisis.

Any minute now, the State Department is expected to address the crisis. We, of course, will take you there live.

With me now, CNN chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny, CNN Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann, CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, who is in Kabul, and CNN military analyst Major General James "Spider" Marks.

Oren, let me start with you and this new reporting, and just fill out for us what is creating the sense of urgency within the administration.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: In short, the sense of urgency comes directly from the advances the Taliban has made just in the course of the last few days here. It is a 12th provincial capital that has now been taken, that news coming up shortly here, including Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan.

And they have been able to put some pressure on Kandahar, which is the second largest city in Afghanistan. So that has contributed to the sense of urgency, the momentum the U.S. sees that the Taliban has, and that's led to not only a flurry of meetings this morning and over the course of this entire day, but also the decision to do a partial drawdown of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, to pull some staff out of there, and the consideration that maybe the U.S. will move the embassy to the airport.

What would that do That would make it easier to evacuate embassy staff if that's the decision the U.S. makes, that it's time to do that, the U.S. very carefully watching Taliban advances. They have swept across the country over the course of the last month or so. But, really, it has accelerated just in the last few days here. And that is what the U.S., the military is watching very closely to see where this goes.

BLACKWELL: It's remarkable that the American Embassy might have to be moved to the Kabul Airport.

Let me go to Kabul now.

Clarissa, you're there. Specifically, the sense of urgency there and the significance of the pressure placed on Kandahar by the Taliban.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kandahar really would be the jewel in the crown for the Taliban, Victor.

This is the spiritual birthplace of the entire movement. We have been speaking to an M.P. on the ground there. He says that the front-line physician we visited just last week is now completely under the control of the Taliban, that groups of 12 to 15 Taliban fighters have managed to penetrate the front line and essentially have been causing chaos in the city center, outside the governor's house, in the central square, basically shooting, creating a sense of chaos, people not knowing exactly what's going on, what to do.

And he told me it hasn't fallen yet. but it will. And mark my words, Victor. If indeed it does fall, as it appears may happen imminently, this is a significant turn in the tide. It would be almost impossible to envisage the Afghan army being able to reverse these kinds of gains.

So people here in Kabul getting very nervous about the situation. We're getting calls from all sorts of people who want to know how they can get out of the country, how they can protect their loved ones, where they can go to guarantee themselves safety. And, so far, no real answers coming from the Afghan government -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Let's go to General Marks now.

I don't know that anyone is surprised after we have watched the last several weeks of the progress made by the Taliban, but your reaction, General, to talk of potentially having to move the U.S. Embassy to the airport?

BRIG. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, if you want to Saigon-like moment, it's about to happen, right?

The United States is -- which is a reference to April 1975, when we had essentially, with a certain loss of incredible--

BLACKWELL: General, let me interrupt you. We're going to go to the State Department now. And this is Ned Price, who is going to be giving the latest on the situation.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: -- first responsibility has always been protecting the safety and the security of our citizens serving in Afghanistan and around the world.

As we have said all along, the increased tempo of the Taliban military engagement and the resulting increase in violence and instability across Afghanistan is of grave concern. Our embassy in Kabul has been on ordered departure since April 27. And we have been evaluating the security situation every day to determine how best to keep those serving at our embassy safe.

This is what we do for every diplomatic post in a challenging security environment.

[14:05:05]

Accordingly, we are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul, in light of the evolving security situation. We expect to draw down to a core diplomatic presence in Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

In order to facilitate this reduction, the Department of Defense will temporarily deploy additional personnel to Hamid Karzai International Airport. Secretary Blinken, together with Secretary Austin, had an opportunity to speak with president Ghani to coordinate our planning earlier today.

Let me be very clear about this. The embassy remains open, and we plan to continue our diplomatic work in Afghanistan. The United States will continue to support consular services, and that includes the processing and operations of the Special Immigrant Visa program. And we will continue to engage in diplomacy with the Afghan government and the Afghan people.

Additionally, we will continue our focus on counterterrorism. At the same time, our efforts to relocate interested and qualified Afghan SIV applicants will continue to ramp up. To date, Operation Allies Refuge has brought more -- has brought the United States more than 1, 200 Afghans who work side by side with Americans in Afghanistan. That includes interpreters and translators, along with their families.

Additional flights will begin landing daily. And you're going to see the total number grow very quickly in the coming days and the coming weeks.

We will begin implementing these measures soon, in close coordination with allies and partners. For operational security reasons, I can't go further into further details on the next steps. But as we have long said, we are committed to supporting Afghanistan and its people. That commitment remains.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) on the flights that you just mentioned--

PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: .. on the -- that will be landing daily, was that you gave some numbers couple days ago, two days ago, maybe, 995.

PRICE: That's right.

QUESTION: Is that still--

PRICE: I think we were at 995.

QUESTION: Is that still the number or--

PRICE: We're at 1, 200 as of today.

QUESTION: Oh, I'm sorry. Did I miss at the opening? Sorry.

And then -- and these new flights starting daily, like today, tomorrow?

PRICE: They will start daily in the coming days. Our focus is on increasing the tempo of our relocation operations.

As we have said, we have a solemn, a sincere responsibility to these brave Afghans, in many circumstances, in many, many cases, at great personal risk to themselves, have worked with the United States over the past 20 years. We're going to honor that responsibility and increase the pace of those relocation flights.

QUESTION: OK. And then -- and I'm sorry I missed that.

And then, on the embassy, you say it will remain open. Will it remain open in its current location?

PRICE: Well, let me be very clear, because this is the point I want to leave no uncertainty about.

The embassy remains open. We continue our diplomatic work, our diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. We will continue to do the priority functions. That includes supporting peace, security assistance, cooperation on counterterrorism, consular services, as we have been talking about, especially in the context of the Special Immigrant Visa program. We are always, as I said at the top, reviewing the environment, and

especially complex operating environments, and, of course, that includes Kabul. And so today's announcement is really a continuation of one of our most important responsibilities.

And that is doing all we can to ensure the safety, security, the welfare, the well-being of our people. As you know, we went on ordered departure and Kabul on April 27, with an eye to the security environment.

But, since then and going forward, we are going to continue to prioritize these key areas, knowing that our partnership with the Afghan government and our partnership with the Afghan people will be enduring.

And so that will continue.

QUESTION: I'm sorry. But my question was, is the embassy going to remain open in its current location?

PRICE: The embassy remains open.

Matt, we are always -- we are always--

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) location, or is it going to the airport?

PRICE: We are always evaluating the situation the ground. We are planning for all contingencies.

This was a contingency, in fact, that we had planned for. So I'm not going to entertain hypotheticals. I'm not going to go into what additional contingencies may arise. But it's -- but it's very important to say that our embassy remains open and our diplomatic mission will endure.

QUESTION: Ned, it's not a hypothetical. Is the embassy staying at its current location, or is it moving locations to the airport?

[14:10:00]

QUESTION: Or anywhere else?

QUESTION: Or anywhere else?

PRICE: Christina (ph), Christina, the embassy remains open in its current location.

QUESTION: Thank you.

PRICE: I'm not going to entertain hypotheticals from there.

(CROSSTALK)

PRICE: OK. OK. OK.

QUESTION: My last one, and I'll let everyone else go, because I know -- but my last one is, the people who are being drawn down, the staffers who are leaving, are they flying out commercially, or is that's what the military is going into do, to take them out?

PRICE: Well, the military will be there to help effect an orderly and a safe reduction in our personnel.

I do expect that the military will help with these relocation operations. But, as we know, Hamid Karzai International Airport does remain open. Commercial flights continue to take off and land at the airport.

So the military is not the only way in or out of Afghanistan.

QUESTION: The situation is such, though, that you don't think that these people are safe getting out of the country on a commercial flight?

Is that--

PRICE: The situation is such that this president prioritizes, above all else, the safety and security of Americans who are serving overseas.

As I have said, we have planned for any number of contingencies, with an eye towards the deteriorating security situation. We have said for some time now that we have been gravely concerned by developments. So, given the situation on the ground, this is a prudent step, a prudent reduction in our civilian work force.

Yes, Christina.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) But you can't tell us how many people you think are leaving? Can you give us like a percentage and just some kind of an idea of how big of a reduction this is of the footprint? Does this change the exit timeline at all for the overall U.S. withdrawal?

Is that being expedited? And do you think you can get the number of SIVs out on these slides, even with the tempo picked up? Do you think you can get enough of them out by the time you still have the facilities and the capacity to do so?

PRICE: So, you're right. We aren't in a position to speak to numbers.

What we are in a position to speak to are the functions that we intend to press forward with, given our diplomatic president on the ground in Kabul. And so that includes engagement with the government of Afghanistan. It includes engagement with the people of Afghanistan, specifically, our efforts to press forward with diplomacy, security assistance, counterterrorism cooperation, consular services, including the processing of SIV applicants.

So, I'm sorry I'm not in a position to detail numbers. But those functions are what we're prioritizing and what we intend to carry forward with.

QUESTION: What kinds of staff are leaving, then? If those are the ones -- people to do that are staying, who's leaving?

PRICE: So, staff who are leaving, staff involved in this reduction of civilian personnel, include, for example, those who may be able to perform functions back -- well, elsewhere, whether that's back here in the United States or elsewhere.

It includes staff who may not be necessary to continue with those core functions. So we are taking a very close look at our staffing footprint arrayed against this set of priorities, knowing that we are committed to an enduring relationship with the people of Afghanistan, committed to a diplomatic relationship as well.

And so we're taking a very close look, and we will start that reduction in civilian personnel in the coming days.

Kylie.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

PRICE: It is not different. As we have said, this is -- we went on an ordered departure in April.

We have undertaken a reduction in staffing since then. We obviously haven't detailed numbers. But, as we have said, including in the context of SIV processing, we determined, for example, that there were people based at the embassy who could have been based back here in the Washington, D.C., area who could help adjudicate the chief of mission level processing for SIV applicants.

Now, what is true is that we are going down to a smaller diplomatic presence, given the security situation. But, as you have said, our overall status has not changed. We have been on ordered departure since April 27. We have taken prudent measures since then to reduce the size of our footprint in Afghanistan, with an eye towards the security environment.

That's what we're doing here.

Yes, Kylie.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: So, you said that today is a continuation of what has been happening.

But it appears very clearly to be a preparation for a full evacuation of all U.S. diplomats from Afghanistan. So what is your response to that?

PRICE: My response to that is, that's not true. This is not a full evacuation. This is not--

ATWOOD: The preparation, I said.

PRICE: We are -- and I think it's a very important distinction between planning and contingency planning.

[14:15:05] Right now, we are -- the embassy remains open. We will continue to have a diplomatic presence on the ground to fulfill these important functions.

Now, of course, the safety, the security, the welfare, the well-being of American citizens serving overseas is of the utmost priority to this president. So, of course, we are undertaking prudent contingency planning. That's precisely what we did to lead us here today.

We have watched as the security situation has changed. We have watched very closely. Not only have we watched. We have engaged in planning exercises to prepare us for an eventuality like the one we're talking about today. That's what we will continue to do.

QUESTION: And what message does this send to the people of Afghanistan today who are facing these threats from the Taliban, these military offenses, that the U.S. has not only military withdrawing, but also taking out some of their diplomatic personnel?

PRICE: Well, the message we are sending to the people of Afghanistan is our -- one of enduring partnership.

We have said from the beginning that the United States will be a committed partner to the people of Afghanistan. And you can measure that in any number of ways.

Today, of course, we are continuing to have a diplomatic presence. Our embassy remains open. Our diplomatic engagement on the ground will continue. That will allow us to fulfill the consular services, the humanitarian support services.

And on the topic of humanitarian support, you look at what the United States has invested in the people of Afghanistan, not only in recent days, but, of course, over the past 20 years. On June 4, we announced more than $266 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. That sum total brought the total U.S. humanitarian aid for Afghanistan to nearly $3.9 billion over the course of our involvement in Afghanistan.

That will not change. Even given the more difficult security environment, we can continue to provide humanitarian support. We can continue to provide humanitarian assistance. And, importantly, we will continue to press forward in every way we can with the diplomacy to -- in an effort to bring about a just and a durable solution to this conflict.

And let me spend just a moment on that. I know we have talked about that in -- a number of times this week, but there has continued to be movement on the ground. As you know, Ambassador Khalilzad and his team have been in Doha this week. They have taken part in a couple gatherings already.

Today, they took part in a gathering of countries from the region and beyond, as well as from multilateral organizations, with a couple goals in mind, number one, to press for a reduction of violence and a cease-fire. And, number two -- and this is important -- a commitment on the part of those countries represented and those organizations represented in Doha not to recognize any entity that takes control of Afghanistan by force, not to recognize any force that seeks to take control of Afghanistan at the barrel of a gun.

The meeting today has included representatives not just from the United States and Qatar, which is the host, but also the U.N., China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, the U.K., the E.U., Germany, India, Norway, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan.

That, in and of itself, is a broad and inclusive group of countries and international organizations. And this group actually came together. And I think you will be seeing this later today in the form of a formal statement that will emanate from this gathering.

They agreed, first and foremost, that the peace process needs to be accelerated. And they also agreed, importantly, that they will not recognize any government that is imposed through military force. So this is not just the United States making this point. This is not just the United States speaking with our voice.

This is the international community, as you see represented in the consensus that has emerged today regarding this very simple point. Any force that seeks to take control of Afghanistan with the barrel of a gun -- through the barrel of a gun will not be recognized, will not have legitimacy, will not accrue the international assistance that any such government would likely need to achieve any semblance of durability.

[14:20:18]

And before I go on, let me just say -- and this is an important statement that either has or soon will emanate from Doha today, but it's not the first of its kind.

We have seen the international community come together to speak with one voice on this very point over the course of weeks and months. I have spoken just recently about the U.N. Security Council statement that emanated last week where the members of Security Council recalled Resolution 2513, reaffirmed that there is no military solution--

BLACKWELL: Major announcement there from the U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, that the U.S. Embassy in Kabul there will be drawing down some personnel, did not put a number on that, of course, trying to send the message to the Afghan people that there is this enduring partnership.

But this is a significant development, as we see the continuation of the progress the Taliban are making there across Afghanistan.

Let's bring back our panel, Jeff Zeleny, Oren Liebermann, Clarissa Ward.

General Marks, I interrupted you to bring that update.

Your reaction to what you're hearing. Price is trying to make this sound like, he says it is a continuation of efforts that started in April, but a significant development here today.

MARKS: Yes, good luck with all of that. I mean, you have to give him an A-plus for initiative and for hanging in there. Who would want his particular job right now?

Of all the functions that he said this American Embassy will perform or continue to perform, counterterrorism efforts, security efforts, diplomacy, consular services, which are really those special immigration visas for the Afghans -- and that's for the interpreters -- of all of those functions, that's the one where we have an absolute honorable requirement to fulfill as best we can.

Everything else becomes secondary. What needs to take place is every -- all those other functions, let's be frank, they need to migrate back and they need to get out of there. And the American Embassy is where the American ambassador happens to be located.

So, the building might be open, but it's not functioning as an embassy in any way. It's going to be at the airfield, which is where the ambassador needs to take place. And they must continue to honor that requirement with those SIV -- the SIVs for the Afghans.

I mean, that's where we are.

(CROSSTALK)

MARKS: The security forces -- Victor, the security forces that are coming in right now are to protect that movement from the embassy building to the airfield. That's it.

BLACKWELL: Yes.

And Price says that there will be -- from the Department of Defense -- temporarily will deploy additional personnel to Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Jeff, to you.

I understand that there have been some conversations, obviously, from the White House there. The president has consistently said that, despite what is happening there in Afghanistan, this does not change the timeline. This does not change the deadline for American troops coming out.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Victor, that is President Biden's belief.

He said just a couple days ago this week: I do not regret my decision.

And an official told me a short time ago the president still believes that. They are surprised at the speed in which things are unraveling in Afghanistan, but not necessarily surprised at the ultimate outcome here.

But, again, I'm told the president was actually not even involved directly in top-level meetings with National Security Council principals here on this topic today at the White House. He clearly did also not want to take questions about really the rapid developments on the ground in Afghanistan.

You saw him deliver remarks earlier this afternoon on COVID and prescription drug prices, and immediately left the White House to return to Wilmington and his summer vacation, not taking questions on Afghanistan. He has firmly believed that this is something that the Afghanistan people must do and fight for themselves.

But he has also thought that the forces were sort of ready and trained to fight back the Taliban. But this is a long, consistent position of President Biden. But it is about to be tested in a very major way here, given the conditions on the ground.

But, as of now, there are no signs or sense of regret here. They simply are trying to deal with the conditions as they exist. And they're worsening.

BLACKWELL: Clarissa, Ned Price said that the message to the Afghan people is one of enduring partnership.

So, U.S. forces are being withdrawn. The diplomatic personnel is being reduced. Some of those people are coming out as well. Is that the message that the Afghan people are receiving from the U.S.?

WARD: Unfortunately, absolutely not.

I mean, listening to that briefing, very much, the message was, as you said, this is a precautionary measure, we're just taking abundance of caution, the embassy is still open, business as usual. But that's not how this will be seen on the ground.

[14:25:09]

This will be seen on the ground as deserving a sinking ship, essentially. It will further contribute to the real deterioration of morale. It will contribute to the sense of panic and fear and dread on the ground of ordinary Afghan citizens, particularly those here in the capital, particularly those who, as General Marks mentioned, have worked with the U.S. military, have worked with the U.S. Embassy.

And there is already a growing sense of, what do we do? I'm getting messages every hour now from different people who either worked with the government, worked with the U.S. military who want to know what they should do, one man even threatening that he's going to go and stand in front of you in front of the U.S. Embassy and set himself on fire if he doesn't get some answers on his paperwork soon.

So there's absolutely a sense of palpable fear and near panic in the capital right now. And nothing that we just heard from the State Department is going to do anything to alleviate that.

If anything, it is just going to make people think even more clearly that the situation is very serious indeed. BLACKWELL: Oren, the president has said several times that the Afghan

people must take up this fight, the Afghan government must lead this now. The U.S. comes home.

Why isn't the Afghan national army better prepared for this? We have known this was coming at some point. Presidents for the more than a decade have now been promising to bring U.S. troops home. Why aren't they better prepared?

LIEBERMANN: Well, the Afghan army has the manpower, the personnel, the technology, according to the Pentagon, and according to the Biden administration, to win this fight.

So your question is a pertinent one. Why aren't they winning this fight, when they have at least what on paper is more than a 4-1 manpower advantage over the Taliban?

Part of that is simply the will to fight and a mission here. The Taliban clearly has it. They had a strategy. The Afghan army, without consistent and constant U.S. presence and support, simply isn't standing up to this fight.

They have, according to U.S. officials, consolidated some of their positions to try to hold the population centers. That was a few weeks ago we got that update. That, at least from what we're seeing play out on the ground right now in areas like Herat and near Kandahar, simply isn't working. The Taliban is making tremendous gains here.

But the U.S. position is clear. And Jeff spoke to this. The Biden ministration, President Joe Biden himself have decided that the U.S. has committed enough time, resources, money, and, most importantly, lives to Afghanistan, and now the priorities are simply elsewhere at this point.

It is a cold, calculated political decision, But one from which he's not wavering.

BLACKWELL: Oren Liebermann, Clarissa Ward, Jeff Zeleny, and General Marks, thank you so much for being with us.

We will, of course, continue to follow this breaking news. We're expecting to hear from Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby shortly. We will bring that to you as soon as it happens.

Now, the FDA is set to authorize a third shot for some Americans. We will tell you who is eligible and what we know about the timeline.

Also, school officials, doctors and parents under attack. The debate over masks intensifies. And the president just weighed in.

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