- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2021

About 300 Americans are desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan ahead of President Biden’s Tuesday withdrawal deadline, top administration officials said Sunday, as the U.S. races against the clock and the massive Kabul airlift enters its final stage amid serious fears of another deadly terrorist attack.

In addition to those 300 confirmed U.S. citizens seeking to escape, State Department officials said there are another roughly 280 people in Afghanistan claiming to be Americans, but it’s not clear whether those individuals want to leave the country.

The U.S. has less than 48 hours to get the remaining Americans out before the Aug. 31 cutoff. After that date, the Islamist Taliban regime — which toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan government and seized power in Kabul two weeks ago — will take control of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, the epicenter of the evacuation effort.

Administration officials said getting out as many Americans as possible is the top priority during the last phase of the withdrawal.

“We’re doing everything possible to do just that. We have about 300 American citizens left, who have indicated to us that they want to leave. We are very actively working to help them get to the airport, get on a plane and get out of Afghanistan,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that aired Sunday morning.

Thousands of Americans already have been evacuated, as have more than 100,000 Afghans.

Moving forward, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. is developing plans to keep the airport up and running after Aug. 31 and provide any Americans left behind with a way out.

But such a scenario will depend greatly on the Taliban, which already control a tight perimeter around the sprawling facility.

“We’ve been very actively planning for what would be necessary to keep the airport functioning, either to have it function immediately after the 31st or if necessary to take the steps required to reopen in a timely fashion, working with countries in the region who have very interested in helping,” Mr. Blinken said. “The Taliban have a strong interest in having an airport that functions, the Afghan people have a strong interest in an airport [that] functions, the entire international community has that interest.”

Pentagon officials confirmed this weekend that the military withdrawal has officially begun at the Kabul airport. Thousands of U.S. troops remain on the ground to protect the facility during the final hours of the evacuation mission. Defense Department officials denied Taliban claims that the insurgent group already has begun taking control of the site.

“We’re going to continue to run the airport up until the end,” Army Maj. Gen. William D. “Hank” Taylor told reporters at the Pentagon on Saturday.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials warn that another terrorist attack by ISIS-K, the Islamic State terrorist network’s Afghan affiliate, is highly likely during the final days of the withdrawal.

Last Thursday, ISIS-K suicide bombers and gunmen killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 100 Afghans in an airport assault. Officials fear similar attacks over the next two days.

“The situation on the ground continues to be extremely dangerous, and the threat of terrorist attacks on the airport remains high. Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours,” Mr. Biden warned in a statement Saturday. “I directed them to take every possible measure to prioritize force protection, and ensured that they have all the authorities, resources and plans to protect our men and women on the ground.”

The U.S. late Friday night launched a drone strike that killed two ISIS-K planners and wounded another, Pentagon officials said. The president vowed that more retaliatory strikes will follow.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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