On Friday evening, U.S. Central Command announced that an unmanned done had conducted an airstrike in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. This drone strike came after President joe Biden spoke Thursday afternoon and stated that the United States would track down those involved in the bombing that left 13 American service members and over 160 Afghan civilians dead at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKAIA) outside Kabul. The target of that attack was described as a “planner” for ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K). According to the military briefing, “Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”
There are now just three days remaining before the Aug. 31 deadline to extract remaining Americans and allies from Afghanistan. Whether the U.S. will actually withdraw all forces by that date, or engage a contingency plan to keep the Kabul airlift operating for a longer period is not clear. However, the explosions on Thursday made it clear just how impossible it would be to conduct the evacuation without cooperation. As of Saturday morning, Taliban fighters had moved their checkpoints further from the airport, but a steady stream of Afghans seeking to depart was still getting through.
However, even if the Aug. 31 deadline proves unworkable, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. will be forced to conduct operations with a hostile Taliban right on the edge of the airport. Because what Thursday also demonstrated vividly is that the Taliban also has enemies within Afghanistan, and more than ever they want to get the U.S. out the door so they can concentrate on securing their position as the de facto government.
As might be expected, the Department of Defense made no comment on what other operations might be in the offing or any other potential ISIS-K targets. On Saturday morning, CNN reported that a defense official told them the planner was “associated with potential future attacks at the airport.” The target was in the Jalalabad region. It’s not clear how many people actually died in the drone attack, but the DOD claims they waited until the target’s wife and children were not in the area before making the attack.
President Biden said that the U.S. would strike back against those involved in the airport bombing “on our own time,” but apparently that time was within 24 hours when it came to the strike against the ISIS-K planner. Whether the individual involved was connected to the explosion that took the lives of 11 Marines, as well as one member each from the Navy and Army, isn’t clear. However, Biden’s promise that the U.S. “will hunt you down and make you pay” seems to be in effect.
Even on the day of the bombing, the United States and allied forces resumed evacuations from HKAIA. As of Friday, the White House reports that a total of 111,900 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14. That includes 6,800 people evacuated on Friday.
That Friday number is down from the 12,500 evacuated on Thursday. That is in turn lower than the number on Wednesday, which was lower than the 21,000 peak reached on Tuesday. The decline in numbers doesn’t appear to be related to a lack of available flights, but to increased security and a declining number of people remaining to evacuate.
In a Friday press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said everyone should expect a reduction in numbers. “Those numbers will go down in the next couple of days,” said Psaki, “and you should anticipate that. That is a result of the retrograde process that needs to take place, but also, I will note that, of course, force protection is front and center and is vital to the mission.”
On Friday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that about 300 Americans were evacuated on that day, and that “There are approximately 500 American citizens we are currently working with who want to leave and with whom we are communicating directly to facilitate their evacuations.”
The State Department says it is continuing an “aggressive outreach campaign” using phone calls, text messages, email, and “other tools” in an attempt to reach these Americans, as well as others who have previously not determined if they want to leave. “Last night alone, we reached out to every American whom we believe may be in Afghanistan and attempting to leave,” said Price. “In many cases, we did this again multiple times by phone, by email, by text.”
There seems little doubt that no matter how long the U.S. remains in Kabul, it will be possible to find someone who later says they wanted to get out and couldn’t. And when that person is found, it’s inevitable that Republicans will scream loudly that President Biden failed in his promise to get everyone out who wanted to leave. However, it does seem that both the DOD and State Department are reaching out in every way possible, and it unclear what obstacles are in the way of those who have not yet made arrangements to depart.
In response to questions, Price said that the U.S. has also been making an outreach to “thousands upon thousands” of Afghans who have applied for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs). He also stated that the State Department has evacuated the majority of locals who worked for that department in Kabul.
In a briefing on Saturday, Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor and Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed that two “high profile ISIS targets” have been killed and a third wounded. “We know of no civilian causalities.”
According to Taylor, there are 1,400 people at the Kabul airport who have been screened and will soon be departing. 66 flights left out of Kabul in the last 24 hours. The total evacuation is currently 117,000, including 5,400 American citizens.
In the Saturday briefing, the DOD detailed how one command is engaged in relief efforts in Haiti, another busy bringing Afghan evacuees to the U.S., and a third working with FEMA to prepare for Hurricane Ida. That’s … a schedule.
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