US Racing to Meet Withdrawal Deadline
The evacuation could soon become a terrorist target.
While I was drawn in by the misleading headline, “US military gives Biden a deadline to decide on extending Afghanistan evacuations,” the actual report from CNN‘s Nicole Gaouette, Barbara Starr, Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood is more interesting than a minor civil-military relations crisis.
The US military is advising President Joe Biden that he must decide by Tuesday whether to extend the evacuation in Afghanistan beyond August 31, according to a defense official directly familiar with the discussions, though Biden has yet to make a decision.
Military advisers have told the White House that the decision must be made by Tuesday in order to have enough time to withdraw the 5,800 troops currently on the ground, as well as their equipment and weapons. If the President agrees, the military anticipates “a few more days” of trying to evacuate as many people as possible before the drawdown of US forces begins, possibly at the end of this week.
So, no, the brass isn’t giving the commander-in-chief a “deadline” to make a decision but rather telling him that they’ll need to start drawing down the forces necessary to support an extended mission today. To the extent that we still need to get more folks out, why the dithering? It turns out that there are real concerns about force protection.
As of Monday, Biden was still deciding whether to extend the deadline for removing all US troops, CNN has learned. Several of the President’s advisers have advised against an extension, citing the security situation on the ground. Officials have spent recent days monitoring potential terrorist threats, citing “persistent” and credible information that the chaotic situation outside the airfield has created a target for ISIS-K and other organizations.
Who are these “ISIS-K” people? The NYT’s Eric Schmit is glad you asked.
President Biden’s national security adviser warned on Sunday that the threat of a terrorist attack by the Islamic State posed a serious danger to the administration’s evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies from the international airport in Kabul.
“The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Neither Mr. Sullivan nor other senior American military or intelligence officials provided details about the threats or their specificity. Current and former officials say, however, that they range from a missile attack against a transport plane taking off or landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport to a bomb-laden truck or suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside the airport.
Mr. Biden said on Friday that U.S. military and counterterrorism officials were closely watching for threatened ISIS attacks, noting that thousands of prisoners had been released in Kabul and other locations. While the Taliban is unlikely to have consciously let out the Islamic State fighters, the chaos in Afghanistan in recent weeks allowed all manner of prisoners to be freed from custody, including the Taliban’s enemies.
“ISIS-K has been waiting for an opportunity like this, where its fighters can exploit the chaos of the situation on the ground for a chance to kill American soldiers,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, referring to the Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan.
U.N. counterterrorism officials said in June that ISIS had carried out 77 attacks in Afghanistan in the first four months of this year, up from 21 in the same period in 2020. The attacks last year included a strike against Kabul University in November and a rocket barrage against the airport in Kabul a month later. Some analysts say the group also has links to the Haqqani network, another militant organization.
An attack on the airport, current and former officials said, would be a strategic blow against both the United States and the Taliban, who are trying to demonstrate that they can control the country.
The Taliban have fought ISIS in recent years, and leaders of the Islamic State in Afghanistan denounced the Taliban takeover of the country, criticizing their version of Islamic rule as insufficiently hard-line.
Mr. Sullivan said that American commanders on the ground were using “a wide variety of capabilities” to defend the airfield against an attack, and were working closely with spy agencies to identify and defeat any threats. He did not provide details.
Well, I would sure as fuck hope not.
Back to CNN:
National security adviser Jake Sullivan expressed optimism that the US will be able to get all Americans who want to leave the country out before the August 31 deadline. “In the days remaining, we believe we have the wherewithal to get out the American citizens who want to leave Kabul,” Sullivan said during a White House news briefing on Monday.
With the clock ticking down, the Pentagon said Monday that US and coalition aircraft had evacuated approximately 16,000 people from Kabul within the last 24 hours, with the US military transporting just under 11,000 of them.
US officials have declined to say how many Americans have been evacuated, but according to a source familiar with an administration “SitRep” report, as of 7:30 a.m. ET Monday the evacuation operation had flown 4,293 American citizens out of Afghanistan since the US flights began.
SitRep, by the way, as a shorthand for “situation report.”
The source said the report shows 369 Americans had been “manifested since midnight Kabul time” that day, speaking to the 24-hour nature of the effort. The report also notes that 1,000 US citizens have been contacted about traveling to the airport for processing, “but a portion may be outside of Afghanistan.”
Sullivan told reporters Monday that one reason the US can’t be certain how many Americans are in Afghanistan is that they’re not required to register their presence with the embassy when they enter the country or to advise the embassy when they leave.
The source familiar said the report says that “since beginning of operations” 20,156 Afghans have been evacuated along with 642 third country nationals or people of unknown origin. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday that they are not sharing this information publicly because they do not want to give out rough or outdated information.
Of course, that means we’re getting rougher guestimates from multiple press outlets. Still, 20,000+ Afghans and 1000+ Americans is a rather impressive turnaround considering the fiasco this began as.