Aug 26, 2021 - World

Kabul airlift enters closing stage after attack

Afghans wait to be evacuated following the attack. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty

The Kabul airlift was already entering its endgame when ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, attacked outside the airport and killed 13 U.S. troops and an estimated 60 Afghans.

State of play: Most NATO allies have now ended their evacuation operations, including for their own civilians. Those already inside the airport are being flown out, but the gates are closed and Americans and Afghans alike have been urged to stay away. The U.S. military is preparing for its own evacuation and is on alert for additional attacks.

President Biden declared tonight that the U.S. would "not be intimidated," saying, "We will rescue the Americans. We will get our Afghan allies out. And our mission will go on."

  • But Biden also seemed to back off his pledge that troops would remain in Kabul as long as it took to get all Americans out. Instead, he said the U.S would "find means by which we can find any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan," even after the troop withdrawal. He plans to stick to his Aug. 31 deadline.
  • The pace of evacuations had slowed even before the attack, though evacuees who were already on the base continued to be flown out. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there were ongoing operations to get Americans and Afghan allies to the airport but offered no details.
  • The U.S. has evacuated over 100,000 people in total, according to CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, but may only have around 36 hours to complete the remaining evacuations before the military has to prioritize its own withdrawal.

Driving the news: Biden on Thursday said he has directed the Pentagon to develop plans to "strike" ISIS-K "assets, leadership and facilities" in response to the Kabul airport bombings.

  • "To 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," Biden said.
  • McKenzie said earlier on Thursday that the threat of an additional attack was "extremely real."
  • "We believe it is their desire to continue those attacks and we believe those attacks will continue," McKenzie said.

McKenzie said Thursday's attack occurred at a gate where soldiers conduct security screenings before people enter the airfield.

  • "This is close-up work. The breath of the person you are searching is upon you. While we have overwatch in place, we still have to touch the clothes of the person who is coming in," he added.
  • McKenzie noted that there were "probably a little more than 1,000 American citizens left in Afghanistan," with 500 evacuated in the last 24 hours. He said not all of those Americans were seeking to evacuate.
  • Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said prior to the attack that the military's capacity to conduct evacuations would diminish in the last "couple days" before Aug. 31, but that the plan was to retain the capability to get some civilians out up until the end.

What's next: The U.S. and its allies are relying on the Taliban to continue to allow Afghans and their own citizens to leave the country beyond Aug. 31.

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Wednesday that the Taliban have provided assurances to that effect, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of the need for diplomacy with the Taliban to ensure they follow through.

Yes, but: Signals from the Taliban have been mixed at best. Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid lamented the ongoing brain drain on Tuesday and said "we are not in favor of allowing Afghans to leave."

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