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Afghan Government Falls as Taliban Take Kabul; Haiti Earthquake Death Toll Soars to Nearly 1,300. Aired 12-1a ET
Aired August 16, 2021 - 00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. We appreciate your company. I'm Michael Holmes.
Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, the Taliban seize Afghanistan, the speed of the takeover shocking, ending a 20-year war with the country back in the hands of Islamist militants.
Fear for the plight of women and girls, girls who started going to school, dreaming of their futures, in danger of having those dreams crushed.
And Haiti grapples with the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. The misery now compounded by a storm headed their way.
The Afghan army has collapsed, the central government has fallen, and if nothing changes, the Taliban look to be the new rulers of Afghanistan.
The militants wrapped up a blistering advance against major cities over the weekend, ending in the surrender of Kabul. Ousted President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country, and video from Al Jazeera shows heavily-armed Taliban lounging in the presidential palace. An extraordinary sight.
The Taliban have called for peace, but their descent on Kabul set off panic. Have a look at the scene at the city's airport before U.S. forces say they took over air traffic control and perimeter security.
Up to 6,000 U.S. troops have earmarked to help U.S. personnel and their allies leave the country, but that is what the public is doing.
Foreigners are racing to get out, but so, too, those Afghan civilians. Many Afghans, including those who work with the U.S., fear a return to Taliban rule is a death sentence.
Now, America's top diplomat is defending the administration's decision to withdraw those troops from Afghanistan as Kabul's fall sparks strong criticism.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also rejecting any comparisons between the scenes unfolding in the Afghan capital and those seen in Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. But just have a look at the photos there.
CNN's Jake Tapper asked Blinken about that on Saturday.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Biden is intent on avoiding a Saigon moment. That's a reference, of course, to the hasty and humiliating U.S. evacuation from Vietnam. But with this troop surge to airlift Americans out of Afghanistan, aren't we already in the midst of a Saigon moment?
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: No, we're not. Remember, this is not Saigon. We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission. And that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11. And we've succeeded in the mission. The objective that we set, bringing those who attacked us to justice, making sure that they couldn't attack us again from Afghanistan, we've succeeded in that mission.
And in fact, we succeeded a while ago. And at the same time remaining in Afghanistan for one, 5, 10 years is not in the national interest. You know, the British were there for a long time in the 19th Century. The Russians were there for a long time in the 20th Century. We've been there twice as long as the Russians. And how that's in our national interest? I don't see.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: Now, as chaos unfolds in Afghanistan. Our international security editor, Nick Paton Walsh, is there on the ground in Kabul. He takes us through the extraordinary events of the last 24 hours.
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Utterly extraordinary day. I think the image of which will be in everybody's minds, the sight of seeing Taliban fighters calmly sat inside what seems to be one of the key offices of now, I think it's fair to say, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Calm, being addressed by a reporter from Al-Jazeera Arabic. Seemingly able to ignore some questions, but at one point, one of the men speaking clearly in English to say that he was in Guantanamo Bay for eight years. These images are utterly startling. Because that is essentially the seat of power and American money for the past 20 years or so.
And that is sit with no weapons, calmly demonstrating how they've walked into the capital city that, frankly, most have thought was utterly impregnable to them until a matter of days ago.
It caps an extraordinary series of events where, in the early parts of the day, there were reports of Taliban in the city's outskirts, panic over an instance at the bank, which seems to have triggered gunfire.
But then without telling anybody, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, left the country. Quite startling, because 24 hours earlier, he delivered a recorded message saying to everybody that he would stick on to try to negotiate a solution. But he left with a small number of his own aides.
Unclear where he actually is at this point. He seems to have gone via Kirghizstan, according to some sources. But he released a message essentially saying he had a choice to stay and try and negotiate or face the armed Taliban, who we now see are, in fact, inside what used to be his palace.
What next? Well, furious activity in the skies above me of U.S. aircraft, the constant noise of helicopters. That is obviously them speeding up their evacuation air cover, protecting what is now likely 5,000 American troops there, double the number that were being -- were taken back as part of the withdrawal process Presidential Joe Biden put underway.
Startling scenes at the airport, people desperate to get in. People desperate to be on the flight out of here. And a certainly troubling few days ahead as we see how this residual and growing American force accommodates itself alongside the Taliban, who frankly appear in charge of most of the city at this stage, and giving a message of wanting foreigners, diplomats to feel safe, to feel secure, to stay where they are, possibly hoping for broader international legitimacy. We'll just have to see what kind of Kabul people wake up to.
VAUSE: CNN's Anna Coren has reported extensively from Afghanistan, including a recent trip there. She joins me now from Hong Kong to talk about the Taliban takeover.
Good to see you, Anna.
First of all, what's your take? What do we know about what will be happening at street level now in Kabul, what the next few days might bring?
ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Michael, I just got off the phone from a friend in Afghanistan, in Kabul. He said it is relatively quiet, that some shops are open, but most are closed. There's a bit traffic on the streets, but it is predominantly very quiet.
He said earlier this morning, he heard gunfire from his home. That then stopped. But they can see Taliban members roaming the streets. They're there, of course, to provide security. That is what they're saying.
But for, you know, Afghans seeing this playing out before their very eyes is nothing short of shocking.
You know, my friend, he's staying indoors. He is concerned for his safety, his family's safety. In fact, he is going to be moving house every few days. I mean, that is how concerned he is about the Taliban tracking him down.
As you say, you know, the Taliban are providing assurances that, you know, they are there to restore calm, to restore order, that no one will be hurt but, nobody, Michael, is taking them at face value. Particularly those who have witnessed and reported on -- on the atrocities of the Taliban, you know, certainly, has committed over the last 20 years, but in particular, you know, over the past few months. That cannot be disregarded.
But you know, this person said that the Taliban has issued, or the new -- newly appointed Taliban governor of Kabul has issued a message to the people, saying that if there are any issues or concerns, to contact these numbers. And a series of numbers have been disseminated from particular districts.
So, you know, they are wanting to appear legitimate. They are wanting to appear like they have things under control, but nobody is buying this, Michael. Everybody I speak to, you know, is terrified, is concerned, is trying to get out of Afghanistan.
And I just received a photo, Michael, as well, from a translator who worked with the U.S. military. He has gone to the airport in the hope that, you know, he can get on one of the planes, like so many others. And he's obviously on the outskirts, on the perimeter. But this photo he has sent shows American forces along the perimeter, keeping Afghans out.
HOLMES: Yes. I've seen similar video. They've got to get inside that airport. There are now Taliban checkpoints on the airport road.
Anna Coren, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.
One person who's been noticeably absent as the situation unfolds, U.S. President Joe Biden. Instead, it's officials from his administration who are doing the talking for him. A senior official says Mr. Biden will address the nation in the next few days.
CNN's Jeremy Diamond with more on that from Washington.
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Well, as the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan crumbled in Kabul on Sunday, and the Taliban swept into the presidential palace, President Joe Biden was nowhere to be seen or heard.
Instead, it was Secretary of State Tony Blinken who is the administration's top spokesman on this issue. And for the first time, admitting that the U.S., at a minimum, miscalculated the situation in Afghanistan, saying that he expected that the U.S. administration expected that those Afghan security forces who have been trained and equipped for nearly two decades now by the United States, that they crumbled in the face of this Taliban offensive far quicker than the United States expected.
[00:10:19] He said more quickly than we anticipated, were the words of Tony Blinken. As for the president, plans are underway for him to address the nation at some point in the coming days, but it's not clear yet exactly when.
The president on Sunday at what is the presidential retreat at Camp David, where you can see in this picture, the president, on Sunday morning alone, at Camp David, at this big conference table. But on the screen in front of him, you can see the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, as well as the national security adviser, and dozens of other national security officials in Washington and around the world.
Certainly, the White House's effort to show that he is on top of this situation, even as we were seeing this pretty chaotic scene unfolding in the streets of Kabul, and certainly at the airport where foreigners, as well as Afghanis, were trying to flee the country as the Taliban enter the country.
Of course, this question of a miscalculation is something that the president will have to address. Here's President Biden, just over a month ago, talking about the fact that he believed the Taliban taking over Afghanistan was highly unlikely.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 is still out. But the likelihood there's going to be the Taliban over-running everything, and owning the whole country, is highly unlikely.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DIAMOND: Now, officials have made clear that President Biden has not had second thoughts about his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but clearly, the security situation rapidly deteriorating in that country.
Not only did the president on Saturday decide to send an additional thousand troops, on top of the 3,000 that he had ordered in the day before, but on Sunday, the Department of Defense announcing that another thousand troops will go to Afghanistan. That will bring the total of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 6,000, to assist with securing the airport in Kabul and assisting with the evacuation of U.S. personnel, as well as many of those special immigrant visa applicants. Some of those Afghan translators, for example, who have helped the U.S. military and are now desperately trying to get out of that country.
So, certainly, a rapidly unfolding situation, and the president expected to address the nation in the coming days.
Jeremy Diamond, CNN, the White House.
HOLMES: So, how did the U.S. get it so wrong in terms of the speed of the Taliban? And wat comes next?
We're joined now by CNN military analyst Colonel Cedric Leighton.
Good to see you again, sir. I mean this, surely, has to go down as one of the greatest routings of a government's military in modern history. Will it not, the Afghan military?
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. Absolutely, Michael. It's, I think, probably one for the history books. Because not only was it unexpected by most people, but it was also this great disparity of forces, you know, 300-some thousand versus 75,000, as Jeremy mentioned in his reporting.
And when you look at that, the lesson from that is it's not just about the numbers. It's about the quality, and it's about the willingness of the soldiers and other service members, and the Taliban members, to fight. If one side wants to fight more than the other, that side will probably win. It may take them a while, but they will probably win.
We've seen it, of course, here in Afghanistan. We saw it in Vietnam, and many other examples in history, where you can see that a smaller force eventually took over a larger government.
HOLMES: And if they actually won't die for the cause, then yes, that will give them an edge, as well. What options did President Biden have militarily? I mean, an ongoing presence wasn't sustainable anymore, surely. I mean, it's clear that the Afghan government and its military was a house of cards without the U.S. supporting them.
I mean, if the pullout was inevitable, the planning failures and rush to the exit, certainly, were not.
LEIGHTON: Yes. I think the -- the failure here is one of more of tactics than of strategy, in the sense that the overall strategic goal to get out of Afghanistan made a lot of sense, at this particular moment in time.
But, the problem that you have is how do you do it? And the fact that they didn't plan for a rush to the exits, which in every situation like that that I can remember, always happens. And you have to plan for that.
You also have to get out the people that have helped you. You have to protect them. And, you know, in this case, they're talking about the special immigrant visa applicants, particularly, the interpreters. They needed to be a part of the planning process.
And it seems as if they were not part of the planning process, and if they were, they were only ancillary part, and not to the main focus. And I think it's going to be a problem.
HOLMES: Absolutely. They should have been looked at months and months ago. The U.S. war there began 20 years ago because of a terrorist presence there. Al-Qaeda, of course.
Al-Qaeda still has a relationship with the Taliban, despite the Taliban's promises not to do so. What do you see as the odds of terror groups basing there again and the Taliban allowing it?
LEIGHTON: Greater than 75 percent, for sure. I think Michael, what we'll see is the formation of some groups that are either al-Qaeda itself or al-Qaeda-like organizations or ISIS-like organizations. And those organizations will attempt to use Afghan -- Afghanistan's ungoverned spaces to do what they did before they did 20 years ago.
Whether or not they will be successful really depends on the ability of the United States to follow them from an intelligence perspective. If the over the horizon capabilities that the secretary of state and the secretary of defense have talked about don't work, then we're going to be in a bit of trouble.
And there are some indications that those capabilities are not working as advertised. We've had some issues with those capabilities in the past. They can work, but you have to have a lot of stuff in the background that makes these intelligence sources actually perform to the degree that we need them to perform.
HOLMES: Yes. Great analysis, as always. Cedric Leighton, thank you so much, Colonel.
LEIGHTON: You bet, Michael. Anytime. Thanks so much.
HOLMES: We'll take a quick break here. When we come back, Afghanistan's president has fled the country as the Taliban take Kabul. We'll take a look back at his rather complicated legacy.
Also, how Pakistan is responding to the Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan. We'll be live in Islamabad.
HOLMES: It is just before 9 in the morning in Afghanistan, a country without its president as its capital is now in the hands of the Taliban.
Al Jazeera aired this footage of the Taliban inside the presidential palace and looking pretty comfortable after former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
The takeover happening as the U.S. urgently works to get its citizens and support staff out of Afghanistan.
Now, the State Department confirms all U.S. embassy personnel in Kabul were evacuated and are now waiting for flights at the Kabul airport, which has been secured by the U.S. military.
In Washington, a large group of Afghan Americans gathered in protest in front of the White House Sunday to speak out against the Taliban and show their support for Afghan citizens.
Former Afghan president, now former, Ashraf Ghani says he felt that leaving the country was the best choice, quote, "in order to avoid the flood of bloodshed."
For that, he's being slammed by critics and former political allies alike for abandoning his country. Nic Robertson takes a look back at Ghani's presidency and the legacy he leaves behind.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): Long before reaching Kabul, the Taliban were warning Afghan President Ashraf Ghani his days in leadership were running out, rocketing Eid prayers in July. Attacking another outdoor presidential address early last year.
But in recent days, as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, Ghani's silence finally signaled his concerns. His administration unprepared just as the Afghan people were looking for leadership and international allies waiting for a plan.
It was just Saturday with only a few cities left under government control. The rest seized by the Taliban during their rapid advance that Ghani finally addressed the nation.
ASHRAF GHANI, FORMER AFGHAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I will do my best to prevent this imposed war on the Afghan people result in further killing of innocent people, loss of achievements over the last 20 years, destruction of public infrastructure, and prolonged instability.
ROBERTSON: Notably, he didn't resign, something the Taliban had been demanding for months but said he was in urgent talks with local leaders and international partners.
The embattled president not seeming to grasp what the Taliban, staring down on the capital, the army not willing to fight, that he had little power to do anything but leave.
One of the last blows to his presidency, the fall of stronghold Mazar- i-Sharif. He visited the city early in the week to try to rally support, which was rapidly eroding across the country.
It's a bitter outcome for the former World Bank employee, who gave up his U.S. citizenship after the September 11 attacks to return to Afghanistan to help rebuild his home country. He became Afghanistan's president in 2014, following two terms in office by Hamid Karzai, who led the country after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
But Ghani came to power in a contested vote, where he was accused of voter fraud. The U.S. eventually brokered a power-sharing deal with rival Abdullah Abdullah, in which Ghani was declared president.
One of his last acts before leaving Kabul Sunday, a security call to appeal for calm.
GHANI (through translator): I have guided the defense ministry to take full responsibility for the security of all residents. Secondly, those people that are making noise about rioting, looting and killing people, we will deal with them with full force.
ROBERTSON: Ghani's critics, who have long believed him to be too controlling, blasted his departure, saying he abandoned his country to a dire future.
ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, CHAIRMAN, HIGH COUNCIL FOR NATIONAL RECONCILIATION (through translator): God will hold them accountable, and the people of Afghanistan will also judge him.
ROBERTSON: Afghanistan's acting defense minister tweeting, "They tied our hands behind our backs and sold the homeland. Damn the rich man and his gang."
Ghani always had a contentious relationship with the Taliban. They viewed him as a puppet of the Americans. On social media, Ghani said he left to avoid further bloodshed.
But in the end, he ran before the Taliban took control, potentially escaping the fate of a previously deposed Afghan president whose beaten lifeless body ended up hanging from a pole.
Nic Robertson, CNN.
HOLMES: Afghan civilians are already paying the price of the Taliban takeover, losing their homes, belongings and security. The U.N. says they are already five million internally displaced Afghan civilians, and more than 550,000 have lost their homes this year alone.
Pakistan has already taken in more than a million Afghan refugees, 780,000 in Iran. Pakistani officials say they're following what's happening in Afghanistan closely and emphasize a political solution to achieve stability.
CNN producer Sophia Saifi joins me now from Islamabad. It's a complicated neighborhood. Pakistan has long had its tentacles in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network is in Pakistan. Other Taliban representatives harboring fighters crossing the border.
What will be Pakistan's role, now the Taliban's going to be running Afghanistan again?
SOPHIA SAIFI, CNN PRODUCER: Well, Pakistan has been consistently saying in the weeks leading up to what happened yesterday is that they've again denied that they had tentacles next door. They've consistently said that it is unfair that the U.S. has left how it has.
There's also a lot of concern here on the ground in terms of security in Pakistan. So we had the national security advisor, Moeed Yusuf, speak to CNN briefly a couple of days ago, in which he reiterated that there were concerns, especially considering Pakistan's relationship, new budding relationship with China and their rather ambitious plans to, you know, create a system of roads that will link central Asia to Pakistan's ports.
And they've emphasized that they need to have stability and peace in Afghanistan for that to work.
Now what's happening right now in the immediate aftermath of what's happened at Kabul is that Imran Khan released a statement much later in the night, quite late actually, around 11, 10:30 in the evening, local time, that he'd spoken to President Erdogan, and he said that there is going to be a meeting of the National Security Council, which is made up of senior, civilian leaders, as well as, most importantly, senior military leaders.
And this is where decisions are going to be made with regards to what's going to happen at the border, for example.
So both the Chaman border in the province of Balochistan and the Torkham border have allowed trucks to go through so that important supplies and important perishable goods, like fruits and vegetables, food is going into Afghanistan.
However, few people are not allowed to come in or out just yet. There's a very strict visa policy. Pakistan has gone out and said that they might review their refugee policy, but they're not going to be taking as many numbers in as they have previously.
I've constantly been in touch with UNHCR to find out what the plan is, what's going on. But as of right now, people haven't started streaming in just yet. Pakistan's fenced in about 90 percent of its border with Afghanistan. It's a rather ambitious plan that was put into effect a couple of years ago, and it's now coming to fruition.
So, you know, Pakistan hosted a delegation of senior Iran leaders who were not the Taliban yesterday, so there might be some other sort of power game being played.
And you did say it's a complicated neighborhood, so we'll just have to wait and see how events unfold in the days to come -- Michael.
HOLMES: Yes, indeed, Pakistan a key player. Sophia Saifi, thanks so much, there in Islamabad.
Well, the Taliban say they've changed. I'll talk to an activist who says probably not. And women are heartbroken about the future they face in Afghanistan. We'll be right back.
[00:32:08] HOLMES: Now our top story. Chaos in Kabul as the Taliban takeover. The militants ramping up a blistering advance against major cities ending up in the Afghan capital surrender.
The central government has collapsed. The ousted president, Ashraf Ghani, fleeing the country. This video from Al Jazeera showing heavily-armed Taliban lounging very comfortably in the presidential palace.
Now, this was the scene at Kabul's airport. Crowds rushing to leave. Too many people, not enough flights. U.S. troops have now taken over that airport. Their mission, to help U.S. personnel, and their allies get out of Afghanistan.
The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan now appears inevitable. It's happened, but exactly how that new government will take shape remains unclear.
Earlier, CNN's Nic Robertson talked to a Taliban spokesman about where things go from here.
ROBERTSON: When I spoke to the Taliban spokesman, he said priority for them was providing security and establishing a new government. Perhaps surprisingly, they don't have that fully formulated yet, he said.
SOHAIL SHAHEEN, TALIBAN SPOKESMAN: Our priority is to have security, and then we would have a new government, an Afghan inclusive Islamic government, in the coming days.
ROBERTSON: People who are not members of the Taliban to be part of this new government.
SHAHEEN: Yes. We will -- we are intending that, because we -- when we are saying an Afghan (ph) inclusive Islamic government, that means that other Afghans also have participation in the government. So that -- to make it an Afghan inclusive Islamic government.
ROBERTSON: Will you be calling on the current Afghan army to come and join your forces to provide security in the country?
SHAHEEN: Most are handing over their weapons, and they are joining our forces. They are -- they will, amicably (ph). And their lands and property are secured.
Secondly, their names are registered in our register. So they are kind of in a reserve force, and at the proper time, they will be called as they are needed.
ROBERTSON: People, myself included, are asking questions about the education of girls. This was one of the things that the U.S. administration made an important issue in Afghanistan. And one of the things that they would like to see as a legacy for the country.
Where does the Taliban stand on going forward now? You're going to be -- you're going to be running the country. What are you going to do about girls' education? Will they be able to stay in school past 12, up to 18? Will they be able to go to university?
SHAHEEN: Yes. On that, our policy is clear. And they -- women can continue their education from primary to the higher education.
ROBERTSON: What do you understand as being the reason why your military offensive was so successful? It's caught everyone by surprise. Did it catch you by surprise how quickly it went? And why do you think it was so successful?
SHAHEEN: Because we have roots among the people. Because it was a popular uprising of the people. Because we -- we knew that.
ROBERTSON: And diplomats, and foreign nationals, and journalists in Afghanistan? What is the policy to them?
SHAHEEN: They can continue their work. The embassies should remain functioning. We are committed to provide a secure environment for them, and also not only for the diplomats in the embassies, but also for international individuals (ph).
ROBERTSON: Are you having conversations with the Americans about this diplomatic departure at the airport?
SHAHEEN: First of all, we call on Americans. They should -- should not away (ph) from their embassy. Because we said we will not target embassies. But rather, we will provide secure environment for their pension (ph).
ROBERTSON: So when the Americans -- when you said the Americans, they should stay and remain in the embassy, and they're leaving, how do you interpret that? Do you interpret that as they -- they don't trust you?
SHAHEEN: They should trust us.
ROBERTSON: And the reason he said that the United States should trust the Taliban? Because they pledged, when U.S. forces were withdrawing, not to attack them. He said they had held to that bargain.
Nic Robertson, CNN, Lewes, Delaware.
HOLMES: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. We'll be right back.
HOLMES: With the Taliban seizing power, the fate of Afghan women and girls, of course, hangs in the balance, as do hard-fought freedoms and rights. There's already concern the militants will reintroduce their misogynist and archaic rule from the 1990s. Girls and women were barred from almost all work and the right to
vote, as well. Access to education. One activist says it's already happening again.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAHBOUBA SERAJ, WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I came to Afghanistan to be the voice of the voiceless women of my country. All of these women, that they are living in the provinces of Afghanistan, all the way back in the districts, and nobody hears their voices. And we are in dire need of help. They are poor, and they are not educated. Their children are dying, because they are sick.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: Now since the U.S. ousted the Taliban 20 years ago, thousands of girls just like these young ladies have attended school. Many went on to university, got great jobs, but of course, in recent months, human rights groups have been documenting that women are being blocked or heavily dissuaded, at least, from getting an education in Taliban- controlled areas.
And if they do, it's religion classes only. As CNN's Clarissa Ward has reported, this could be the beginning of a rollback in all the gains for women's rights that have been made over the last two decades.
Now, the Biden administration, meanwhile, is curtailing evacuation flights for Afghans who work for the U.S. during its two-decade military campaign.
Multiple sources telling CNN the U.S. government is prioritizing the removal of Americans from Afghanistan, at least for now, and that leaves thousands of translators and their families at risk of Taliban retaliation.
Sources say the last scheduled flight for visa applicants bound to the U.S. has already left, for now. Just 1,200 have been evacuated to America. It's unclear how long that pause will last.
Major Matt Zeller is a Truman Project national security fellow. He joins me now, as you have many times before, Matt.
This is -- this is a scenario you and I have been talking about for months, years actually. That the efforts to get the translators out was disgracefully slow. Here we are.
What is your fear for those people now?
MAJ. MATT ZELLER, NATIONAL SECURITY FELLOW, TRUMAN PROJECT: I think they're done (ph). I'm inundated with people who are saying, Brother, please, get me out. If you don't, I'm going to die. The Taliban are going door to door in every city they control now. They're looking for people. They have a biometrics database. They're using it as a hit list. They've already started performing public executions in some cities.
Everywhere they control now, women aren't allowed go out of their homes. It is the absolute worst possible scenario.
And it feels like a fundamental betrayal. You know, so many of us who were working this issue warned for years that this is exactly what was going to happen and over the last several months, have been pleading with the Biden administration to launch the evacuations that they're now desperately trying to conceive now that the country has fallen. It's a -- it's a disgrace.
HOLMES: It's unforgivable. You know, I have family I mean, because as you say, it's not like this issue hasn't been known for a very long time. I mean, the execution of the plan, if we can call it that, has been -- it's been bureaucratic. It's been shambolic. And above all else, it's been too slow despite those lives that you say, literally at risk. You're angry, aren't you? As am I.
ZELLER: I am very angry. You know, I have family that are trapped in Kabul right now. They're desperate. They -- the Taliban, when they took over, rode in about 5,000 fighters into the city, and they've put checkpoints up everywhere.
I've got a guy who's currently trapped at the airport, and he told me I can't go anywhere. The Americans have the airport secured on the inside, but outside the Taliban have erected a checkpoint and are looking for people.
This is -- this isn't, by the way, just the Taliban of the '90s. That Taliban in the '90s took over a country in ruins. They had a couple of tanks. This Taliban now has more Black Hawk helicopters than 166 other nations on the planet, to include the country of Australia.
HOLMES: That is -- yes, and you've got a situation now with the Americans in the airport with their weapons pointing up while the Taliban drives around the capital in American Humvees. What can be salvaged from this debacle when it comes to these wartime allies?
ZELLER: They're not dead yet, and we are the United States of America. And we still have the most military might on the planet.
And the Taliban, when they're going door to door to people's homes in Kabul, are telling them, Hey, look, we're going to be back once the Americans leave. So that clearly is the indicator.
As long as we're there, they won't commit atrocities. So we now need to commit to something simple. The United States president, Joe Biden, needs to order the U.S. military to secure the airport at Kabul and to secure routes of access to the airport that we guarantee the safety of anyone who can get there for as long as it takes to evacuate every single Afghan who worked with us and their family members, because if we don't, they're going to die.
The Taliban does not have any mercy for these people. They consider them to be apostates. And for that, they must be sentenced to death.
HOLMES: And, again, this is something that we've touched on before, too. What damage is done to the U.S. reputation from this failure to help those who helped the U.S. and risked their lives doing so? What happens next time the U.S. is somewhere in a conflict and needs the help of local translators and drivers and so on? Why would anyone trust them?
ZELLER: I don't know why anyone would ever trust us. You know, I've been warning about this for as long as I have been involved with this issue. It's the thing that my brother who saved my life on the battlefield after killing two Taliban fighters told me.
He said, I'm standing next to you because you're honorable people. You keep your word. You know, if that's not who we are, who's ever going to trust us again?
And this, by the way, people keep comparing this to Vietnam. In Vietnam, nobody had a cell phone. The Taliban are filming their takeover. They're going to film these people's murders, and those films are going to haunt us forever.
HOLMES: I -- I've been getting some messages from -- from people inside the country. You are getting dozens and dozens. What -- what is it like to be sitting here in the U.S. and -- and reading these abject pleas for help?
ZELLER: I would happily volunteer to go put my uniform back on if my president asked to go get these people. I want to do everything I possibly can. It is so frustrating.
I have a brother who just called me, a guy I served with, and he said he was struggling, you know, because he was just trying to make sense of everything.
And I told him, you know, we did have value, and it had merit. But now he was right. This exit is what is going to be most important.
At the end of a war, there are two questions that loom large. Was it worth it, and how do you end it? History gets to decide the former. We get to end the latter. And thus far, we are doing this with profound shame.
We need to try to secure as much of an honorable exit as we can. And as we do that, we need to save as many lives as we can. And until as long as it takes to get that done, we should not go anywhere. That beachhead in Kabul is the only lifeline these people have, and it shouldn't close until they're all out.
HOLMES: And I know you will keep up that fight. Matt Zeller, as always, thank you, my friend.
ZELLER: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.
HOLMES: And we will take a quick break. When we come back, the death toll is climbing in Haiti after Saturday's powerful earthquake destroyed thousands of homes and left hospitals overwhelmed. And now the island bracing for a tropical depression. CNN is on the scene, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
HOLMES: Welcome back. Our top story, with the Taliban now in control of the Afghan capital, a spokesman for the group tells CNN a new government in Afghanistan will include non-Taliban Afghans, and he is urging the U.S. to, quote, "trust us."
The Taliban swept into Kabul with lightning speed on Sunday, taking over the capital and the presidential palace as former president Ashraf Ghani quickly fled the country.
The U.S. now urgently working to get its citizens and support staff out of the city. There were scenes of chaos at Kabul airport on Sunday, as you can see there. This is the tarmac, not outside the airport. The U.S. State Department says all of its evacuated embassy personnel are there waiting for flights out of the country.
Turning our attention now to Haiti, and we're going to show you some of the massive devastation left by Saturday's powerful earthquake. The death toll has now jumped to nearly 1,300 people and more than 5,700 are injured.
The disaster compounds problems already facing that island nation. Haiti still reeling from a political crisis following the assassination of its president last month and now a tropical depression approaching the country.
CNN's Matthew Rivers toured some of the damage near the epicenter of the quake. He's in Les Cayes, where he found a lot of looting and very few rescue efforts for survivors taking place.
MATTHEW RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We're not far from where the epicenter of this earthquake was, and we're here at the rubble of what was a multistory, relatively luxury hotel in the Les Cayes region, which is where we are right now.
And you can kind of get a scale from what happened here. If you look to the right, that would presumably be part of the roof, a part of this building that collapsed into the swimming pool that was there.
If you look further to the left, you can see kind of a teetering set of columns up there that is basically very precariously perched. Then back down here, you can see an excavator that was presumably part of the search-and-rescue efforts that took place.
According to authorities, there are very much -- there is very much the likelihood that there remain bodies in this rubble, and yet there's not really a lot of search-and-rescue efforts here ongoing.
What is ongoing, as you can see people walk behind me here with metal, is looting. People are coming through this site, taking basically whatever they think they can sell. Metal. We saw a dresser be taken out. This goes to the desperation in this area. This is a very poor part of
Haiti that has been devastated by previous natural disasters over the last decade. And these are opportunistic people coming here to try and take what they can get from what is no doubt a tragic scene, something that collapsed during this earthquake.
There are people that have been here trying to help, people trying to look for survivors. That is not the majority of what's happening here right now.
What you don't see here are Haitian authorities. There is no police presence. There's no firefighters. There are no search-and-rescue crews here.
There's just people from the community and this lone excavator that is not currently in operation. It's very indicative of what we're seeing as we drive through this area near the epicenter, a lack of authoritative stance from the government trying to help people get control of this situation. Unfortunately, this is the reality on the ground at this moment.
Matt Rivers, CNN, in Les Cayes, Haiti.
HOLMES: As we mentioned, Haiti bracing for a storm in the coming hours. Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri joins me now with more on that. What's the timing of all of this?
PEDRAM JAVAHERI, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Michael, looking at this very carefully here, we've got multiple tropical systems to pinpoint, and of course, Grace really the one everyone talking about across this region as we've got a tropical depression. It's weakened in the last couple of hours.
This is a very mountainous terrain when it comes up to the island of Hispaniola. In fact, if you look at the mountains here, that rise to over 10,000 feet, higher than mountains found on 37 U.S. states. It speaks to the rugged nature of this landscape, and that really allows tropical systems to break apart, weaken.
But unfortunately, that is happening at the expense of tremendous rainfall across portions of areas around Dominican Republic. We think within the next 24 or so hours, around parts of Haiti here as the system skirts off toward the west.
Now, statistically speaking, every single summer we have at least two tropical systems work their way across Haiti. Of course, the timing as challenging as it gets here with a tremendous amount of rainfall in store over the next couple of days.
Notice on the western half there of the island, could see as much as four to six inches. Some models suggest on that elevated landscape across this region, we could squeeze out as much as ten inches of rainfall in the next couple of days.
So you put that in a search-and-rescue effort sort of a scenario, it is going to be as challenging as it gets. And of course, the buildings have already been compromised, so any additional gusts of wind, any additional heavy rainfall, all of that could lead to more issues.
But models really struggling with where this system will end up once it pushes through this region.
Notice, general consensus is going to traverse southward, potentially south of Cuba, maybe interact with Cuba, which will also further weaken it. But once it enters the Gulf of Mexico, which we think it could sometime late this week, there is a potential for this system to strengthen again as it approaches portions of south Texas or northern Mexico -- Michael.
HOLMES: Pedram, thanks. Pedram Javaheri there, appreciate it.
Thanks for spending part of your day with me. I'm Michael Holmes. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @HolmesCNN.
Don't go away, though. I'll be back with more news in just a moment.