Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
As rockets apparently aimed at Kabul’s airport rained down on a nearby neighborhood, U.S. forces scrambled to evacuate thousands of Afghan trying to flee ahead of a Tuesday deadline for the withdraw of all American troops.
The attack, reportedly involving several rockets, occurred as U.S. C-17 cargo jets continued operations to evacuate people desperate to escape from an Afghanistan that is now controlled by the hard-line Taliban.
“I was inside the house with my children and other family members, suddenly there were some blasts,” said Jaiuddin Khan, who lives near where the rockets hit Kabul’s Chahr-e-Shaheed neighborhood.
“We jumped into the house compound and lay on the ground,” he told The Associated Press.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Bill Urban said five rockets targeted the airport but were intercepted by a U.S. defensive system known as a Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar System, or C-RAM. He said there were no U.S. casualties, according to AP.
The Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) later claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s Nasher News said on its Telegram channel that “By the grace of God Almighty, the soldiers of the Caliphate targeted Kabul International Airport with six Katyusha rockets.”
The attack follows a suicide bombing at the gates of the airport last week that killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. ISIS-K, an affiliate of the widely known extremist group, claimed that attack as well, inviting swift retaliation in the form of a U.S. drone strike that killed two “high-profile” members of group and wounded a third, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. strikes back at ISIS-K
In a U.S. drone strike on Sunday, U.S. Central Command said it disrupted an “imminent threat to the airport.” It also acknowledged that there are reports that civilians were killed in the strike.
Urban, the Centcom spokesman, described the operation as a “self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike.”
“We are confident we successfully hit the target. Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material,” he said.
The two drone strikes on Friday and Sunday came after President Biden last week vowed to hunt down the perpetrators of Thursday’s airport attack. A day before the second U.S. strike, Biden warned that another attack on the airport was imminent and that he had directed U.S. commanders to “take every possible measure to prioritize force protection.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the lead up to the Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline was “the most dangerous time in an already extraordinarily dangerous mission these last couple of days.”
On Sunday, the president attended a ceremony at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in which the flag-draped caskets containing bodies of the U.S. service members killed in last week’s attack in Kabul arrived aboard a C-17 plane.
Biden stood with grieving families as honor guards in dress uniforms removed the caskets. He and first lady Jill Biden also met privately with family members of the dead.
“The 13 service members that we lost were heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our highest American ideals and while saving the lives of others,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday. “Their bravery and selflessness has enabled more than 117,000 people at risk to reach safety thus far.”
Evacuations continuing as deadline approaches
As airport evacuations continued on Monday, the White House said that about 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul in the 24 hours ending at 3 a.m. ET Monday.
“This is the result of 26 US military flights (26 C-17s) which carried approximately 1,200 evacuees, and 2 coalition flights which carried 50 people,” the statement said.
The statement said that since Aug. 14, the U.S. “has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation” of some 116,700 people. It said that since the end of July, the U.S. has relocated about 122,300 people.
The U.S. has the capacity to evacuate about 300 U.S. citizens that remain in Afghanistan and want to leave, a senior administration officials said, according to the AP.