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CDC Recommends Third Dose For Some; Afghanistan in Crisis. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 13, 2021 - 14:00   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: They are making some key gains across Afghanistan.

At least 17 now, at least 17 of the nation's provincial capitals have been overrun. Afghanistan's second largest city, Kandahar, fell overnight, and a senior U.S. official fears the capital city of Kabul could fall in just 30 days.

Take a look at this. This is a time-lapse from The Long War Journal. And the spreading red color shows just how fast the Taliban gained control since mid-April. That's when President Biden announced the U.S. exit.

Yesterday, the U.S. announced the deployment of more than three 3,000 troops to help U.S. personnel get out of Afghanistan. At any moment, the Pentagon will brief reporters with the latest developments. Of course, we will bring you the news headlines out of that.

Joining me now, CNN senior White House correspondent Phil Mattingly and CNN senior international security editor Nick Paton Walsh.

Nick, let me start with you.

Seventeen capitals now, at least 17. This is happening remarkably fast.


And if you cast your mind back, Victor, to literally how the last 20 years have often been about stalemates over a village in the middle of nowhere and intense amounts of U.S. military power, the speed of this reversal is utterly staggering, faster, frankly, than when the U.S. swept in 2001.

Where does it leave us now? Well, the second and the third largest cities and Taliban's hands. Kandahar fell overnight. Frankly, it feels like a couple of days ago now. Remarkable that they have that hugely symbolic birthplace of their movement now in their hands. The question, what of Kabul next? Yes, there's Mazar-e-Sharif in the

north, possibly Jalalabad in the east, which may at some point come under Taliban pressure, but it's fairly clear that they have their targets set on Kabul, but do they want a lengthy and bitter street fight for a city of six to seven million people? Many doubt that. They could possibly encircle it.

And there has been a lot of noise in the last two or three hours this afternoon really about diplomacy, about maybe the room for negotiation here. The U.S. always pushing a plan that essentially would have a cease-fire and their transitional government.

Pretty clear, though, that the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, wasn't keen on that plan. But we're in a whole different world here now, the 3,000 U.S. troops piling into Karzai International Airport in Kabul anytime from now, frankly. That will possibly buy a little bit of time in Kabul.

They will bring a bit of security blanket with them around some of the key buildings inside of there to get their own people out really. Remarkable they send in 3,000 after their withdrawal only took out 2, 500, but also too the mammoth and exhausting task of pulling out tens of thousands of Afghans who may be eligible for a Special Immigrant Visa program announced by President Joe Biden.

This has happened so fast. A week ago, we were talking about the first provincial capital falling and how remarkable that feat had been by a Taliban, normally thought to only be able to operate in the rural areas of Afghanistan. Now the question is, how might Kabul come under their influence?

All sorts of talk about diplomacy at the moment, but we simply have to wait and see what comes out when the chips go down -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: Phil, I want to give people a reminder of what President Biden said about the potential for what we are now seeing in Afghanistan.

This is July 8, five weeks ago.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You have the Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped, as well-equipped as any army in the world, and an air force against, something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not inevitable. The jury's still out, but the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.


BLACKWELL: They're almost there. The White House now in damage control, understandably.

Any sense, any sense of a shift in strategy? PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: For as rapid as this situation has been over the course of the last several days, as fluid as so many things have been, the one thing that has been steady, I'm told from White House officials, is the president's view on the decision that he made.

There is no shift being planned. There's no new strategy that's going to be rolled out in terms of U.S. presence in the country. U.S. troops are mostly out of the country already. They're removing a significant number of U.S. Embassy personnel. And there's a very real possibility, officials acknowledge, that all embassy personnel may need to leave at some point and at some point soon.

I think when you talk to White House officials, what they will acknowledge is they didn't think the Taliban could move this quickly. They knew the Taliban was at a level of capability that perhaps they hadn't even been at since 2001. The speed is what's catching people off-guard.

I think, when you listen to what the president was saying there, while he can say the top-line numbers, White House officials were very candid about the fact that 300,000 doesn't actually mean 300,000 on the ground. A trillion dollars of U.S. assistance doesn't mean that the Afghan national security forces are actively utilizing that equipment on a daily basis in actual war fighting.

That's always been the case. I think the speed is what's caught most people off-guard. So when you talk to White House officials right now, Nick kind of hit it the key points here.


They are focused on ensuring that the personnel that they're removing in the near term gets out safely. They are focused on trying to get as many Afghans who helped U.S. personnel those refugee visas as they possibly can. That is extremely difficult as more territory comes under Taliban rule and the ability to reach some of those people becomes even more complicated.

And then the third element -- Nick makes a great point here -- U.S. officials have made clear now for months that they want a negotiated settlement, they want some kind of power-sharing agreement. That effort hasn't stopped. U.S. officials have been communicating with Taliban officials in Doha about that. It's a possibility and one they would like to pursue, however, one officials that I'm talking to acknowledge is not a sure thing by any means right now.

And they are skeptical of that fact. The one thing they are resting their hopes on at this point is something that Nick alluded to, that the Taliban does not want a massively bloody battlefield inside a city of millions, an urban combat atmosphere. And that might incentivize them to reach for some type of agreement.

But as of now, nothing is in the works, or at least nothing is close to completion that I have heard from the U.S. side.

BLACKWELL: Nick, you mentioned that diplomatic efforts are ongoing.

What is the plausibility that to avoid that bloody battle in Kabul that there can be some agreement reached with the Taliban to keep them out of that area?

WALSH: I think the Taliban will use diplomacy, as it has done for the last years, to essentially advance their strategic goals on the battlefield.

They may possibly -- and I'm literally speculating here, but they may choose to negotiate some sort of interim situation, maybe some sort of cease-fire in order to let them regroup and then focus their efforts on fashioning the kind of government in Kabul they would like to see. That is simply a possibility.

And it's certainly too what I think the U.S. has kind of played upon, but the U.S., I think, has over-lent on their belief that the Taliban essentially want to be recognized internationally and not repeat the mistakes, as the U.S. said, of the '90s, where they were an international pariah.

The Taliban want a -- they want to be part of the international system. Now, we have had a lot of statements from the U.N. and the E.U. today simply saying that if they come to force that isn't going to happen. And even Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief U.S. negotiator on this, released a statement in which he said China had in fact got on board with that sentiment.

It simply remains to be seen whether or not the talks in Doha led by Zalmay Khalilzad can bring up anything. They have slowly dragged the agreement towards the Taliban to make the Taliban want to sign on in the last administration. And Joe Biden, I think, essentially saw that the line had been drawn there and it was time to accept that the U.S. was essentially leaving.

But do I think we could possibly see some effective diplomacy that puts an end to Taliban ambitions? I will be very surprised. They have shown themselves very capable of just letting this roll. They always said they have the time.

BLACKWELL: Right, Nick Paton Walsh, Phil Mattingly, thank you both.

Stay with us because we may need you for analysis after this Pentagon briefing. We're waiting for the latest from John Kirby there.

Let's go to the CDC, now just voted unanimously to recommend a third dose of either Pfizer or Moderna's vaccine for certain immunocompromised people. An estimated nine million people with immunodeficiencies are now authorized by the FDA to get a third coronavirus vaccine shot.

And according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins researchers, vaccinated people with weakened immune systems are 485 times more likely to end up in the hospital or die from COVID-19 compared to the general population that is vaccinated.

CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is here now.

So, Sanjay, this is not for -- which is a surprise to me, maybe not you -- all immunocompromised people. There are some caveats here. Explain them.


So, they made the sort of distinction. They said we're looking at moderate or severely immunocompromised people. And they basically base this on the evidence of what they were seeing, which is sort of twofold. One, you sort of mentioned here already. Not only was there evidence that the protection, the immunity was lower in someone who had had a weakened immune system and was vaccinated, but also that they -- as a result, they got sicker as well, so 485 times more likely end up in the hospital.

But I can show you what that meant for hospitalizations overall. We know that most of people, Victor, in the hospital with COVID are unvaccinated. But for people who are in the hospital with breakthrough infections, a large percentage of them were also immunocompromised.

So that was, I think, what sort of got this discussion going some time ago, that -- sort of the why of things. The who, to your question -- and we can show -- I think we may have the graphic to show you this, but it's an exhaustive--

BLACKWELL: All right, Sanjay, I have to interrupt you, unfortunately.

We have got to go to the Pentagon now. This is Admiral John Kirby on the latest in Afghanistan.

JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: And planning for these sorts of contingencies is not unusual. In fact, it's quite common.

And one of the reasons why we have been able to react as quickly as we did in just the last day or so is because we had plenty of contingency planning in the in the works and, in fact, a lot of it complete, because we were, and as I have said many times from the podium, watching consistently the security situation the ground.


So, I can give you a brief update, a few additional details since yesterday. Now, as I do this, I think you can understand that I'm not going to have every detail that you might want. There's operational security that's still going to be a concern. And we're going to -- we're going to observe that here, just as we have throughout the entire drawdown process.

But I can tell you a couple of things. First, U.S. Forces Afghanistan- Forward continue to provide security at the Kabul Airport and at the embassy. These are the existing security elements that were already in Kabul. This comprised of attack and lift aviation assets, infantry, security personnel, and some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets that are already there at the airport. And they stay there, and they are still doing their jobs in terms of internal security there at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The troop movements that we mentioned yesterday are happening as we speak. Three battalions are preparing to move from their current locations in the Central Command area of responsibility to Kabul.

And they consist of a Marine battalion that was already pre-staged in the region and has lift, sustainment and support capabilities, an infantry -- another Marine infantry battalion from a Marine expeditionary unit, and a U.S. Army infantry battalion.

Now, some elements of one of the Marine infantry battalions are already there, in Kabul. Just the leading element, they're there. The rest of their forces will continue to flow over the next couple of days. And I expect that, by the end of the weekend, the bulk of the 3,000 that we talked about yesterday will be in place, probably not all, but the bulk.

And from the United States, the brigade combat team that we mentioned from the 82nd Airborne Division that is prepared to go to Kuwait as a ready reserve force will -- they are now preparing to deploy. I do not have information that suggests they're on the way right now. But I suspect that, in very short order, they will start to deploy and to arrive.

Movement of some of the enablers that we talked about yesterday designated to support the Special Immigrant Visa processing in the region, that has also begun. These are primarily medical personnel. I think I told you yesterday it's a mix, medical personnel, some military police, some electrical engineers, that kind of thing.

They are preparing to go. I do not have an indication today that they have actually left. Again, they are not going into Afghanistan. They are originally going to be sent into the region for further use as needed to support the SIV process.

Now, as far as aircraft are concerned to support the movement of civilian personnel, TRANSCOM is, as we speak, working on their plans and their sourcing solutions with Air Mobility Command and working it out with Central Command as well to support this mission.

Forces and support requirements are going to be rapidly assessed by their planners. They're working on that. And while we're not going to be able to give out a lot of detail today, again, the plans and sourcing for our aircraft support and airlift are being worked out. We will have more to say about that when it's appropriate and when we can.

But I do want to stress that airlift will not be a limiting factor in this mission. Airlift will not be a limiting factor. And, as I said yesterday, it's not all going to be military aircraft that are used. There are -- Hamid Karzai International Airport is still open, commercial flights are still going in and out. And it doesn't -- doesn't -- I don't want to convey the sense that every lift of every individual is going to be done on a gray military aircraft, though they will be made available to support. And, as I said, it's not going to be a limiting factor.

And then, finally, I just want to foot stomp something I said yesterday, that this is a specific, narrowly focused, tailored mission to help with the safe, secure movement of the reduction of civilian personnel in Kabul -- yes, civilian personnel in Kabul -- as well as to help support the acceleration of the Special Immigrant Visa process by the State Department.

That's what we're focused on. And as we get more information and I'm able to provide it to you, I will, with the understanding that there's going to be operational security concerns, and I'm not going to be able to provide every level of detail that I am sure you want.


we will be as transparent with you as we can.


QUESTION: Thank you, John.

You mentioning that the bulk of the three battalions will be there probably by the end of the weekend, you said, so at the end of set Sunday.

Do you anticipate, then, that the operation would begin that day?

KIRBY: The operation has begun, Bob. I mean, the movement of forces to Kabul has begun. That's the military side of it. I can't speak to the timing of the State Department with respect to their reduction.


KIRBY: We wanted to make sure that we were in full support of them and that we were getting on station as quickly as possible. And that's what we're focused on.

As for when departures will occur and how many on a daily basis, that's really my colleagues at the State Department, for them to speak to

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up?

KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: So, given the events of the last 24 hours, with three or four additional cities falling to the Taliban, and the Taliban apparently moving closer to Kabul, I'm wondering whether you -- how likely is it that you will be able to complete the drawdown of forces by August 31, as opposed to staying to ensure the security of the embassy afterwards?

KIRBY: Well, obviously, we're going to be watching the security situation day by day, Bob. And I can't speak for what that's going to look like in days to come.

What I can tell you is where we are now, where we are today. And the mission that we have been assigned is to support the State Department's reduction in personnel by the end of the month.

And so that's what we're focused on. That's the timeline we're focused on. And if we need to adjust either way, left or right, we will do that. But we're going to always be looking at the security conditions in the ground.


KIRBY: Tara.

QUESTION: Thanks, John.

With the airlift planning that's going on, are you planning to get -- make the airlift available for hundreds of people getting out of the country, thousands? As you know, there were thousands of people based at U.S. Embassy Kabul and there's as many as 18,000 interpreters that were looking to get out.


QUESTION: So, can you give us an order of magnitude of this airlift mission?

KIRBY: What I can't do is tell you how many on any given day.

But capacity, as I said, is not going to be a problem. And we will be able to move thousands per day. But that's just the airlift capacity. That doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to end up with that every day. It's going to depend on the processing and the -- and how that goes.

So, we're -- what we want to be able to do is to get there fast and get there capable and be able to provide as much capacity to the State Department as we can. And our intention is to be able to move thousands per day.


Separately, as we have seen the different provincial capitals fall, is the Department of Defense surprised at how quickly it seems that the Afghan National Army has collapsed under Taliban pressure?

KIRBY: We are certainly concerned by the speed with which the Taliban has been moving.

And as we have said from the very beginning that this is a -- and it still is -- a moment for Afghan national security and defense forces, as well as their political leadership. No outcome has to be inevitable here. I'm not going to speculate about surprise. We're obviously watching this just like you're watching this, and seeing it happen in real time. And it's deeply concerning. It's -- in fact, the deteriorating

conditions are a factor, a big factor in why the president has approved this mission to help support our -- the reduction of personnel there in Kabul.

So, I mean, we're adjusting as best we can, given those conditions -- again, this is a moment for the Afghans to unite, the leadership and in the military. No outcome has to be inevitable here.

QUESTION: Just one last.

If the Taliban continue across and take Kabul, what happens to the continued support the DOD had been planning to do for the Afghan national security forces, such as like the contracted air support or the fuel that DOD was committing to send?


QUESTION: Are you all starting to have conversations about at what point does that support have to be cut off to keep it from going into the hands of the Taliban?

KIRBY: We're still supporting the Afghan national security and defense forces. We're still supporting the Afghan government, the elected government in Kabul.

And that's what we're going to be focused on doing. It would be easy to speculate about what the future of Afghanistan looks like right now, but I think we want to focus on what we are doing.


We are supporting the Afghans in the field where and when we can. We're still working on contract support for over the horizon. We're still making sure we have robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities in the region, so that we can't suffer a threat from Afghanistan again.

And so we're -- we are focused on the security situation as we see it now, and what we have got to do, the missions we have been assigned by the commander in chief, and I will let the political situation play out. That's really not something that we're overly focused on right now.

Yes, Sylvie.

QUESTION: You were speaking about the over the horizon.

Obviously, the U.S. has been conducting airstrikes regularly, every day, for the last few days, and it didn't stop the advances of the Taliban. So, if you cannot stop the Taliban from over the horizon, which you are trying to do right now, how are you going to stop al Qaeda from over the horizon?

KIRBY: So, we -- the over-the-horizon counterterrorism strikes and capabilities still exist and will exist going forward, and we have never said that airstrikes are a panacea.

You said we weren't able to stop the Taliban. We have said from the moment we started drawing down that we're going to continue to support them where and when feasible, with the understanding that it's not always going to be feasible. And we have never argued that our airstrikes from the air were going to turn the tide on the ground.

What we have said is that the Afghans have the capability to do that. And we still believe that they could make a difference on the ground. We will do what we can from the air. But they have the advantage. They have greater numbers. They have an air force. They have modern weaponry.

It's indigenous forces that can make the difference on the ground. And that's -- so, our support to the Afghans was really done in that vein.

And, again, as for counterterrorism, as you have heard the secretary say himself, there's not a scrap of the Earth that the United States military can't hit if it's needed. And when it comes to disrupting a counterterrorism threat that we know is emanating and is serious enough, airstrikes can be effective in that regard.

QUESTION: Are the troops heading into Kabul going to get imminent danger pay for this deployment?

KIRBY: I don't know.

I can take the question, but I don't know.

Jeff Seldin, VOA.

QUESTION: John, thank you very much for doing this.

You have said that the U.S. is going to continue to conduct the airstrikes in support of the Afghan security forces when and where it's feasible. But with the focus now on the battalions that are heading into Kabul to secure the embassy and the airport and facilitate getting the civilians out, how does -- how much is that going to lessen the availability of airstrikes for Afghan security forces?

And, also, following up on what Sylvie asked, given that U.S. airstrikes didn't seem to deter the Taliban in other areas, how much concern is there that they won't be scared of potential U.S. airstrikes if they decide to move on Kabul and U.S. assets or personnel there?

KIRBY: I'm not going to speculate about moving on Kabul. And I have never talked about future operations, and I'm not going to start doing that today, Jeff.

But to your other question, the kinds of support that we are providing and able to provide Afghan national security and defense forces in the field, those authorities still exist. Those capabilities still exist. And General McKenzie can use those capabilities to the degree that he sees most fit. That is a separate and distinct set of missions than what we are -- have now been ordered to do in terms of helping with our State Department colleagues reducing the size of their footprint in Kabul.

So, those are two separate sets of authorities and capabilities, and I think that's about where I will leave it.

Yes, Courtney.

QUESTION: You said a couple of times that you're concerned with the speed with which the Taliban has moved, but I think the big question is not the concern about the speed, but surprise.

So, again, I have to ask, is the military, the Pentagon or the administration or anyone surprised by how fast the Taliban has been able to -- moved across the country?

KIRBY: Courtney, we saw the Taliban making advances even before the Biden administration came into office.

We saw the Taliban making advances at the district level before the president made his decision.

QUESTION: But not like we're seeing now. This is a different ball game in the last week or so.


So, I mean, these specific gains, taking these major cities like Kandahar, Herat, Lashkar Gah looks like it's fallen, I mean, has that caught the military off-guard, the speed with which they have been able to do it?

KIRBY: We have been watching this from a very early period right after the president gave us the order to draw down.

We certainly have been watching what the Taliban is doing. We have noted, and we have noted with great concern, the speed with which they have been moving and the lack of resistance that they have faced. And we have been nothing but honest about that. And I think I will leave it there.

QUESTION: What about the lack of resistance they may face in Kabul? Is there a concern that the Afghan military will not fight for Kabul?

KIRBY: That's a question for Afghan leadership to determine for themselves.

Obviously, we -- as I have said from the beginning, we want to see the will and the political leadership, the military leadership that's required in the field. We still want to see that. And we hope to see that.

But whether it happens or not, whether it pans out or not, that's really for the Afghans to decide.

Oren. QUESTION: You have said here many times that Afghanistan cannot and will not become a base from which to launch attacks against the U.S. homeland or its allies.

Does the speed of the Taliban advance shake your confidence in that statement?


Steve from

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this.

Are any additional Air Force squadrons or aircraft heading to the Middle East for this? And then could you also speak to any of the rules of engagement troops on the ground will have?

KIRBY: I have no -- nothing to announce or speak to with respect to additional Air Force assets.

I have told you -- I have given you pretty much the lay-down of exactly what we're sending to support this movement. That said, I also said -- and, in fact, I -- in my opening statement, that there will be airlift provided. Clearly, there's going to be an Air Force role here with respect to airlift.

But in terms of combat aircraft, I know of no such moves to do that. And, as I have said, I have laid out for you now twice what the movements would be. And I'm not going to speak about rules of engagement. We never do that from the podium.


QUESTION: John, you said you won't speculate about movements on Kabul, but how would you describe the situation now? Is Kabul under threat? Is Kabul isolated? What is it?

KIRBY: Right now, without getting into a battlefield assessment every day -- I don't want to do that -- but thy -- Kabul is not right now in an imminent threat environment.

But, clearly, David, if you just look at what the Taliban's been doing, you can see that they are trying to isolate Kabul. Now, what they want to do if they achieve that isolation, I think only they can speak to, but you can see a certain effort to isolate Kabul.

It is not unlike the way they have operated in other places of the country, isolating provincial capitals and sometimes being able to force surrender without necessarily much bloodshed.

Again, I can't speak for what their intentions are. What I can tell you is that we're taking the situation seriously. And that's one of the reasons why we moved these forces or we're moving these forces into Kabul to assist with this particular mission, because we know that time is a precious commodity here.

QUESTION: Is it isolated now?

KIRBY: I don't want to get into a specific intelligence assessment on the battlefield. I just don't want to do that.

But, clearly, from their actions, it appears as if they are trying to get Kabul isolated.

QUESTION: Let me try it this way. The main arteries going into Kabul?

KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to get into a conditions-on-the-ground assessment every day about avenues and lines of communication, except to say it certainly appears that the Taliban is trying to isolate the city.

And they have, throughout this last few weeks, you have seen it for yourself, taken over border crossings, taken over highways and major intersections to control lines of what we say, what we call communication and lines of revenue and those kinds of things.

I mean, I can't speak and I won't speak specifically to what the situation is in Kabul right now.

QUESTION: John, many times this week, you have said the Afghan forces have the advantage.

What proof can you offer as the Taliban have taken over now vast majorities of the country and have now surrounded Kabul?

KIRBY: That the Taliban have moved with the speed with which they have and that the resistance that they have faced has been insufficient to stop those, to check those advances, does not mean, Lucas, that the advantages aren't still there.

You have to use it. You have to be willing to apply it.


QUESTION: -- any sense, John.

KIRBY: Yes, it does.

QUESTION: You're saying they have all the advantages as they're getting crushed on the battlefield.