ISIS terrorist threats jeopardize Afghanistan evacuation, Pentagon assessment warns
Terrorist threats are now jeopardizing the massive American evacuation effort underway in Afghanistan’s capital, Pentagon officials relayed to lawmakers Tuesday, according to three congressional aides and another source familiar with the intelligence.
The security situation on the ground in Kabul significantly worsened on Tuesday due to new terrorist threats from the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-K. The group is targeting airport gates and military and commercial aircraft evacuating people from the capital city, the sources said.
The assessment was briefed to lawmakers and congressional aides late Tuesday afternoon, the sources added.
The window for the evacuation is narrowing due to the new threats, the assessment indicates, a potential motivation for the military to wrap up its operation by the end of the week, one of the sources said.
Defense Department officials told congressional staffers on Tuesday that they are trying to mitigate the threats as best as possible, according to one source. Another U.S. defense official said gates at the airport were closed because of the security threat.
“The U.S. has been transparent that there is an active and continuing threat from ISIS. That said, the U.S. military can continue our mission at HKIA as long as we are ordered to be there, and we are not going to shut down the mission in response to a threat from ISIS," said U.S. Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban. "We continue to be extraordinarily vigilant in regard to this ongoing threat and will take all measures necessary to defend our forces and the evacuees, as we continue the mission.“
Since Sunday, the U.S. has directed American citizens and green card holders to the Ministry of Interior so they can be escorted to the airport, the defense official and a person familiar told POLITICO.
“It worked great on Sunday,” said the defense official. “Monday was a mixed bag and a lot of green card holders didn’t get through. Today, clearly, U.S. citizens are having a hard time getting through,” the official added, referring to reports of several planes now taking off without a full passenger load.
The new assessment comes as President Joe Biden affirms the U.S. withdrawal date of Aug. 31, even as concerns mount over the possibility that American citizens and Afghan allies are left behind. Lawmakers from both parties urged Biden on Tuesday to consider extending the deadline to ensure that all Americans and Afghan allies are safely evacuated; but the president cited terror threats to the airport that have left U.S. troops vulnerable.
Biden spoke at length about the threat from ISIS-K in prepared remarks at the White House late Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that maintaining a troop presence past Aug. 31 would pose significant threats to the Americans working on the evacuation process.
“Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,” Biden said. “ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.”
Representatives for the National Security Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.