The threat of attacks on civilians in Kabul from Islamic State terrorists has added another hazard to the already chaotic evacuation under way in Afghanistan, two U.S. officials said Saturday.
One official said the threat was significant and had affected planning for the evacuation. The other official said the ISIS-K threat has always been a concern, and that commanders had accounted for it.
The larger concern, and the one that had delayed flights Saturday, was finding accommodations for the flood of refugees being flown out of Kabul, the second official said. Both officials were not authorized to speak publicly.
President Joe Biden was briefed on IS in Afghanistan on Saturday in a situation room meeting that included Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.
U.S. soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan.
All gates at the Kabul airport were closed Saturday because of a backup at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, according to a Defense Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Most U.S. military evacuation planes fly from Kabul to Qatar, and the inability to handle more evacuees there is causing a ripple effect.
Pentagon officials said Saturday they continue to process evacuees from Afghanistan, despite a fluid and dynamic situation at Kabul airport.
“The airport remains secure,” said Army Maj. Gen. William Taylor, deputy director of the joint staff for regional operations. “There has been no reported change to the current enemy situation in and around the airport at this time.”
During the previous day, six C-17 military transports and 32 charter planes left Kabul, carrying about 3,800 people, Taylor said. C-17s are shuttling evacuees between Qatar and Germany, to free up space at intermediate locations for evacuees to land, he said. Three flights landed at Dulles in the past day and Afghans will be processed at Fort Bliss, Taylor said.
About 22,000 people have been evacuated since July and 17,000 since Aug. 14, including 2,500 U.S. citizens, Taylor said.
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The U.S. military has about 5,800 troops on the ground, with the 82nd Airborne providing runway security at the Kabul airport, the Army 10th Mountain Division standing guard at the airport and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit assisting the civilian departure.
Embassy warns Americans in Afghanistan
U.S. military and diplomatic officials offered slightly mixed messages Saturday to Americans wondering whether to travel to the Kabul airport for evacuation.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent an alert to Americans on Saturday not to travel to the airport without “individual instructions from a U.S. government representative” because of potential security threats outside the gates.
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But Pentagon officials said they continue to process U.S. citizens and others with the proper paperwork through airport gates.
“As American citizens come into the gates, we are continuing to process them and get them to safety,” Taylor said. “I did not say you should come. What I said was that our military forces at the gate have the ability to continue to process those that come to the gate.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby described the embassy guidance as “prudent notification to make sure that whatever movement there is done as safely as possible.”
He would not be specific about the security concerns and emphasized that the situation constantly changes.
“I’m not going to get into specific threat assessments,” he said. “It’s very, very fluid and dynamic.”