The Pentagon thwarted an ISIS-K car bomb attack Sunday in Kabul while troops scrambled to get the few hundred American citizens still trapped in Afghanistan on planes and out of the country, underscoring the high-stakes dual pressures confronting the U.S. as President Biden‘s exit plan enters its final stage.
With just two days before Mr. Biden‘s self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw, top administration officials warned of terror attacks targeting the Kabul airport. That facility has been the epicenter of a massive U.S.-led evacuation effort over the past two weeks following the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the retaking of Kabul by the Islamist Taliban.
Fears of a major attack were nearly realized Sunday. Top military officials said that a U.S. drone intercepted a explosives-laden car that was destined for the Kabul airport. Had it reached its destination, it would have led to a significant loss of life and potentially derailed the withdrawal process at a crucial moment.
“U.S. military forces conducted a self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement. “We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material. We are assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time. We remain vigilant for potential future threats.”
Sunday’s airstrike came three days after ISIS-K suicide bombers and gunmen killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans in a brutal assault at the airport. Another 18 American troops were wounded.
The U.S. responded Friday night with an airstrike on a compound in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least two ISIS-K members and wounding another.
Despite the Friday and Sunday strikes, however, White House officials still believe other attacks could be on the horizon. Pentagon officials have issued similar warnings. The situation on the ground at the airport grows increasingly dangerous as the U.S. troop presence shrinks ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline.
“All we can do is mitigate risk. We cannot eliminate risk,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
Through a spokesman, the Taliban first revealed that Sunday’s U.S. drone strike took place. While maintaining its hardline reputation, the Islamist group has tried to present itself as a partner of Washington during the evacuation effort of the past two weeks. Taliban fighters continue to run checkpoints outside of the airport perimeter and claim they are screening for terrorists and other potential threats to American forces.
Top Biden administration officials say they’re counting on the Taliban to help maintain order after Aug. 31 and to continue allowing Americans and other vulnerable individuals out of the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday 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. Such a scenario will be highly reliant on the Taliban.
“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 told ABC’s “This Week.” “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.”
Hours after those comments, the U.S. and more than 100 other nations released a joint statement to the same effect.
“We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country,” the nations said in the joint statement. “We will continue issuing travel documentation to designated Afghans, and we have the clear expectation of and commitment from the Taliban that they can travel to our respective countries.”
More than 5,000 U.S. citizens and over 100,000 Afghans have been flown out over the past several weeks. Administration officials estimated Sunday that about 300 Americans are still in the country and actively seeking a way out.
In addition to those 300 confirmed U.S. citizens looking 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.
As the withdrawal concludes, critics say that Mr. Biden‘s path in Afghanistan carries long-term ramifications for the U.S., especially if al Qaeda, ISIS-K or other terrorist networks again use the country as a home base to plot attacks against Americans.
“Over the next two days, our heroic military is doing the best they can with a horrible policy decision,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News.
“This is one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history, much worse than Saigon because after we left Saigon there weren’t Vietnamese terrorists who were planning on attacking us here at home,” the Kentucky Republican said.
• Ryan Lovelace contributed to this report.