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Taliban Tighten Grip on Afghanistan After Fall of Kabul; U.S. Says Kabul Airport Perimeter Secured By U.S. Troops; Fears of Migrant Crisis Grow as Afghans Flee Taliban. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired August 16, 2021 - 04:00   ET



ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us here in the United States and all around the world. I'm Rosemary Church. Just ahead on CNN NEWSROOM --


ANTHONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody wants Afghanistan once again to be a breeding ground for terror.


CHURCH: Setting back two decades of military intervention, the Taliban sweep into Kabul and take control of Afghan capital. The takeover is displacing a new wave of civilians, human rights groups warn the future for women and children is now even more terrifying.

And dual storm watches in the Atlantic, tropical storm Fred is gaining strength as it heads towards Florida. While Haiti braces for tropical depression Grace just two days after a devastating earthquake.

Good to have you with us. Well, the Taliban takeover of the Afghan capital is driving chaos and can fusion and a race for survival as Afghans and foreigners try to leave the country. Gunfire rang out earlier as crowds raced to catch a flight at the airport, and this scene appears to be on the tarmac. CNN cannot independently verify it, but video shows masses of people scrambling up the gang plank to get on board a plane. The U.S. embassy is even warning Americans not to go to the airport and that's despite all embassy staff being evacuated there.

The U.S. said earlier the airport perimeter and air traffic control were being secured by U.S. troops. Meanwhile the Taliban are setting up shop in Kabul. Ousted President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country and video from Al Jazeera shows heavily armed Taliban fighters in the presidential palace. They've asked their old enemies the U.S. to trust them and say a future government will include non-Taliban Afghans.

But many including Afghans who worked for the U.S. fear Taliban reprisals. Still America's top diplomat is defending the U.S. troops' pullout.


BLINKEN: That status quo was not sustainable. Like it or not, there was an agreement that the forces would come out on May 1. Had we not begun that process, which is what the president did, and the Taliban saw then we would have been back at war with the Taliban. And we would've been back at war with tens of thousands of troops having to go in because the 2,500 troops we had there and the air power would not have sufficed to deal with the situation especially as we see alas the hollowness of the Afghan security forces.

And by the way, from the perspective of our strategic competitors around the world, there is nothing they would like more than to see us in Afghanistan for another 5, 10, 20 years. It's simply not in the national interests.


CHURCH: As the chaos unfolds in Afghanistan, our international security editor Nick Paton Walsh is there on the ground in Kabul. He takes us through the extra ordinary events of the last 24 hours.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: An utterly extraordinary day. I think the image of which will be in everyone'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 utterly startling. Because that is essentially the seat of power and American money for the past 20 years or so, and there they sit with their weapons calmly demonstrating how they have walked into the capital. A city that frankly most 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 on the city's outskirts, panic over an incident at a bank which seemed to trigger gunfire. But then without telling anybody, the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani left the country. Quite startling as 24 hours earlier, he delivered a recorded message saying to everybody that he would stick on to try to get a negotiated 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 Uzbekistan -- according to some sources. But he released a message essentially saying he had a choice to stay and try and negotiate or face the arms of 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, a constant noise of helicopters, that is obviously them speeding up their evacuation, air cover protecting what is now likely 5,000 American troops here, double the number that were taken back as part of the withdrawal process President Joe Biden put under way.

Startling scenes at the airport, people desperate to get in, people desperate to be on a flight out of here. And 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 border international legitimacy. We'll just have to see what kind of Kabul people wake up to.


CHURCH: Nick Paton Walsh there.

Well, no personnel remain at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The once expansive U.S. presence in Afghanistan is now concentrated at the city's airport. And these images were filmed Sunday, crowds of people desperate for a flight out. The commercial flights have been canceled. Still evacuations continue with U.S. troops providing security and running air traffic control. The U.S. isn't the only nation pulling its people out. New Zealand, South Korea, France, Sweden and Saudi Arabia are all evacuating citizens and diplomatic staff.

Well, Taliban are now closer to total control of Afghanistan 20 years after being removed from power by U.S.-led forces. CNN was there in 2001 when Afghans saw their freedoms restored. Here is a look back at reporting from CNN's Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: 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 workforce.

This of course had been totally banned by the Taliban for the past five years and women and indeed children suffered greatly because of the inability to provide any work, any money or any health or 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 as a certain regulation length. So, all sorts of things happening in the city here that defines it returning to a period of normality.


CHURCH: And CNN chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour joins us now live from London. Good to see you, Christiane. So, you of course covered this war right from the very start. What went wrong in the end and how were the Taliban able to topple the Afghan government so swiftly given the Afghan army is four times their size?

AMANPOUR: Well, Rosemary, it is first and foremost really shocking for me, it is a shameful day to see all of that progress that had been accumulated over the last 20 years simply handed back to the very enemy that the West fought after 9/11. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching with this as its hallmark is a truly shocking development.

What went wrong is going to be debated for a long, long time. You can put many fingers of blame all over the place. U.S. policy, Afghan government corruption, poverty in the country. Really sort of fake numbers on paper. You know, you say that the army is four times bigger than the Taliban. We don't really know that. It's all sort of smoke and mirrors to an extent.

But what went really wrong is that the Taliban have been waiting for some 20 years for this moment, have reconstituted themselves to an extent to be able to do that. Have sat back and strategized to be able to do that. And the United States has demonstrated that it was not willing in the end to have the conditions-based removal of its forces. Having said it would, it then removed its forces without any of the conditions, mandatory conditions for an actual safe removal of U.S. forces and an end to what they call America's longest war. And not only that, without a plan B.


So, you ask how the Taliban conducted its lightning raid across the country, well, because there was no opposition not just from the Afghan forces who keep flipping their allegiances, and we've seen it throughout Afghan history. When they are deserted by one side, they flip to another side.

There were atrocities committed, but there was no effective international deterrent. There was no air power deployed. There was nothing to tell the Taliban to just stay in your barracks and stop the assault on the capital Kabul. And moreover, there was no commitment by the Taliban at the peace talks in Doha. This charade of a so-called peace process that went on first under the Trump administration with this, you know, again non-conditions-based date for May 1 to withdraw all U.S. forces produced absolutely nothing in terms of actual Taliban commitments. Because they were saying one thing at the negotiating table and doing something else clearly different on the battlefield. So, that's what went wrong with no plan "B" from the United States. And wishful thinking that perhaps this was a different Taliban, that the Taliban wouldn't do this, wouldn't take Afghanistan by force, wanted international legitimacy, et cetera, et cetera.

We will wait to see. Taliban has never governed in a true sense. It has only imposed its rule. So, we simply do not know what's ahead except to refer back to the way they imposed their dictatorial Islamic fundamentalist rule which led to terrorism back in the late '90s up to 2001. CHURCH: And Christiane, the evacuation of U.S. citizens and others has

been chaotic with some critics calling it a Saigon moment for the U.S. given Kabul was surrounded by the Taliban, why weren't embassy staff and others airlifted out days ago?

AMANPOUR: Well again, that's a very good question. As I said, there was no plan "B," there was no contingency, there was again wishful thinking. And all you hear from capitals such as Washington and London, and elsewhere is, oh, my goodness, this is happened so fast. We never thought that it would happen this fast. So, those are questions that will have to be put to the correct authorities in due course.

You know, essentially if you look back through history, anytime a regime collapses there is chaos on the ground. I think what you will see is a successful evacuation of all foreign nationals. The Taliban has already said we'll see if it keeps to what it is saying, but it already said that it will not harm foreign nationals. It wants foreign nationals to stay. It wants embassies to stay It even wants the U.S. embassy to stay. However, countries will remove their nationals and are doing so right now despite the chaos at Kabul airport.

And the chaos as far as we can gather is really the Afghans who have put their lives at the disposal of American and international forces and the Afghan people's pursuit of freedom and democracy, women's rights over the last 20 years, these are the people whose lives are at risk. These are the people who are in danger because many of them have and will continue to fall through the cracks.

We've heard heartbreaking interviews from inside Kabul and elsewhere, of former military translators, NGOs, women, others who again have gambled on a bid for peace and democracy in their country and put their lives and their work for the U.S., British, European and other international forces and are now at risk of being abandoned.

And as you know, many countries including Britain, including the United States, have very sclerotic immigration processes and is very, very slow and we will see whether these people will eventually be evacuated. But the sense of them being abandoned is a shameful one, it's unethical and it's one that many of the British and American and other military forces are trying to persuade their governments to remove these people who have saved their lives and translated for them and stood between them and harm's way over the past 20 years.

CHURCH: So, Christiane, what happens now where the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, what will this mean for the country going forward and how stable can it ever be?

AMANPOUR: Well, Rosemary, this is a really difficult question to answer. I can only go back to the late '90s when I was there when the Taliban came in from Pakistan, started taking over the east and the south, went over west to Herat. I followed quite a lot of those takeovers of the provincial capitals, of the towns and cities. Of course, it was a time when Afghanistan was in full civil war during the late '90s. I was then a few months later in Kabul when the Taliban took over

Kabul. And all I can say is that we saw what happened then and that is what led to al Qaeda, it led to 9/11, it led to a wholesale assault on women and children, girl children rights. It led to a wholesale assault on men as well because there was no peace, there was no freedom, there was just dictatorial harsh Sharia rule.


Now let me just say, the Taliban have never governed. What they did back then was not called governing, it was occupying space. It was imposing rule. It was a dictatorship that was a fundamentalist Islamic Sharia particularly narrow Taliban interpretation of that philosophy. It was the caliphate before ISIS was the caliphate.

So, we do not know. All we know is what they're saying that they've changed, that this is Taliban 2.0, not 1.0, but we simply do not know except to refer to what they have already demonstrated on the ground. We know the promises they are making. They've said the war is over. They've sat as you see in those chilling very comfortable positions in the now, you know, evacuated Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, the Taliban is now in control.

At the same time, there are checkpoints be set up around town which is giving great fear to people again who are at risk, who don't know where to go. Who say should I go to my friend's house? How long can I hide and hunker down there? Are the Taliban going to come for me? Again, heartbreaking interviews that I've heard coming out of Kabul particularly over the last 24 hours.

You know, people just saying if they come to this house and if my friend gives me up, they're going to cut my head off. This is a dramatic situation that could precede massive human rights atrocities, obviously massive refugee outflows. In the end it could be again, now, in a few months, in a few years, another terrorist safe haven despite the diminution and of Al Qaeda's power. They do have numbers. They are still associated with Al Qaeda. ISIS is as well.

So, this is a very, very dangerous, dangerous situation. And we don't know are countries going to recognize the Taliban? Will the Taliban's gamble that it can somehow do enough to persuade the international community to give it international aid and legitimacy? Will that payoff? We really don't know right now and we're waiting to see.

This is almost a shocking almost unprecedented event 20 years after going to war for one specific reason and cause. That cause has been abandoned by the West and handed back to the very target of, you know, the very enemy that they fought back in 2001.

So, you know, it is all the words, all the attempts to cover themselves in some kind of honor will not protect the West from what's going to unfold. And it's going to be very difficult to watch what happens to the Afghan people again, who's been through war for the last 40 years.

CHURCH: It most definitely will. Christiane Amanpour, thank you for your analysis and of course, your incredible reporting. Joining us live from London.

And coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, Afghan civilians have the most to lose with the Taliban takeover. Thousands have already fled the violence this year and we'll have more on their plight.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't believe the world abandoned Afghanistan. And our friends are going to get killed. They're going to kill us. Our women are not going to have any more rights. That's all. I can talk another day.




CHURCH: Protestors gathered outside the White House on Sunday to voice their anger at the U.S. over Afghanistan falling in to Taliban control. The demonstrations were led by Afghan Americans and protestors charted Biden you portrayed us and save Afghanistan. Others carried signs reading stop the Taliban.

The U.S. is pausing evacuation flights for Afghans who worked alongside Americans and focusing to getting U.S. citizens out of the country first. The United Nations Security Council is meeting Monday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. One of the things they are concerned about, a refugee crisis as Afghans rush to leave the country.

But millions are already suffering. The U.N. says there are already 5 million internally displaced Afghan civilians and more than 550,000 have lost their homes this year alone. Pakistan has already taken in more than 1 million Afghan refugees and 780,000 are living in Iran.

About 117,000 displaced Afghans are currently in Turkey and Turkey's president says the country will work with Pakistan to help stabilize Afghanistan and prevent a new wave of Afghan migrants.

CNN's Arwa Damon joins me now live from Istanbul. Good to see you, Arwa. So, Turkey's president says the country faces a wave of Afghan migrants through Iran. What more are you learning about that?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look Rosemary, a couple of very important things to discuss here. When it comes to the conversations about this Afghan refugee crisis, it is worth noting that when it comes to Turkey for example, those 100,000 plus Afghans that are here, they are not necessarily individuals who arrived recently following this very rapid takeover of the Taliban. And so, what we are actually seeing now is a very, very limited crossing of borders by Afghans who are trying to flee their own country. Why? Because the Taliban has blocked most of the roads.

The only life line for Afghans to leave is actually the Kabul airport and that was only a lifeline open to those who have passports and visas. And now that life line has been shut off by the stopping of all commercial flights, in fact by the military takeover of the airport leading to the devastating scenes we've been seeing.

Now yes, Turkey and Pakistan have been talking about how to stabilize Afghanistan, a number of other countries have been having very similar conversations. But it really feels as if this isn't necessarily a conversation about how to stabilize Afghanistan per se as much as it is a conversation about how do we ensure that Afghans remain trapped within their own country.


Now, when it specifically comes to Turkey, Turkey does not necessarily wield a lot of pressure over the Taliban, but it does have a very, very strong relationship with two countries who do, Pakistan and Qatar. Turkey can't really afford another refugee influx. It is still dealing with the fallout from having millions of Syrian refugees that are still in country.

You know, Europe years ago shut off its borders by and large to the influx of Syrian refugees. And so, Turkey is really trying to mitigate the potential consequences of seeing, you know, numbers of Afghan refugees here spike. But you know, as the international countries, as the international community does debate this, you know, it's also worth having a conversation about how to protect Afghans and provide safe passage for those who do want to leave, for those who don't want to live under the Taliban, for the Afghan youth who make up the majority of the population who have much bigger dreams than life under the Taliban would allow them to pursue.

But one really does gets the sense right now with everything that has happened in Afghanistan, with all the snippets of conversations that we're hearing about right now, that really as I was saying the conversation focus is just about how do we ensure that Afghans remain trapped in Afghanistan and don't create a problem for the rest of the world, for wealthier nations who could perhaps be capable of actually taking them in -- Rosemary.

CHURCH: Arwa Damon joining us live from Istanbul, many thanks.

Well, still to come as the crisis in Afghanistan deepens, we have yet to hear from the U.S. president. When he is expected to address the issue, that is coming up.

Plus, Pakistan is keeping a close eye on what's going on in neighboring Afghanistan. More on what they have to lose due to the instability there, that's next.