Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, continues to pose an imminent threat to U.S. troops in Afghanistan as they prepare to leave the country ahead of Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline, according to Pentagon officials.
“We are in a particularly dangerous time now,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a press briefing Monday. “As we have seen all too vividly in the last day, the threat remains high, and it remains real.”
On Sunday, U.S. forces carried out an airstrike against a suspected suicide car bomber in Kabul who, officials believe, was preparing to to attack Hamid Karzai International Airport, where U.S. and allied troops have been conducting a massive airlift evacuation effort.
Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor said the targeted vehicle was “known to be an imminent ISIS-K threat,” and that “significant secondary explosions indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosives.”
Hours later, Taylor said, the military’s antimissile system thwarted another attack, after as many as five rockets were fired at the Kabul airport.
“Force protection is paramount in this phase of operation,” he said.
ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport last week that killed 13 U.S. troops and as many as 170 civilians. Sunday’s strike and the rocket attack came after U.S. officials announced that two “high-profile” ISIS-K targets had been killed and another injured in a retaliatory U.S. drone strike on Friday night.
“This strike was not the last,” President Biden said in a statement on Saturday. “We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.”
He went on to warn that “the threat of terrorist attacks on the airport remains high.”
Kirby reiterated this warning on Monday, telling reporters, “We are operating under the assumption that we need to be prepared for future potential threats.”
Biden has committed to withdrawing the last remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, amid ongoing efforts to evacuate as many Americans and at-risk Afghans as possible before that deadline.
As of Monday morning, Taylor said that more than 122,000 people, including approximately 5,400 Americans, had been evacuated from Afghanistan since late July, including around 1,200 evacuees who left Kabul on U.S. military aircraft within the previous 24 hours. Even as the last remaining U.S. military personnel prepare to leave Afghanistan, Taylor said the U.S. plans to continue evacuating people “until the very end.”
Taylor also acknowledged potential civilian casualties as a result of Sunday’s drone strike, saying, “We take these reports very seriously, and we are continuing to assess the situation.”
The New York Times and Washington Post both reported Monday that the strike had killed 10 civilians, including seven children, as well as an aid worker for an American charity and a U.S. military contractor who was hoping to be evacuated.
Kirby said he was “not in a position to dispute” those reports, but assured reporters that the Pentagon would be “transparent” about any civilian deaths that it confirms were caused by U.S. military operations.
“Make no mistake, no military on the face of the earth works harder to avoid civilian casualties as the U.S. military,” Kirby said. Still, he continued, while “nobody wants to see innocent life taken,” U.S. forces also did not want to see “what we believed to be a very real, very specific and imminent threat” to both U.S. troops and civilians at the Kabul airport.
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