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Afghan Cities Lashkar Gah, Kandahar Fall to Taliban; 3,000 U.S. Troops to Help with Embassy Drawdown; FDA Authorizes Booster for Some Immunocompromised Americans; Mask Mandates Enrage Some Americans as Variant Spreads; U.S. Hospitals Running Out of Beds; Extreme Heat and Fires Scorch Greece and Algeria; Fred Expected to Restrengthen As It Heads Toward U.S. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired August 13, 2021 - 04:00   ET



KIM BRUNHUBER, CNN ANCHOR: The Taliban are gaining new ground in Afghanistan as the U.S. prepares to send more troops there to safely bring Americans home.

Approval for a third coronavirus vaccine shot in the U.S. but it is not for everyone.

And experts examine what the My Pillow CEO says is proof of a presidential election conspiracy.

Live from CNN world headquarters in Atlanta, welcome to all of you watching us here, in the United States, Canada and around the world. I'm Kim Brunhuber. This is CNN NEWSROOM

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news,

BRUNHUBER: All right, we're following breaking news out of Afghanistan where Taliban fighters have claimed two of their biggest prizes yet, the country's second largest city Kandahar and the capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah. The militant group released a video of victory celebrations and Kandahar. CNN can't confirm its authenticity. Taliban fighters claim that they seized hundreds of weapons, vehicles and ammunition. Afghan national forces appear to either surrender or flee.

So, the Taliban now control 14 provincial capitals, Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city fell on Thursday. Meanwhile the U.S. is deploying 3,000 additional troops to Kabul to help evacuate American citizens from the U.S. Embassy.

Let's bring in CNN's international security editor Nick Paton Walsh who's live in London. Nick, it's stunning since you and I spoke yesterday by my calculation four more provincial capitals have fallen, but about more than just a numbers. The latest two Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, two huge prizes for the Taliban. So, speak to the significance of the lot of these cities.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Yes, I mean Kandahar second largest city, birth place of the Taliban, under intense pressure by the insurgency over a matter of weeks and months. So, it's important to remember that these big cities falling haven't suddenly happened overnight. This has been the result of significant pressure. In Lashkar Gah's case, frankly, for years the Taliban have been breathing down its neck.

But you can't understate the significance of Kandahar being in the Taliban hands and you cannot understate the extraordinary efforts made by the Afghan government to try and hold on to Lashkar Gah in Helmand, with most of the security forces they could lay their hands on. It is vital because it is essentially the center of the opium trade that funds the insurgency. And a place where the U.S. and NATO lost so many lives trying to hold onto. So, that to me is, along with Kandahar falling overnight, one of the most startling events today.

Herat falling yesterday was equally shocking and it has essentially shifted the narrative now towards the capital Kabul. Something frankly that was unthinkable a matter of a week ago.

In the next couple of days, I think we're going to learn more about Pol-e Alam to the south of Kabul, that's pretty close to Kabul itself. And to the north Mazar-i-Sharif is under pressure to an economic hub. I think that there are lots of debate now as to precisely when the pressure begins to tighten on Kabul and what the Taliban's strategy for moving toward the capital necessarily is. Is it negotiation and encirclement? Is it essentially a siege to force the government's hand inside there?

The arrival of 3,000 U.S. Marines any point now frankly, they could at any point turn up in Kandahar international airport, is a startling show by the Americans of two things but might because they are sending in more troops to get their remaining staff out, they may essentially have to withdraw as part of their withdraw posturing. And it also shows I think that there will be some sort of security blanket around the airport and the buildings nearby and the U.S. Embassy for the next two to three weeks or so. Those troops and Marines will not come without a lot of air support and various other enablers.

So that will bring a short moment of comfort, a feeling certainly of panic and chaos inside the capital because essentially the clock is ticking. They have said that they will be gone by September and so if you are in Afghan, in the capital, and you haven't already explored to exhaustion your options to leave, then this is certainly something that most of your attention will be given towards.

But it will also essentially tighten the framework and time line for the Afghan government's moves here. It's clear their security forces have not held up in any of the major cities yet at this point, although half provincial capitals at least still do remain in government hands.

But the speed of this change is nothing that anybody had anticipated. Even the most pessimistic, those dismissive of the Afghan security forces and their U.S. backers, don't think they really felt that we would be seeing this happen inside of a week.

[04:05:00] And so, yes, the question now is the city of 6 million, it's the capital of Afghanistan, what for that next.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, that story keeps changing so swiftly. Thanks so much for staying on top of it for us. CNN's national security editor, Nick Paton Walsh in London. Appreciate it.

Well, as Nick mentioned, several thousand U.S. troops are being sent to Afghan capital to help evacuate civilian employees from the American Embassy, but the Pentagon insists that they aren't going there in a combat roll. CNN's Oren Liebermann has the details from the Pentagon.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The Pentagon is sending 3,000 more troops in to Afghanistan for a very special limited role. It'll be about 2,000 Marines and 1,000 soldiers at Hamid Karzai International Airport. What is effectively the international gateway into Kabul, into the capitol of Afghanistan and the key entry and exit point for diplomats and embassy staff.

These troops have a specific role and that is to secure and assist in the withdrawal of a partial drawdown of the embassy, only the core diplomatic staff will remain at the embassy in Kabul as well as to assist in what is now very much an acceleration of the withdrawal of Afghan interpreters who help the United States and their families. The process of bringing them out has only just begun. But there is now critical time left as the Taliban has made sweeping gains across the country as the U.S. faces what very much looks like very close to a worst-case scenario with these Taliban advances that are not slowing down at this point.

As for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, that of course was President Joe Biden's goal. The withdrawal of combat troops, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby says is set to be completed by the end of the month. It's already 95 percent complete according to U.S. central command, which governs the area.

But as for these 3,000 troops going in to assist in the withdraw, it's very possible that they stay longer than the end of the month. The Pentagon wouldn't be clear on their time line for withdrawal. And because of the situation there are more troops in the region ready to stand by.

First 1,000 in Qatar that will help with the processing of visas for the Afghan interpreters and their families trying to get out of the country and if the situation deteriorates much further, they'll be 3,500 soldiers on standby in Kuwait who could be brought into the country if it requires more assistance and more security.

The Pentagon has made clear that the troops going in now are not there in a combat role but it is of course very much a combat zone. The Pentagon very much aware of how fast the situation is deteriorating there and that has very much put a sense of urgency on the decisions were made over the course of the last 24 hours in the movement out of the country.

Although the U.S. is using terms like withdrawal and drawdown, Afghans see this as evacuation and abandonment, a blow not only to the morale of the Afghan forces that are losing ground very quickly to the Taliban but the Afghan people who come to rely on the U.S. presence and U.S. support.

Oren Liebermann, CNN, from the Pentagon.


BRUNHUBER: So, we heard a bit earlier from an Afghan journalist about the situation in Kabul and whom he thinks is to blame for the advancing Taliban takeover.


ALI LATIFI, AFGHAN JOURNALIST: I feel like everybody shares a responsibility to this, you know. And the thing is, I never had any expectations. Why would you have expectations out of the Taliban? You never had expectations out of them.

Unfortunately, we've all seen the way the U.S. has acted here over the last ten years. Well, 20, but for me ten. I'm also angry at this government, you know, because yesterday we had to sit and watch footage of the governor of a province fleeing, running off, not fighting for his province. And for him to leave, and to try to come to Kabul 150 kilometers away at a time when the Taliban control and he essentially got arrested on the way to Kabul.

For him to even make it from Ghazni to Oadzi, there's no way with Ghazni's under Taliban control. He didn't make a deal with the Taliban. But he made that deal for his own safety. He didn't make that deal to protect the millions of people who live in Ghazni. He didn't care.


BRUNHUBER: Ryan Crocker has served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, he says he agrees with the decision to send American forces to help with the civilian drawdown at the embassy in Kabul, but he says the rapid withdraw of U.S. forces has clearly emboldened the Taliban. Here he is.


RYAN CROCKER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN: In my view, we bear a major responsibility for this. It began under President Trump when he authorized negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban without the Afghan government in the room. That was a key Taliban demand. We exceeded to it and it was a huge demoralizing factor for the Afghan government and its security forces.


We pressed them to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Eventually they did it and watched them go back into the fight against the people who released them. So, this is a year and a half worth of demoralization and now this abrupt withdraw on our part I think solidifies it.


BRUNHUBER: And Crocker also says he thinks Taliban forces are stretched thin and may have a hard time holding on to their territorial gains.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized a third coronavirus shot for some immunocompromised Americans including those with organ transplants. The Centers for Disease Control is set to heat today to vote on whether to recommend it. The FDA and other health officials agree that the general population doesn't need boosters yet.

Meanwhile the delta variant is hitting the country hard, more than 98 percent of the U.S. residents now live in an area where there is a substantial or high risk of community transmission. And that's a steep jump from just a month ago. In many hospitals are quickly running out of room.

U.S. health officials have been looking into booster shots since Israel announced the data suggests that coronavirus vaccines start to lose effectiveness over time. At the end of July, Israel authorized booster shots for anyone over the age of 60 and has just expanded that to anyone aged 50 and older. So now the U.S. may be able to get a sense of what is to come by looking at Israel.


ANDY SLAVITT, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SR. ADVISER FOR COVID RESPONSE: Israel began their vaccination process a little bit ahead of us. So, I think in many respects we've been looking to them and to a certain extent the U.K. for what we can expect as well as the people who participated in the original clinical trials of the vaccines in 2020. And those three things together generally speaking give us a sense of what to predict for the future.

And I think -- you know, I talked with Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, she's talking regularly with the people in Israel. Our senses that good sources data and generally speaking as a rule of thumb, we can assume what's happening there today, you know, we're probably a month or two from things that will be under strong consideration here at that point in time.


BRUNHUBER: The new FDA emergency authorization is for a very specific group of immunocompromised people like or organ transplant recipients. Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains why boosters may help them but not necessarily other Americans yet.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: People who are immunocompromised and who've been vaccinated in the past, we know besides having lower antibody levels, they're also far more likely to get sick, 485 times more times likely to get hospitalized. So, it's not just that they have fewer antibodies, is that mean something, they're actually getting sicker as a result.

For the rest of us, you know, we're not seeing people who are vaccinated who are not immunocompromised really developing serious illness yet. So, maybe that happens in the future, hopefully not, but that would be the signal I think you'd look for.


BRUNHUBER: Along with hospitals, emergency response systems across the U.S. are feeling the pressure of rising COVID cases. In Memphis, Tennessee, one fire department says they're so overworked they are asking residents to think twice before calling for an ambulance.


CHIEF GINA SWEAT, MEMPHIS FIRE DEPARTMENT: Our system is very, very stressed. Our first responders are running on fumes. There's times when you may call for an ambulance and we may not have one available.


BRUNHUBER: As hospitals run out of beds and more people get sick and die from coronavirus, some Americans are still outraged over suggestions that they or their children where masks and they are taking it out on health care professionals. Nick Watt breaks down the state of coronavirus in America.


NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): This is Franklin, Tennessee.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can leave freely but we will find you. We know who you are. We will find you, and we know who you are.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You will never be allowed in public again.

WATT (voice-over): After a school board vote for a mask mandate, members, doctors, nurses harassed. The president saw this video.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And our health care workers are heroes. To the mayors, school superintendent, educators, local leaders who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids, thank you. Thank you as well. Thank God that we have heroes like you. And I stand with you all.

WATT (voice-over): Thousands of kids largely in the south already sent home back to virtual school. Why? Exposure and/or high case counts where they live.

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Masking is, I think, a lot of us would say is something pretty small that we can do in order to prevent all these negative consequences. WATT (voice-over): Nearly 99 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties where people should be wearing masks indoors, according to new CDC guidance.


Meantime more than 75,000 people are now in the hospital fighting the virus. Look at that line climb over the past month. That's a problem.

JEFF ZIENTS, WHITE HOUSE CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE COORDINATOR: Florida and Texas alone have accounted for nearly 40 percent of new hospitalizations across the country.

WATT (voice-over): A triage tent just went up again outside L.B.J Hospital in Houston, Texas.

DR. ESMAEIL PORSA, PRESIDENT AND CEO, HARRIS HEALTH SYSTEMS: Things are terrible. My hospitals are full.

WATT (voice-over): And filling fast in Mississippi.

DR. ALAN JONES, UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI MEDICAL CENTER: If we continue that trajectory, within the next five to seven to ten days, I think we're going to see failure of the hospital system in Mississippi.

WATT (voice-over): Anger in Alabama that the virus is surging.

DONNA ABERNATHY, NURSE, ATHENS-LIMESTONE HOSPITAL, ATHENS, ALABAMA: Until we get enough people vaccinated, we're just going to continue to see this revamp its ugly face.

WATT: And San Francisco just became the first major U.S. city to introduce an ordinance like this -- business owners of restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms, are going to have to ask for proof of full vaccination from their employees and their customers before any of them can allowed to go inside.

Nick Watt, CNN, Los Angeles.


BRUNHUBER: We're getting a first look at how the U.S. Supreme Court could handle decisions on COVID vaccine mandates. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett denied a request to block Indiana University from requiring students to get vaccinated without referring the matter to the full court. She oversees the appeals court the case came from.

A group of students had issued the emergency petition last week claiming the university violated their, quote, bodily integrity, autonomy and medical choice. Now this is the first appeal regarding a COVID vaccine mandate to reach the Supreme Court.

But the Supreme Court did block part of New York's eviction moratorium that was put in place during the pandemic. It blocked a provision that allowed tenants to self-certify financial hardship and denied landlords a hearing on the matter. In response to the decision, New York's Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul tweeted that she will work to strengthen eviction moratorium legislation.

Now to a mass shooting in the U.K. where at least five people and the suspected gunman are dead. This happened in Plymouth in southwest England and police say the incident isn't terrorism related. Two females and two males were found dead at the scene. A local member of Parliament says one of the victims was a child under 10 years old. Another woman was treated for gunshot wounds and died a short time later at the hospital. And the suspected shooter was also found dead.

Now this kind of gun violence that happens daily in the U.S. is rare in the U.K. A mass shooting 25 years ago prompted the British government to tighten gun laws and ban private gun ownership.

All right, still ahead, our breaking news coverage out of Afghanistan continues as the Taliban take control of two more key cities. Stay with CNN for up to the minute developments.

Plus, we're tracking a tropical weather system that could strengthen before it hits the U.S. stay with us.



BRUNHUBER: In Algeria, out of control wildfires, dozens of fatalities and now more than 20 arrests. Authorities say the suspects are accused of lighting the fires that have affected around half a million people in one province. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh is tracking what is happening there. But first we go to our Eleni Giokos in Evia, Greece, which has also been ravaged by flames. Eleni, I know you've been speaking to those affected and seeing the damage firsthand -- which we can sort of see behind you there. What more can you tell us?

ELENI GIOKOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look when we arrived, it was still about putting out the blaze. And so many parts of Evia were still alight. Right now, we're seeing a big monitoring system going on with a lot of foreign boots on the ground and a lot of rekindling and monitoring that situation.

When we spoke to the impacted communities and they are still shocked, they are devastated and they are now counting the losses. The forest accounts for such a big part of their income stream, whether it's the raisin producers or the honey producers, so many of them have lost everything. And these trees take about 20 to 30 years to mature. So, we're talking about decades and decades of economic pain for so many of the people.

We also heard from eyewitnesses specifically in the towns that were first impacted by the fires that they didn't have enough help. We know that the Prime Minister has apologized for this but he also defended their moves. He also said that there will be responsibility taken for the weaknesses that occurred within the reaction system.

Now importantly -- and I want you to understand the scale of this -- 465 kilometers of forestry , agricultural and commercial land was burnt in Evia alone. In Greece in totality if you look at the percentage, it's almost 1 percent of Greece's total landmass that was destroyed. Most of that was in Evia.

So, it is absolutely traumatic to see these kinds of images. And I think that the government's response in terms of the measures of restoration, it needs to be a long-term plan. That's what the locals tell us. And then of course the next big worry is going to be when the rains come and you have forest that has been destroyed, what does that mean in terms of the risk potential of mudslides and flooding. One scientist told us that that is going to be the next big focal point.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, the problem is far from done there. Eleni Giokos, thank you so much.

Now we go to Jomana Karadsheh for the latest on the fires raging across Algeria. Jomana, the probability that much of the damage and the deaths from those wildfires were even called by arsonists makes it all the more tragic. So, what's the latest on the fires and the investigation?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kim, we heard last night from the country's president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who addressed the nation in a televised address. Saying that they have arrested 22 people, criminals he said involved in starting these wildfires.


While he didn't deny that the current weather conditions, this heatwave the country is going through, contributed to the fires, he said most of the fires arsonists are to blame. An investigation is ongoing into what has been catastrophic for the country, some of the worst wildfires in the country's history impacting about 16 to 17 provinces, dozens of lives lost.

And, you know, whatever caused these fires to spark, Kim, aside the situation has been so difficult for the authorities to deal with for several reasons. You've got the geography of the area where this happened, a lot of hard-to-reach areas. You've also got the weather conditions, the heatwave impacting, you know, exacerbating these fires.

And also, one big factor has been the lack of capabilities. They did not have the capabilities to deal with fires on the scale. And we heard that from the president. Saying from the early days they did reach out to the European Union to try to try and get assistance, but firefighting planes were already engaged in Turkey and in Greece, assisting with the wildfires there.

But right now, help is beginning to arrive he said, on Thursday two planes from France. Today they are expecting two more from Spain and another one in the coming days from Switzerland. And just to give you an idea of what they are preparing for, he says that he has instructed the military to look into Algeria buying its own firefighting planes. Preparing for what it seems to be the new normal, what we have heard from scientists, this Mediterranean region is becoming a wildfire hot spot because of the climate crisis we're living through right now -- Kim.

BRUNHUBER: Yes, absolutely. Jomana Karadsheh, thank you so much, appreciate it.

Well, the storm known as Fred is now a tropical depression and currently bringing heavy rain to parts of eastern Cuba, but it is expected to regain strength as it approaches the United States. Let's get the latest with meteorologist Tyler Mauldin from the CNN weather center. Tyler, you've been tracking this system. What's the latest?

TYLER MAULDIN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Kim, I mean does this look like a formidable system that we should be spooked by on Friday the 13th? Not right now. The center is just to the north -- supposedly just to the north of Cuba. All the thunderstorms are down to the south. It's a weak 35 miles per hour depression. Because Hispaniola was not kind to it as it went over.

And now as it pushes to the north, there is a chance that it will regain that tropical storm strength, that's why we have tropical storm watches up for parts of Cuba and also parts of south Florida too. That does include the Keys.

Now, as this system, Fred, does push into the Florida Straits, that's when it hits the really warm waters of the Florida Straits and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico and it becomes eventually a 50- mile-per-hour storm. Models are in really good agreement on this track, and that track is to take it into the Florida Straits and up the eastern Gulf of Mexico, right offshore of Florida.

Here's the thing though, on that track, that puts the state of Florida on the sloppy east side of the system. A lot of rainfall in a really short order, also the potential for severe weather. We're talking not just strong wind gusts but also potentially some tornadoes too.

And then that carries over into parts of Alabama, Georgia, and on into the Carolinas as well. So, in the next few days, and we do expect to make landfall come early next week, around Monday, Tuesday in the panhandle of Florida, so this is something that we'll be talking about for several days.

And we're also watching something else. We're going into the peak of hurricane season. Peak of hurricane season is September 10th. So, we're going to start to see the Atlantic really light up. The second system which is on the heels of Fred is coined Invest 95-L. It's not exactly tropical yet, but that could change. And the reason why we have to keep an close eye on it, obviously, anything that goes into the Caribbean -- and models in good agreement of taken into the Caribbean, Kim, well, we've got to keep a close eye on that. So, we'll be watching this in the days to come as well. When it gets a name, it will be named Grace.

BRUNHUBER: All right, lots to watch out for. Thanks so much Tyler Mauldin, appreciate it.

Coming up, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been forced from their homes as the Taliban make sweeping gains across the country and the search for safety grows increasingly dire.

Plus, Mexico is reporting a record number of daily COVID infections as the Delta variant fuels a worry some surge. We'll go to Mexico City for the latest update. Please do stay with us.