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Taliban Takes Over Kabul As Afghan President Flees Country; U.S. Completes Evacuation Of Embassy As Flag Comes Down; Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) Is Interviewed About The Taliban Takeover Of Afghanistan; Death Toll Rises To 724 People After Haiti Quake. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired August 15, 2021 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: Hello again everyone. Thank you so much for joining me this Sunday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.
We begin with this breaking news.
The collapse of Afghanistan's government. Right now Taliban forces have taken over the capital city of Kabul and the presidential palace.
The U.S. embassy is now completely evacuated, we're told. The American flag on the building, taken down.
Choppers have shuttled U.S. personnel to the Kabul airport for flights out of the country. Still unclear whether flights are actually happening.
Sources tell CNN that Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country of Afghanistan for reportedly Tajikistan.
And in desperation, we're seeing long lines of people, Afghan citizens, trying to withdraw whatever cash they have from ATMs, banks; trying to also secure flights out of the country.
And as all of this unfolds, the U.S. is sending more troops into Afghanistan -- 5,000 total to ensure what President Biden calls an orderly and safe drawdown.
We have yet to hear from the president today. But his secretary of state this morning defending the decision to withdraw forces from the country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: When the president came to office, he had a decision to make. The previous administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that said that our forces -- our remaining forces -- only about 2,500 would be out of the country on May 1st.
And the idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there, I think is simply wrong. (END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: Let's go straight to Kabul, Afghanistan. CNN International Security Editor Nick Paton Walsh is there for all these breaking developments.
Nick, while we have reported from our State Department correspondent that all U.S. personnel have been evacuated from the U.S. embassy, taken to the airport, do we know if they're actually able to get on flights and leave the country?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: Obviously we are not on the airport. I can't give you a precise breakdown as to how flights are leaving. But we have been hearing them quite constantly. And interestingly, helicopters too.
I've just, in fact, seen some tracer fire, sort of those red lines you see in the sky going upwards from Kabul to what look like the helicopters possibly flying overhead.
Very hard to tell who was firing that. But quite possibly a sign of somebody on the ground taking shots of those helicopters flying over. It shows how complicated and difficult this particular mission is and essentially how this American presence here which will continue to grow, it seems, is risking possibly running up against the new owners of Kabul, the Taliban, who while there may still be pockets of resistance in the city, we haven't heard much gunfire actually since dark fell here apart from that tracer fire I mentioned earlier.
They appear to have moved in. I've heard witnesses saying how in one instance, they seem to have quite peacefully taken up in a school and just disarmed their security guards that they've seen around it.
It is utterly staggering to see the swiftness in which they've moved into a city of six million people -- a feat, an act which nobody in the last 20 years could have possibly thought was even in the wildest dreams of this particular insurgency.
And I have to say, it probably comes -- what began to come around the even more staggering, I mean, moment for the history books, frankly, today, but possibly the key part of an entry will say that President Ashraf Ghani left here, didn't announce it.
He was supposed to, it seems to have been involved in possibility of creating a transitional government here. That never happened. A source close to him, one of his officials said to me they just ran away. They simply during the afternoon, him and his key advisers got on a plane and left.
We don't know exactly where they've gone. You mentioned Tajikistan. That may or may not be the case. It's still fluid at this stage.
But it is utterly startling that 24 hours after he delivered a recorded address to the nation saying he was going to stick it out, that he was looking for a negotiated settlement, we then heard reports that possibly today Taliban were actually in the presidential palace negotiating maybe some sort of deal.
But clearly whatever was negotiated there was not to his liking and rather than stick it out and try and engineer this transitional movement, the vacuum has been filled by the Taliban here.
Now, this is a city which obviously is on edge. They're suddenly seeing 20 years worth of one administration disappear and the people who have been at times attacking the city because of the Americans and other forces inside it now moving in.
WALSH: They say the Taliban -- the Taliban say this is about providing order. They've moved in to stop looting. They've also just in the last few minutes released a message very clearly offering assurances to foreigners, to diplomats, to everyone, basically saying they want peace. They want to offer security.
But I do think there are many in the city waiting for tomorrow morning for first light to see exactly how life, it seems, under the Taliban here will look.
WHITFIELD: You're right, Nick. It's extraordinary. The president of the country has fled to presumably save himself and a few others.
You mentioned the Taliban says it wants it to be a peaceful transition, but have there been any reports of violence, of pillaging, of anything that people fear?
WALSH: I have to tell you we've not been able to go out in the city in the dark. We heard initially crackles of gunfire, occasionally. That appears to have slowed down.
We've heard reports of sometimes I think traffic disputes, people trying to get around in a panic and occasionally gunfire around there. And even the panic that started earlier on today was essentially it seemed people trying to get into a bank and get their money out. And that caused security guards to open fire possibly in the air.
So there's lots I think of unrest we'll see here, of concern among citizens. Those who were part of the administration, I should say, possibly the former administration now seeking to protect themselves, perhaps.
We simply don't know what is happening in those areas where there remain an armed strong government presence. We have heard reports of soldiers simply taking off their uniform and putting on civilian clothes. That's been widespread over today.
So startling -- absolutely startling day to, having lived here myself under the American presence and the previous government, to see this swiftness. And as far as we know now, not a pitched battle for them to win. So they seem to have simply walked in, the Taliban. Utterly startling end to America's longest war.
WHITFIELD: Startling indeed. Nick Paton Walsh, we'll check back with you. Thank you so much for that.
Let's get more analysis on these fast-moving developments. On the phone with me right now is CNN chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour. She spent a lot of time in Afghanistan.
So Christiane, how do you calculate what has happened here and how stunning it is that the Afghan president would simply leave presumably to save himself and that the Taliban would move in as briskly as it did?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (via telephone): Well Fredricka, the Afghan president probably remembers the last time this happened and the leader at the time Najibullah was hanged in the main square when the Soviet Union pulled out support for what was the central government back then.
They're also, despite everybody's professions of disbelief and surprise, most analysts who understood what was not happening in Doha, i.e., peace talks that were meant to engineer some kind of proper transition from one, you know, U.S.-led force to, you know, the Afghans didn't pay off.
The Afghan Taliban continued to fight on the ground while they continued to make empty promises to the United States in Doha, Qatar. So the Afghan Taliban are doing what they -- today what they're doing is very similar to what they did back in 1996 and the 90s when they also stormed in, and by and large took most of the cities, including Kabul, without a fight.
That is the way it has happened in Afghanistan firstly, under the Taliban for the last 20 plus years. I think you'll probably see history describe this as a day that will live in infamy.
You have in 20 years and fast-approaching the anniversary of 9/11, the very reason for the United States to enter Afghanistan and to correctly push back al Qaeda and the Taliban which attacked the homeland has now been completely and utterly handed back to the Taliban.
They have been handed back by the United States' rapid withdrawal the land of Afghanistan. And I think what you're hearing from lot of American military right now is a deep sense of regret. A deep sense that this perhaps did not need to happen. That yes, the United States could choose to conduct its own foreign policy, maybe end this forever war, somehow remove itself from Afghanistan.
But what was the facts on the ground is that a very small, relatively small group of Americans, 2,500 were a relatively -- according to a lot of military analysts and security analysts -- inexpensive price to pay not for a token victory, but for this ongoing strategic stability.
In other words, the fact that the United States was still there with air power, with its forces, with its military, prevented the Taliban from doing what it has now achieved.
And I think what you're going to be hearing over the next several days, we're already hearing it with interviews and desperate comments from people in, you know, Kabul and elsewhere, particularly women, particularly the young people who dreamed of a better future, a different future, that they're going to be very scared.
AMANPOUR: That they're going to be hunted down. That they're going to go house to house. That they're going to stop women working. That they're going to stop girls going to school.
And all the progress that the United States made with its international partners and with the willing participation of the Afghan people is at complete and total risk right now.
It is a terribly, terribly sad day for anybody who believed in what was going on in Afghanistan and the progress that was being made.
And the Taliban, I think somehow convinced American policy makers that they were different somehow, that they wanted international legitimacy. That they would somehow not want to be pariahs and therefore, wouldn't take over the whole country.
Clearly we've seen that happen. That they've taken over the whole country. We do not know exactly how this edition of the Taliban is going to, you know, govern.
But most people are very concerned that there could be atrocities, human rights violations, mass refugees -- not to mention recreating Afghanistan as a terrorist safe haven.
That was the reason the United States went in from the very beginning. And they still have connections with yes, an enfeebled but nonetheless an existing al Qaeda and an existing ISIS who are also in Afghanistan right now.
It's a very, very sad day.
WHITFIELD: It is a very sad day. I mean Christiane, I was in Afghanistan in 2002 and talking to so many women and children who were hopeful about the days ahead.
And you tweeted out your recollection of the Taliban fleeing in 2001. In fact, we want to show some of your reporting from back then.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: This is the third day that the city of Kabul will wake up to its liberation from the Taliban forces and people have been going around doing things that in the five years of Taliban rule would have made them criminals.
Things like playing music in public. Things like women coming out from their homes and venturing out to see whether they can return to their jobs, whether they can get back into the work force.
This, of course, had been totally banned under the Taliban for the past five years. And women and indeed children had suffered greatly because of the inability to provide any work, any money, or any health and nourishment for their families.
Men are coming out and again, lining up to get their beards cut. This because under the Taliban, beards were made to be grown at a certain regulation length.
So all sorts of things happening in the city here that defines it returning to a period of normality.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: And then Christiane, you just minutes ago before seeing that on the phone with me saying that Afghanistan has now just been handed back to the Taliban. Would you describe the Taliban right now as a more fortified force?
AMANPOUR: Well look, they've had 20 years to plan this. They've always got there mostly across the border in Pakistan, helped and aided by the Pakistani government.
Yes, you can have all sorts of arguments about why the Afghan government didn't stand up. You can talk about corruption. You can talk about where the billions of dollars of U.S. aid, you know, were wasted. Why didn't the forces fight. There are many, many days to analyze that.
But right now a fundamentalist, Islamic, terrorist organization has taken over the nation that the United States went to prevent from being precisely that 20 years ago without a fight, except, of course, there has been fights from the outskirts of many of these towns and cities and provincial capitals that have fallen over the last several days and weeks in this lightning speed, very strategic, very clever operation by the Taliban.
But you know, they're not making any promises that we can hear or that we can see that will give anybody any sort of comfort that the progress that was achieved over the last 20 years will in any way be maintained?
And I think that one has to ask the question, why was EROPA (ph), you know, why was EROPA taken back. Why didn't the United States -- and I've asked these questions of former NATO commanders and former U.S. commanders on the ground in these last few day. You know, they hope EROPA withstood a big, big part of, you know, the U.S. saying that it's not abandoning Afghanistan. A small force of whether it's U.S. and/or NATO or combined.
You know, it's one thing for the secretary of state to say, you know, that force couldn't have, you know, maintained the status quo, but as I say, there are many other analysts who believed that that was enough to maintain a strategic -- whatever you want to call it -- balance, you know, a strategic sort of stability.
[14:14:51] AMANPOUR: Whatever it took not to allow fundamentalist, Islamic caliphate to come back and take over this whole country, create -- you know, try to keep as impressive (ph) as it was, you know -- a certain balance.
And the truth of the matter is that while the American people probably do and they are probably more than the majority support the withdrawal of American forces, Afghanistan is not Vietnam.
Vietnam ripped the country apart in every way -- politically, culturally, in every single way back then. Afghanistan has not ripped the United States apart. It has not been a political hammer by which for instance, the Republicans have attacked the Democrats and vice versa.
And I think that, you know, you have to ask yourself, seriously, was this result worth it? As, of course, we wait to see what will happen and what will unfold over the next few days and weeks, maybe everybody will be pleasantly surprised. And democracy, freedom and the rights of women will be maintained by the Taliban.
But most analysts do not believe that will be the case and many will be asking was it really worth removing a few thousand foreign forces who many security officials believe could have stayed for several more years.
It might never have fixed the whole problem, but it would have stopped this kind of complete, wholesale surrender of Afghanistan.
WHITFIELD: Yes. Very difficult calculus. Still unclear how so many of these decisions were made. But what we have now is the consequence of a variety of decisions that were made.
Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
All right. Coming up, the U.S. embassy now fully evacuated in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes control of the capital city of Kabul. We have new information on the rush to get U.S. diplomats out to safety.
Plus lawmakers are demanding answers on the Afghan drawdown. I'll talk live with a congressman who was briefed on the situation a short time ago.
WHITFIELD: All right.
As Kabul, Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, the rapid pace of its takeover is raising big questions about the Biden administration's withdrawal from that country of Afghanistan. This morning U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken appeared on CNN to defend the decision and the approach to executing it. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: This is not just about the overall idea of leaving Afghanistan. This is about leaving hastily and ineptly.
Secretary Blinken, how did President Biden get this so wrong?
BLINKEN: Jake, first, let's put this in context. And as we've discussed before, we were in Afghanistan for one overriding purpose, to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11. That's why we went there 20 years ago.
And over those 20 years, we brought bin Laden to justice, we vastly diminished the threat posed by al Qaeda in Afghanistan to the United States to the point where it's not capable of conducting such an attack again from Afghanistan.
We're going to keep in place in the region the capacity to see if any reemergence of a terrorist threat and to be able to deal with it. And on the terms that we went into Afghanistan in the first place, we've succeeded in achieving our objectives.
When the president came to office, he had a decision to make. The previous administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that said our forces, our remaining forces only about 2,500, would be out of the country on May 1st.
And the idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there I think is simply wrong. The fact of the matter is had the president decided to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1st, attacks would have resumed on our forces. The Taliban had not been attacking our forces or NATO during the period from which the agreement was reached to May 1st.
The offensive you're seeing across the country now to take these provincial capitals would have commenced, and we would have been back at war with the Taliban.
And I'd probably be on this program today explaining why we were sending tens of thousands of American forces back into Afghanistan and back to war, something the American people simply don't support.
That is the -- that is the reality. That's the context that we're dealing with.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WHITFIELD: U.S. diplomatic personnel are also getting out of Kabul. Sources tell CNN that the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy is complete as the American flag comes down from that the building as well.
With us now, Kylie Atwood at the State Department and Jeremy Diamond at the White House. Kylie, you first. Evacuation is taking place of the U.S. Embassy, but there are still U.S. American personnel that remain. Right?
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. So our understanding is that all of the diplomats who were at the embassy have now been flown to the airport in Kabul. They're now waiting on flights to get out of the country. That's an area to watch because there are some concerns about the airport right now.
But going back to the embassy, it is fully evacuated minus a few contracting security personnel who I'm told are going to be leaving soon.
As you said, the American flag has come down. That is a final step that the U.S. carries out when they are pulling out of a location. And we saw preparations for this underway in the last few days.
We saw the reports that U.S. officials were burning classified material. They were getting rid of anything that could be used as anti-American propaganda, American flags, anything that had a stamp of the U.S. embassy on it. This has been extremely rapid and chaotic according to sources on the ground.
Now, Secretary of State Blinken this morning pushed back on that. He described what is happening right now as deliberate and orderly. You hear the administration talking about being prepared for this evacuation.
They do have troops on the ground. As far as we know, all American personnel are safe as they withdraw from the country. But it is worth noting that the Biden administration has repeatedly said over the last few months that even though U.S. troops are leaving, America is not leaving. U.S. diplomats are not going to be leaving the country. And that is precisely what is happening right now.
So there are questions about that promise. And what calculations went into making that promise.
ATWOOD: Now, as we wait here today for more developments, we should note that this is happening so incredibly quickly that even folks here at the State Department are having trouble, you know, keeping up with these developments.
And there are Americans as you noted, on the ground, still in Afghanistan. The U.S., the State Department is telling them to stay in place right now because of reports of gunfire at the airport.
We should also note that the State Department has been telling those Americans to get out of the country for months now. But it is a scary reality for those people on the ground. Those diplomats still trying to get out, they have the support of the U.S. military.
But those Afghans who worked alongside U.S. diplomats and U.S. troops who have not yet gotten on U.S. evacuation flights out of the country, they don't have that security support. And they are frightened for their lives right now.
We're still waiting to see how many of those people the Biden administration is going to be able to get out of the country before what appears to be inevitable -- the Taliban takes over Kabul.
WHITFIELD: Right. And many of those Afghans who worked with many of us, the press, as well who were also given some promise that they would get -- be afforded the same kind of securities and potential exit as many other Afghans.
And so I wonder, Kylie, you mentioned there will be some U.S. -- whether it's State Department or U.S. personnel, nonmilitary, who are willingly staying in country. What kind of security would they be afforded? How does the U.S. assure their safety if they were to stay in country?
ATWOOD: They won't be provided with security from the U.S. government if they choose to stay there. The U.S. government has been telling those people to get out of the country for months now. So it is their own decision.
Now, what the State Department is saying right now is they do have a form that those folks can fill out and they'll follow up and try to help them as they're in the process of getting the diplomats out.
But we should note, you know, why these Americans would even be staying in the country. The assumption is that they have families there. They may have Afghan spouses, Afghan children who may not have American citizenship. And they don't want to leave until those people have visas to the United States.
They're worried about crossing over borders where the Taliban obviously has taken over now. And so this is an extremely dicey and personal situation for a lot of those folk who are still there.
We don't really know how many of them, hoping not many of them, but this is something that the State Department is helping them with. But there's no assurance that they will have, you know, U.S. military support if the Taliban come into Kabul.
WHITFIELD: Got you.
All right. Jeremy, still no word from President Biden today. There are many who are asking where is the president? When is he going to address the nation on this? Will he any time soon?
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. As of now, there are no indications that President Biden is going to address the nation on the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. Pretty remarkable the fact that today as of now, it appears that the Taliban have indeed entered Kabul, are in the presidential palace and, for all intents and purposes, are in charge of the country 20 years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted a Taliban government from power in Afghanistan.
So the history and the moment that we are in today certainly would call for hearing from the president of the United States at some point. For now though, we have heard from the secretary of state Tony Blinken who appeared on several of those Sunday morning talk shows today to talk about the situation and defend what appears to be a pretty hurried (ph) U.S. withdrawal from that country.
This is certainly not unfolding as planned. It is very clear that this administration was caught off guard by the speed at which the Taliban advanced and encircled Kabul.
Even a few days ago we were still talking about U.S. intelligence estimates of 30 days before that would happen.
But one thing that the U.S. does want to make clear is that those 5,000 troops who went into Kabul, into Afghanistan now to help with the withdrawal of those U.S. embassy personnel and special immigrant visa applicants, that those troops are going to be armed. And they will respond if indeed they are fired upon by the Taliban.
So we will see if anything more unfolds just because those personnel are out of the embassy now. They're still in country in Afghanistan, and there is still potentially a threat.
So a lot to watch over the coming days.
WHITFIELD: A lot indeed. Jeremy Diamond, Kylie Atwood, thank you to both of you. Appreciate it.
All right. Still ahead, President Biden has yet to brief the nation on the collapse of Afghanistan.
I'll talk about that and much more with Congressman John Garamendi.
WHITFIELD: Right now, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is leading calls for the president to address the nation regarding the imminent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and requesting a second update after members of Congress received a virtual intelligence briefing on the collapse earlier today.
Congressman John Garamendi, Democrat from California, was one of the lawmakers briefed on the call. He sits on the House Armed Services Committee, and chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness.
Congressman, so good to see you.
So, what gave you assurances on that virtual call?
REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D-CA): Well, there were little assurances. Obviously, the situation was rapidly evolving early this morning, at least in California time. The reality is that there is a collapse of the previous Afghan government.
When Ghani ran out of the country, that was the signal for everybody to simply give up. Obviously, there have been plenty of troops and other presumed leaders in Afghanistan that had given up earlier.
Do we need an additional briefing? Things are rapidly changing. We will undoubtedly hear from the president once things are secure, or as secure as possible for our troops as well as our personnel in Afghanistan. And the president will bring us up to date.
Right now, we're depending on CNN.
WHITFIELD: Well, at this point, do you feel like it's a fait accompli? I mean, there really is nothing else that the U.S. can do except to retrieve its U.S. personnel. I mean, this country is now under new leadership, the Taliban.
GARAMENDI: Yes. I think that is correct. Although, it is not exactly clear what is or who is the Taliban leadership. That's going to have to be determined very quickly.
One thing we do know that the Taliban is not just one organization. It is multiple organizations -- ethnic, religious, cultural organizations spread throughout the country. It's highly unlikely that they're operating as a unified government. We'll see what happens.
It's going to be very, very important for the United States and for the other countries surrounding, as well as Europe, to establish communication with what will be a new government in Kabul.
WHITFIELD: The Biden administration admits it did not expect the Taliban to take over so quickly.
How disheartening is this for you if that's the right word that you would characterize it as being, and what are the failures in your view?
GARAMENDI: Well, the failures is the assumption that America and Europe could build a democratic government in Afghanistan. We did not beginning way back in 2001 and beyond, every year beyond that, we did not appreciate the reality of Afghan culture, Afghan religion, and all of the ethnic diversity that existed within that country.
And we often, over those years, beginning with Bush and then Obama, and then Trump, we worked with a group that was not representative of all the various factions in Afghanistan. The result of that is a government that existed yesterday that did not have the support of the people of Afghanistan, and certainly not the support of the various factions within Afghanistan.
And so, am I surprised? Yes. I would have expected the Afghan government to be more stable. I would have expected the military to be more stable.
But ultimately, what happened now is what was a foregone conclusion. The moment that Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops on May 1st, the Taliban simply ceased to negotiate and began to establish themselves and prepare for what is now happening.
WHITFIELD: So, you see the most recent failure is that of trying to negotiate with the Taliban which stretches into the Trump administration, but then the Biden administration is what is in office right now. And it perhaps had a choice to continue to negotiate with the Taliban, to throw that plan out the window, or to do something else.
So where do you see the failures perhaps in the current administration? Was it in intel? Was it in ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan? Or was it this new Afghan military, or something else?
GARAMENDI: Well, first of all, the Afghan military had been supported for hundreds of billions of dollars over the previous 20 years with equipment, personnel training. What never happened, and this was apparent, although our intelligence community and the military often denied it. What was apparent was that that military did not have the regional support. It had the support of the central government, but the central government lacked support out in the region.
The -- what we'd call the warlords, the leaders of the various factions, never really submitted to the central government in Kabul.
The result of that was that the Taliban which was in some ways still connected in those regional areas to the Afghan government, they were able to very quickly overcome the central government's support in the various regional capitols. And the regional capitals simply did what was a long, long history in Afghanistan, they looked at which way the wind was blowing and they decided that they would go with the most powerful group at that time in the region, which was the Taliban.
And eventually, collapse after collapse of the various regional capitals, the only thing left was Kabul. And what happened there was that the leadership of that government in Kabul fled. They left town, leaving no government really a fabric of government in place. And so yes, this is where we are.
Failures, we failed along the way, the American governments over 20 years failed to really understand Afghanistan, understand the 3,000- year history of Afghanistan which is being repeated once again.
These are -- and that failure goes back through all the administrations. It goes back -- I can recall ten years of classified hearings from our intelligence and our military. None of which were willing to recognize the various -- the very nature of Afghanistan.
WHITFIELD: I understand you on the shared failures. So, right now, we have yet to hear from the president directly, but we did see his statement yesterday saying the U.S. has communicated to the Taliban that any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan that puts U.S. personnel or our mission at risk there will be met with a swift and strong U.S. military response.
So, now, I know I'm not asking you to look into the crystal ball, but are those words that also set the stage that potentially the U.S. could find itself in yet a renewed war in Afghanistan if it comes to that?
GARAMENDI: No. That's not going to happen. What will happen is that our troops as did the hundreds of thousands of troops before them, they will defend themselves. They will act courageously. They will do whatever is necessary to defend themselves.
And we need to recognize that over 4,000 Americans died there. And hundreds of thousands of Americans radically changed their life to serve in Afghanistan, to try to carry out the policy of the American government, policy that obviously has not worked.
The troops that are there today, they will defend themselves, and it would be a serious gross error by any Taliban to take on the American military. We will -- they will be very, very sorry that they even attempted to do that.
But the goal here is to extract from Afghanistan, Americans and those Afghanistan people that supported America. That is underway. And there's one other thing that needs to be taken into account. And that is over the last four years, many of the immigration laws and regulations in America were changed by Trump.
We passed a bill out of the House of Representatives authored by Mr. Crow, it is sitting over in the Senate. The Senate could unanimously pass that today. The president could sign that, and he would have all the authority he needs to extricate from Afghanistan not only the Americans but any Afghanis that assisted the Americans and that are in harm's way. The Senate can do that today.
WHITFIELD: And do you feel at that mission? Do you feel confident that mission will be accomplished? U.S. personnel and all those Afghans who assisted, helped, committed to helping the U.S. and allied forces will be retrieved safely?
GARAMENDI: I'm absolutely confident that the Americans and those directly associated with Americans, children, spouses, and others, yes, they will be.
As to all the Afghanistan people that assisted the Americans, I suspect that will not happen. Some of them are still isolated in various parts of Afghanistan. Quite probably unable to leave those particular areas.
Over time -- and here's where the American government's next step will be, together with our European allies and the surrounding countries -- and that is to engage with what is a new government in Afghanistan, to engage and to set in place the policies, procedures, and other necessary activities, including support, to deal with a reality that there will still be in Afghanistan men and women and families that are at risk.
We would want to engage with the new government to provide whatever assurances are possible. And I think we should keep in mind that it is in the interest of what will be a new government in Afghanistan that they engage in a meaningful way, and that they do not take steps to harm those people that helped Americans. [14:45:09]
And beyond that, they will have to be part of an international community, and they should recognize that that will require them to act appropriately to protect the citizens of Afghanistan.
WHITFIELD: All right. U.S. Congressman John Garamendi, we're going to leave it there for now. Let you get a glass of water. Appreciate you hanging in there with us.
GARAMENDI: Thank you. You got it.
WHITFIELD: Thank you so much for a very comprehensive conversation. Appreciate it.
All right. Still ahead, the death toll growing dramatically in Haiti following a massive earthquake. We'll have the latest on the rescue efforts there, next.
WHITFIELD: The death toll in Haiti has risen to 724 people after a powerful 7.2 earthquake hit the island yesterday morning. We're getting new images showing the extent of the damages there. Buildings reduced to bricks, streets covered in dust and debris, all while Tropical Storm Grace is approaching the area, threatening to hamper the response.
Matt Rivers reports from near the epicenter.
MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred.
Yeah, we're just not far from the epicenter. We just got here not that long ago. What you're seeing behind me, moving forward a little bit here, this is the scene of a multi-story hotel that obviously is collapsed behind me. There are a lot of people here on scene.
You're seeing two things happening here at this scene, you're seeing some recovery efforts -- going on here at the scene. This was a relatively luxury hotel. A lot of people bringing out whatever they can find, dressers, air conditioners, metal that goes to the desperation of what's happening in this part of Haiti right now.
As I think you said in the beginning, at least 700 people have been killed as a result of this so far. Thousands of people are injured, but those numbers are going to go up because in all likelihood there are still bodies in that rubble behind me. There's a high likelihood of that.
And this isn't the only scene like this around this area. We go up and down the street that's just behind my camera and you can see damage that goes up and down the street. Is it as pervasive as what we saw in 2010? No, I don't think so. This
is not as crowded of a place as Port-au-Prince, which sustained a lot of damage 10 years ago. But the damage here, you can see why the numbers are going to keep going up almost assuredly.
It's scenes like this that are very much active, are very much still happening and there's also not a big rescue effort here at the moment. This is one of the more crowded scenes that we've seen here.
Where are the guards? Where are the police? Where are security agents? Where are firefighters? Where are rescue crews?
They're not here. If they're not here? Where else would they be? That's the open question we have right now, Fred.
WHITFIELD: Very sad situation. Matt Rivers in Les Cayes, Haiti. Thank you so much.
And for more information about how you can help those affected by the earthquake in Haiti, go to CNN.com/impact.
WHITFIELD: Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled their home trying to escape the Taliban. Many of those recently uprooted have made their way to Kabul, but with the Taliban now in control of the capital city, there may be no safe haven.
Here with CNN's Michael Holmes.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Families sleep on the hard ground outside this school in Afghanistan. It may not look like the most comfortable place to rest, but at least for now it is safe, away from the trail of violence left behind by the Taliban's advance.
Many bombs were dropped on our village, one woman says. The Taliban claimed and destroyed everything. We were helpless and had to leave our houses.
One Afghan official in Kunar province says there are thousands of displaced families in his province alone trying to escape the fighting, but for some it is too late.
The Taliban were firing guns next to our house, one man says. Many bullets came our way. In the end, my wife was killed.
A hospital filled with wounded civilians shows just how pitched the battle is.
One patient said, I was on the side of the street. I was hit by a mortar and one of my legs was injured.
Some people taking refuge in the country's capital, Kabul, thinking it is one of the safest bets with the Taliban on the move.
This man left the besieged city of Lashkar Gar two weeks ago but hopes to return one day.
If you ask most people in Afghanistan, 99 percent of the people will say the fighting is not the solution, he says. The only way is peace and the Afghan people want peace.
A peace that seems more elusive as more civilians are forced from their homes.
WHITFIELD: Michael Holmes, thank you so much for that report.
WHITFIELD: Hello again, everyone. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.
Breaking news out of Afghanistan. At this very moment, Taliban fighters are taking over the capital city of Kabul and the presidential palace. An eerie quiet as the U.S. embassy there is closed for business. It has now been evacuated.
The American flag on the building intentionally taken down by American direction this morning. And hours earlier, you could see smoke rising from the building as embassy staff destroyed important documents.
Choppers have been seen shuttling Americans to the Kabul airport for flights out. Sources also tell CNN that Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, has now fled the country.