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Transcript: The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, 8/26/21

Guests: Yamiche Alcindor, Jonathan Lemire, James Laporta, Clint Watts, Donna Edwards, Mark McKinnon


At least 13 United States military service personnel have been killed and 18 injured in the bomb attack at the Kabul airport that killed at least 60 Afghan civilians and wounded many more. President says US will `hunt down` perpetrators of Kabul attacks that killed dozens including at least 13 troops. US flags were lowered to half-staff across the county to honor the victims of the deadly attacks at Kabul airport. U.S. races to evacuate thousands from Afghanistan with 6 days left until withdrawal deadline.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: At least 13 service members that includes 10 U.S. Marines killed in two bombings near the Kabul airport. 18 other service members were wounded, some of them critically, at least 60 Afghans were killed, close to 150 injured.

Today`s attack took place as U.S. forces were helping thousands of Americans and Afghans evacuated from the country while also preparing to leave themselves. At least one of the attacks believed to be carried out by a suicide bomber during a pat down body search at a crowded Abbey Gate to the Kabul airport.

Just hours earlier, the U.S. and several other Western governments have warned of an eminent Islamic State attack and indeed urge their citizens to stay away from the airport for good reason.

An offshoot of ISIS a group called ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Late this afternoon at the White House during emotional remarks that included a moment of silence to remember the victims, the president vowed retribution.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm know this, we will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interest in our people with every measure at my command.


WILLIAMS: This evening, the flag atop the White House has been lowered to half-staff as were the flags over the U.S. Capitol. There are now just five days left to complete the evacuation the military drawdown in Afghanistan.

Earlier this week, the President announced the 31 August deadline would not be extended precisely because of security concerns surrounding the operation at the crowded Airport. The White House says despite today`s bombings, neither the end date nor the mission has changed.


JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARYL I would note that more than 7,000 people were evacuated over the last 12 hours. Those include members from coalition partners, and we`re working now and this is one of the pieces of the President`s been focused on is getting as many people out and onto these planes as possible even as we`re working to address these security threats on the ground.


WILLIAMS: Indeed, the air bridge operation has been extraordinary. The administration says since the 14th of August, over 100,000 souls have been evacuated from Afghanistan. It`s estimated about 1,000 Americans remain. Today, the Secretary of Defense praise those service members who lost their lives while affirming the forces on the ground will be quote, not be dissuaded from the task at hand. And this afternoon, his boss indeed backed up that sentiment.


BIDEN: I`ve instructed the military, whatever they need, if they need additional force, I will grant it. But the military from the chairman, the Joint Chiefs, the Joint Chiefs, commanders in the fields, have all contacted me one way or another usually by letter, saying they subscribe to the mission is designed to get as many people out as we can within the timeframe. That is a lot. That is the best way they believe to get as many Americans out as possible and others.


WILLIAMS: So even with that, and it`s important that Americans know this, our military commanders are warning they are still bracing for more attacks.


GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE, COMMENADER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We expect those attacks to continue. And we`re doing everything we can to be prepared for those attack. The plan is designed to operate while under stress and under attack. And we will continue to do that. We will coordinate very carefully to make sure that it`s safe for American citizens to come to the airfield. If it`s not we`ll tell them to hold and then we`ll, you know, we`ll work other ways to try to get them to the airfield. But I think our mission remains we`re still committed to flying people out.


WILLIAMS: Today, his attacks were the first U.S. combat related deaths in Afghanistan since February 8 of 2020, 565 days ago.

With that, let`s bring in our starting line on this Thursday night, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour, moderator of Washington Week also on PBS. Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for The Associated Press, James Laporta, Investigative Reporter for The Associated Press, notably a Marine Corps veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan, and Clint Watts, West Point graduate, Army veteran, former FBI special agent and a distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Good evening and welcome to you all.


Jim, I`d like to start with you, as someone who never misses any of your posts on social media. I`m an ardent follower of yours. I`ll start with my condolences to the core and the military families with lost loved ones. I`ll say that veteran friends of mine had been having such a hard time even before today`s news hit as I know you have. I hope we can stress that there are so many souls alive today because these Marines and service members were there for us and on duty.

And to you having served multiple tours, talk about where this happened, if you would and talk about the mission from here.

JAMES LAPORTA, MARINE CORPS INFANTRY VETERAN: Thank you for having me. There`s a saying in the Marine Corps, that there is no better friend. And I think that`s what we`re seeing now. What these service members have been displaying for weeks now for days is that there`s no better friend, especially when you see service members in a humanitarian mission. As the one we`re seeing now.

The gates at the Kabul airport, or the Hamid Karzai International Airport, or gates the peace, gates to a better life. And these are for people who helped us, help service members throughout the time we spent in Afghanistan.

The attack today occurred at what is called the Abbey Gate. There`s three main gates that people have been going through the Abbey Gate, the East Gate, the North Gate, this one occurred at the Abbey Gate. The gates to -- into the Kabul airport have been constantly opening and closing. It`s it really is dependent on how many SIV`s and people that are inside the airport have to be processed.

But yes, these are gates to perhaps a better life. And today, it`s just been an overwhelmingly tragic day, not just for Americans. But the toll that the Afghan people have taken today is a tool that the -- is not different from any other day in Afghanistan, frankly. I mean, they`ve there is generation upon generation of Afghans who all they`ve known as violence, and they`ve grown up in it.

WILLIAMS: Yamiche, to Jim`s point, as I said, the tempo went from chaos to smooth with remarkable speed. Over 100,000 people have been able to start that new life because of this air bridge. And then this today, we knew the final pull out was going to be rough tell us about life in the West Wing today.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, PBS NWESHOUR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is really a devastating day for America. It`s a devastating day, of course, for our service members. And it`s a devastating day for President Biden who started his remarks with that moment of silence that empathetic yet searing moment, a moment that no president wants to do.

Now, of course, President Biden he understands loss, having lost family members himself, his wife and two children. So he started off by also saying that this feels like a black hole for these family members. So the day at the White House, there was crisis. And then there was catastrophe. There was this feeling that yes, things were bad, and that, but that the U.S. was really going to stick to that deadline. And we heard the President say over and over again in the days before this, that at least they were no one had been killed. And he knocked on wood during that interview with George Stephanopoulos and then knock on wood.

I think now it`s loud knock on wood, because people understand now that the tragedy that the President is having to oversee here, and the President said today, the response to -- the responsibility for this is with him and the buck stops with him. And he`s going to have to really understand and contend with the idea that under this image of him of the White House and White House officials wanting to say that this was an evacuation attempt that was going to be going well, he now has dead soldiers and 60 dead Afghans. And that obviously is complicating the messaging and the ability to see that this is going on.

Another thing, of course, is that there is really this sense inside the West Wing, that the President is still doubling down on the idea that this was the decision you want to take that this was a good decision. I heard from White House officials over and over again, that the President wanted to stick to that August 31st deadline, because he had warned that a terrorist attack like this could happen, that things are risky, they were volatile, and they`re more -- they`re really more confident than ever that getting out as soon as possible is what needs to happen.

And the President I think also sadly said today that no war ends with everyone getting out. So that`s also an admission from this administration, from the President himself that there are going to be people who left America who helped America who are not going to be able to leave to go to America and they`re going to be stuck there with the Taliban and these terrorists.


WILLIAMS: Clint, there`s no good news from today. And so there`s no celebrating anything, though I`ll say this what this wasn`t, was a failure of intelligence. Somebody knew somebody talked, perhaps it would have been worse without that alert that went out, what, 24 hours ago about the lack of safety, indeed, the danger at the airport gates. I`m wondering how it could have been better. However, based on that tip we had.

CLINT WATTS, MSNBC NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Brian, I think we talked on Tuesday that this was kind of the worst case scenario. There`ll be a terrorist attack of some sort, either at the airport or against U.S. forces as they tried to do extractions outside the airport.

This is what we were worried about. And even despite the warnings, I think what`s remarkable, as you saw all of the allies that were there, the British were particularly forceful. Seems like there was good coordinations in terms of intelligence sharing, it`s a somewhat positive sign that we still have intelligence capability. We knew this was coming and the warnings went out.

I think what this shows is, this is not a place where we dominate and control the airspace. If you thought about Bagram Air Force Base where we have been there for decades, we had set up perimeters, we control the outside of the perimeter, we had our intelligence assets, that would be out and in motion. We could extract and really control the terrain. That is not the case now.

The Taliban despite what you will hear what what`s commonly being said is them taking over the country, they`ve only been in Kabul two weeks. They were gone for two decades. So I think sometimes there`s this misperception that the Taliban actually can control everything that`s going on in this town. They haven`t been there very long either. And we have only been back very recently.

So we`re in a very precarious situation here and the remaining days, and for ISIS, of course, on their timeline has been naturally accelerated too. They see the American forces go there. There`s 10 days, essentially, American activity, it allows them to move all the supply chain for explosive devices, all of their fighters into Kabul. I think we have a significant risk here in the remaining four to five days as we try and finish up this operation.

WILLIAMS: Jonathan Lemire, here is more of President Biden, today we`ll discuss on the other side.


BIDEN: I bear responsibility for fundamentally all this happened of late. The reason why there were no attacks in Americans, as you said, from the date until I came in office, was because the commitment was made by President Trump, I will be out by May 1. In the meantime, you agree not to attack any Americans, that was the deal. That`s why no American was attacked.


WILLIAMS: Jonathan, let`s say directly, we live in the era of gaslighting, and there are individuals from Trump to Pompeo and the like who are eager that we not remember the facts. And the past, though, for his part today, again, Biden appeared willing to own his part of this.

JONATHAN LEMIRE, ASSOCIATED PRESS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That`s right. And certainly President Biden has not been shy Brian to walk away from other agreements, other deals, other decisions that President Trump made. This is one that he honored, yes, delayed from May 1 to August 31. And certainly there`s some truth to what he just said there. The Taliban curb their attacks against Americans because of this deal, because they realized the U.S. was leaving.

There are certainly plenty on the right from Trump himself, including another interview this evening on another cable network and a lot who worked for him who wants to portray them as being far tougher with -- in Afghanistan, far tougher with the Taliban than President Biden has been.

Let`s remember, of course, President Trump floated the idea of meeting with the Taliban at Camp David, on the 9/11 anniversary a couple of years ago. It`s hard to square that with this tough talk now.

But this is undeniably Brian the darkest day yet of the President`s young term in office. This is someone who of course we saw his real sadness there. He was emotional. He gathered herself silently a few times at the podium, clearly overcome with the moment. He has been telling people we know for more than a decade, he`s one of the American presence in Afghanistan to leave to end to avoid situations like this. He knows what it`s like to lose a son like Beau Biden, a veteran. He didn`t want to ask any other American men and women to lose their sons and daughters in combat. And he was of course, deeply upset by what happened.

He`s also backed up -- he also backed it up, though, with some real tough talk, including the vow to hunt down these alleged ISIS-K terrorists who committed these acts. But that`s going to be a tall order, particularly with our assets leaving the nation, our intelligence ability diminished.

And right now the focus of course, just getting out as many Americans as possible in the next few before the withdrawal accelerates even further, but he was honest today, Brian, he said not everyone. Americans, yes, but everyone, not every Afghan ally would be able to get out. That`s going to be tough for a lot of people to hear.


WILLIAMS: You`re so right, Jonathan, love the guy or not. We saw the entire range of his emotions through about a 10-minute stretch there from the ultimate and empathy and sympathy to his pledge to unleash great vengeance on those who did this.

We`re thankful that these guests have agreed to stay with us through this quick break. Coming up when we resume our discussion. What to watch for next as this withdrawal deadline fast approaches now.

And later to the point of our last conversation, a president sets in motion a deadly chain of events half a world away, not Biden, but Trump we`re talking about here, but who will end up paying politically, does it matter? We`ll get into what as the 11th Hour is just getting underway on this somber Thursday night.


WILLIAMS: We are back continuing now our discussion with Yamiche Alcindor, Jonathan Lemire, James Laporta and Clint Watts. Clint, you reference this. This was from what, two nights ago on this broadcast, I want to share your comments which were sadly pression with our audience.


WATTS: In the Islamic State folded in Syria, they were one of the ones that remain somewhat strong. They don`t really hold territory. They didn`t reduce in strength, but they can play a spoiler, meaning they could execute an attack at the airport or against any sort of Western target or the Taliban and create some sort of a quagmire which would bring the U.S. and the Taliban back into conflict.


WILLIAMS: You were talking of course there about ISIS-K, the organization a lot of Americans are hearing about for all the wrong reasons for the first time. And Clint talk people through what they need to know about ISIS-K, and the Taliban, these two terrorist organizations far from being affiliated with one another.

WATTS: That`s right, Brian, there was some confusion on some other broadcasts that I was listening to today. The Taliban sheltered al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden`s al Qaeda, which led to the 9/11 attacks.

But going back about five to six years ago, the Islamic State, then known as ISIS started to break away from Al Qaeda. This was principally in Iraq and Syria, but they quickly created also a network of terrorist groups known as ISIS. This one Khorasan which corresponds with the Afghanistan- Pakistan region, which was then a splinter and a challenger to al Qaeda, by extension that makes them a challenger to the Taliban.

To think about ISIS-K, they`re younger, generally. They`re more about violence first and idea second, and they`re trying to create their own separate independent state.

Separately, Al Qaeda is kind of seen as the older generation. They`re more moderate by ISIS stance, which is may seem crazy to us after the 9/11 era. But they also see the Taliban is very moderate, trying to become like a state negotiating with other states.

For them, the U.S. at this airport, Taliban around the airport, this is a double whammy for them, and it puts them on the map. This spectacular attack today rejuvenates the ranks at a time when ISIS has had much to celebrate over the last few years.

And so one of the things we should be looking for in the coming weeks and months is does this reignite the young jihadists around the world around this movement such that they can replenish the ranks there in Afghanistan.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for that explanation. Jim, as you know, lots of talk about that Garden Spot of the high desert, Bagram Air Base, mostly in the media and on social media. I`m going to play for you the portion of today`s event where the President was asked about Bagram.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you personally reject our recommendation to hold or to recapture Bagram Air Force Base?

BIDEN: They concluded the military. The Bagram was not much value added. And it was much wiser to focus on Kabul. And so I followed that recommendation.


WILLIAMS: And now here for both gentlemen, members of our audience, some of the Republican critics on the same topic.


REP. DAN CRENSHAW (R-TX): I think we should retake more airfields throughout the country that will take troops on the ground, it will take a complete reassessment of our strategy, but the military can do it.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): What I personally would like to see Andrea is the United States take back the airport, we never should have abandoned in Bagram . And stay there until we get every American and every Afghan out.

REP. MARK GREEN (R-TN): We are going to expand this operation, I put more military in there, I`d get every single American out and I`d start killing bad guys.


WILLIAMS: Jim, you want to give folks a reality check on what it would take to retake Bagram Air Base at this point?

LAPORTA: You`d probably have to send it in the 75th Ranger Regiment. And I mean, I understand the argument of why you would want Bagram back, it`s got two airfields compared to Hamid Karzai International Airport, which only has one.

So I understand the reason for why you want to have it. And I would also be very curious to know, you know, who recommended to the president that Bagram should be closed and given up? I`d be very, as a journalist, I`d be very curious to know, because ultimately, the president decides even though he took the recommendation, that`s his decision.

But the reality is you`d have to surge troops into Afghanistan, which could possibly be another risk. You could have even more American casualties on your hands. How many more innocent Afghans would die in that? So I mean, that that`s the risk of going back in and retaking everything.

WILLIAMS: Also, Jim, how would it have complicated the air bridge and getting people there? You know, Bagram much better than I do. My memories are of this vast space. And you`re right, we`re now limited to one major runway. It has nothing but space out there and it did have a hardened perimeter.

I remember the drive out there the junkyards on the right some of them with turrets of Russian tanks, the Gurkha guards at the gate.


But also, I remember it being over an hour north of the city more than what Dulles is to National Airport in New York, more than what Kennedy Airport is to Midtown Manhattan. Wouldn`t that have become its own issue?

LAPORTA: Correct and Bagram even -- you`re correct. I mean, the differences between Hamid Karzai International Airport is it`s an metropolitan area, and Baagram is more sort of an desert, but that does not make Bagram any less prone to suicide bombers.

It was just in 2019, where a suicide car bomb attacked a convoy that was returned to Bagram, leading to the deaths of three Marines. And I believe it was three or four that were wounded. And that attacks. So Bagram is no more, you know, a better defense at stopping suicide attacks than Hamid Karzai is. So, you know --

WILLIAMS: Yes, thank you for that. Point taken.

LAPORTA: I mean that`s the reality of it.

WILLIAMS: No, you`re right point taken. Yamiche, any reason to think there is any room for mission creep here or was the lesson of the day, watch the President`s words, look at his attitude, this if anything, hardened his resolve.

ALCINDOR: Based on my conversations with White House officials all day, this deadly attack, this murder of U.S. soldiers, as well as Afghans really hard in the idea that President Biden wants to have U.S. troops and Americans out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. And that that August 31 deadline is the deadline that he wants to stick to.

The big thing here, though, is that there is no deadline for tracking down who`s responsible for these attacks today. It`s a bit underscored by military officials. But America is going to go after these people. As Jonathan and others have noted, it`s going to be very, very hard to figure out how to get to these ISIS-K individuals.

But when it comes to how the President feels about his decision, White House officials told me that this was what the President had continued to really think about as the nightmare scenario that Americans would be killed in Afghanistan. And as a result, the President wants more than ever to end this mission.

Of course, we`ve been talking about the last 20 days. But this is a 20-year war. And the President before he became president was very, very eager to try to get out of Afghanistan. And while he`s saying, of course, that he has responsibility for all of this, the President is also the one who`s responsible for not just the decision to leave Afghanistan, but also the decision for how it was carried out.

And I think Jim`s point about all of the different intricacies in terms of why certain airports were given up, how this perimeter was set up. All of those I think are still big questions that the President`s going to have to contend with, even as he is hardened by his decision.

I`ve been talking to, to veterans as well as people who are trying to get out of Afghanistan, and they all are still kind of scratching their heads about how this was executed. So that it`s still going to be a big question that the President`s going to have to continuously answer. While he`s still sticks to the idea that he made the right decision.

WILLIAMS: Jonathan Lemire, if the planets are in line, the saints are with us. And if the White House does everything right from now on, and we have a peaceful evacuation, what are they perhaps hoping? We will be talking about on September one, as we watch a C-17 depart over Kabul, what are they hoping the situation will be on September one?

LEMIRE: Well, obviously, Brian, first and foremost, this is a humanitarian crisis and a tragedy. And then on September 1, the White House would hope that we`re all saying that the last Americans are out of the country. And that most if not all, of our Afghan allies are as well. And that the last week plus of the evacuation went by largely without incident, because that`s the fear here is that today, of course, was a tragedy.

It may not be the last one. There`s been a lot of intelligence that U.S. officials have received in recent days, according to senior aides that I`ve spoken to the point to there being perhaps more attacks like this in the ether. There`s real concern that it will be very difficult to safeguard passage to the airport for Americans and our allies to safeguard the airport itself, including the gate where the blast was today.

The other part of this, Brian is I think, what the White House is hoping that what we`re not talking about on October 1st or November 1st or December 1st, and they hope we`re not talking about Afghanistan at all, that once the American presence ends there, and that hopefully, without much more in the way of violence, the will have turned the page. That yes, of course, there will still be stories emanating from the Taliban and the crackdown on women and young girls there. That yes, of course, they`ll be concerned that ISIS-K could be plotting other terror attacks there against Afghan citizens or the West, that won`t fade.

But if we`ve moved on again to the President`s domestic agenda, the battle against the pandemic, we started looking towards next year`s midterms, hopefully economic recovery, so on and so on. That`s what the White House hopes were talking about.


And they keep pointing to as badly as today as -- the last two weeks have gone in some ways, as tough as today was that most Americans per polling still want to the U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan. They feel like the President will eventually receive credit for being the one to end this war and to bring our troops home. Obviously, though, today`s a devastating day. It`s harder to see that reality at this moment.

WILLIAMS: To our viewers, though, and to the pledge I made to Jim, let`s please remember the number of souls who will get to live out their lives because of the brave souls, the heroes who lost their lives today adjacent to that airport. We are beyond grateful to our starting line tonight, Yamiche Alcindor, Jonathan Lemire, James Laporta, Clint Watts, greatly appreciate it. Thank you all.

Coming up for us, the GOP leaders who were quick to criticize the president, one of them accusing him of having blood on his hands, the political fingerpointing following today`s tragedy when we come back.


WILLIAMS: As we said swift reaction today from Republicans following the deadly attack in Kabul, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has called for the House to return to vote on a bill banning the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan until the Americans are evacuated.


At the same time Republican lawmakers including senators Josh Hawley, and Marsha Blackburn have demanded the president resign.

Talk about it with two of our friends, Donna Edwards, former Democratic member of Congress, now a Washington Post columnist, and Mark McKinnon, former adviser to both George W. Bush and John McCain, also among the co- host of the Circus on Showtime. Good evening to both of our friends. Thank you for coming on.

Donna, we talked to you a few days ago, talked about your four trips to Afghanistan as a member of Congress. We talked about the fact that you were critical of the start of the evacuation, but you agreed the pace had smoothened out and quickened. What must happen next?

DONNA EDWARDS (D), MARYLAND FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: Well, I think that the President is right, he needs to -- he and the military, of course need to continue on as quick pace as I can to get Americans out our allies, our partners, our Afghan friends, NGO leaders. I think that is the most important thing at this point.

And, frankly, in my view, the attack today underscored why it is that we need to be out of Afghanistan, and also, why it is that that needs to be done expeditiously by August 31. And, you know, just such a tragic, tragic loss of life today.

WILLIAMS: Mark, funny thing about some of the Republicans, it was Stefanik of upstate New York said the President had blood on his hands. Mr. Hawley calling for the president`s resignation. We were reminded today tweeted back on April 13, that by May 1, Joe Biden should have all the troops out of Afghanistan, and America`s forever war. What about all these Republicans demanding the resignation of the President of the United States?

MARK MCKINNON, FMR. ADVISER TO JOHN MCCAIN AND GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, it`s reprehensible. It`s indefensible, Brian. Particularly when you think about precedent, I don`t recall those voices when Ronald Reagan pulled out of Beirut after the Green Berets were blown up then or Bay of Pigs during Kennedy or after 911 with George W. Bush.

And it just shows, I mean, this is a time when we should be grieving and uniting. And by the way, I thought that Biden`s kind of shift in tone today, rather being so defensive. I mean, I thought he owned it today. So this, I take that -- this is on me. And this is a time when we need to come together to make sure that we have a cooperative effort to save and bring out as many American and Afghanis out of out of that country as we can. And there`s not a time for politics. And it`s just -- it`s so -- it`s just -- it really is sad to see that the Republicans have clawed their way to the bottom to a point where they`re going to make politics out of the situation on a day like today.

WILLIAMS: And Donna, to Mark`s point, to the point of The Washington Post makes tonight I`ll be reading from it at the end of the broadcast that having lost these 13 heroic souls today. That message should mean, we could try to get along just for half a second. In your view, Donna, what should Congress say? And what should Congress do right now?

EDWARDS: Well, I think the tone that the President struck is the right one, we should be honoring, especially today, the service members who lost their lives, and of course, the Afghan and other civilians who were taken in this attack.

And you know, I think it`s around your unseemly for people who call themselves leaders, some of whom have never served a single day in the services to behave in this kind of way on this day. There`s going to be plenty of time for Congress to engage in appropriate oversight, to ask questions about the planning and the evacuation and all of those questions that the administration is and should be and will be prepared to answer.

But that didn`t need to that kind of questioning and recrimination did not need to happen today. It really, it broke my heart. Because I think that, you know, members of Congress can at least take a day off to be patriots. And that didn`t happen today.

WILLIAMS: Indeed, both Donna and Mark have agreed to stay with us. We`ll fit in another break. And coming up when we resume our conversation with our two guests what the darkest day of this still young presidency means for the Biden administration going forward.




BIDEN: Here`s what you need to know, these ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans. We will get our Afghan allies. And our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated.


WILLIAMS: Still with us tonight, Donna Edwards and Mark McKinnon. Mark, I was reminded the last time we had you on a couple days back. You said Biden had reached the lowest point of his presidency, no one would have argued with that point. And then of course we were handed today.

Let`s make clear that we as a news media get stuff wrong, constantly big stuff, small stuff. We got an overblown sense of the destruction of norms under Donald Trump thinking every one of them would be certain political suicide.

Is it possible that even with today`s tragedy, for sticking with his convictions, for speaking forthrightly, for seeing the mission as he does, and let`s hope seeing it through the consequences politically, and it seems uncomfortable to have such a nakedly political discussion, on this very day, the consequences politically for Biden could be minimal.

MCKINNON: Well, it`s true, Brian. I mean, it`s hard to imagine it could get any worse than this week, right? I mean, Biden ran on getting, you know, ending the chaos. Getting COVID under control and doing so good competency with a steady hand internationally. And on all those measures, that has collapsed, right?

And so but if you flash forward a year from now, I mean, it seems like it`d be hard to recover from this, but think about it a year from now if COVID is under reasonable control, there`s not some other huge surge, killing thousands of Americans.


And if we are out of Afghanistan and have gotten out most, if not all Americans and Afghans who helped us or others who wanted to get out, as people look in the rearview mirror said, well, that`s what we elected him to do. He said, he`s going to get out of Afghanistan. He said he was going to get COVID on control. And if he`s done that a year from now, listen, I don`t have much hope for Democrats in the midterms by 2024. That could be a story, a reasonable narrative for Democrats around.

WILLIAMS: Donna, there`s this from our mutual friend Eugene Robinson at the Post, quote, if we were going to leave eventually, what would have been different if we had waited another year, or another five or another 10. We`d have spent a lot more money and sacrificed more American lives, but Afghanistan would still be Afghanistan. A point, Donna, the President made almost word for word for himself today.

EDWARDS: Well, I absolutely agree. And in fact, you know, 10 years ago, I call for withdrawal from Afghanistan. And so this conversation is a decade old. And I think that the President today, as he has been, was very resolute about the decision to leave.

And, you know, a year from now, I`m not sure that Americans are going to quibble about the how. Right now, the administration, the military has evacuated 104,000 people, the majority of them are Afghan citizens. And I think that that is going to be the lasting memory and these tragic, these tragic events of today and the soldiers who were lost today they`re going to be remembered as the last lives lost in Afghanistan after 20 years.

WILLIAMS: Mark McKinnon, you and I have a little age on us. Between the two of us I was thinking of as market a change in tone between back to back presidents as the one we`re witnessing. Maybe Ike to Kennedy. Maybe Carter to Reagan, but Trump to Biden is extraordinary to watch.

Mark McKinnon. We have lost Mark McKinnon. Either that or he`s really good at maintaining one facial expression. Go softly into the night with our thanks to both of our guests, Donna Edwards, Mark McKinnon. Thank you both so very much.

Another break for us, when we come back, where they came from and who they are these terrorist murderers with a name both familiar and new. And the kind of brutality we sadly have seen before.



WILLIAMS: As we`ve been discussing tonight, the President repeatedly insisting he`s got to stick to this 31 August evacuation timeline deadline because of the threat posed by ISIS-K, that`s this terrorist group said that today who claimed responsibility for this attack in Kabul that has killed over a dozen us service members.

NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell has our report tonight on this group and their motivations.


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): U.S. officials have been warning for days about the threat from ISIS-K, culminating in a red alert last night for Americans to stay away from the airport gates.

A warning that proved all too true today.

What is ISIS-K? An offshoot in Afghanistan of the Islamic State that originated in Iraq created six years ago in Pakistan, an avowed enemy of the U.S. and rival to the Taliban.

MCKENZIE: ISIS is extremely real. We`ve been talking about this several days. It`s not what actually manifested civil here. Last few hours

MITCHELL: Thousands of hardcore Islamic State commanders were released from jails across Afghanistan by the Taliban in recent weeks since the Taliban takeover easily melting into the teeming masses in Kabul. Only yesterday the Secretary of State warned it was a high risk threat.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We`re operating in a hostile environment in a city and country now controlled by the Taliban with the very real possibility of an ISIS k attack.

MITCHELL: And ISIS-K isn`t the only terror threat. The Taliban has named the leader of its most radical branch the Haqqani network to be in charge of security improbable. Khalil Haqqani, a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, brazenly showing up at Friday prayers in Kabul last week, and the Haqqanis have strong ties to al Qaeda also in the mix.

(on camera): What`s clear is that the Taliban either couldn`t defend against today`s bombings or won`t. Now the question is how will the President deliver the forceful response he`s promised after the U.S. withdraws?


WILLIAMS: Our thanks to Andrew Mitchell for that report tonight. Another break for us and coming up for most of us, it`s a Thursday night for over a dozen American families. They fully forever will know this night as the worst of their lives.



WILLIAMS: All we have witnessed today brings us to the last thing before we go tonight on what is uniformly agreed to be the darkest day of the Biden presidency. This is the darkest night in the lives of 13 American families.

Today`s news means that tonight where it`s geographically possible, and officer will pull up in front of an American home or apartment or barracks to notify the next of kin of their loss. Someday soon they`ll be given a folded flag for the mantle on behalf of a grateful nation. And no two families will handle their grief in quite the same way.

Please remember in these next few days, and God forbid if there are other attacks, that the dead we mourn tonight we`re volunteers, every one of them. They raise their hands. They were willing to do more than most Americans are. They said yes, send me, I will serve my country. I will learn how to fight and take on great peril.

And in a nation without a draft or compulsory national service increasingly, the military of today are drawn from what`s become a kind of permanent warrior class.

Put another way, if just anyone could do it, they would but they don`t. They can`t.

Think of the danger in a crush of often shrouded people shouting a language at you that you don`t understand. Your job is to pat down desperate individuals so close and intimate as their Commanding General said today, you can feel their breath upon you.

Today, during that moment, one of those individuals blew themselves up.

The Washington Post tonight suggests the best way to honor the dead is for us to get along however briefly, as they put it, quote, the extraordinary men and women at Kabul airport doing their duty for the benefit of their country and for their fellow human beings, have set an example, and some have paid the ultimate price. The best tribute the nation could pay would be to face whatever comes next with less hatefulness and greater unity, end of quote, and of this dark day.

That is our broadcast for this Thursday night with our thanks for being here with us. On behalf of all of our colleagues at the networks of NBC News, good night.