US aims to complete Kabul airlift despite fraught security risk

Refugees from Afghanistan board a US Air Force transport at Kabul airport
US military officials say it is nearly impossible to eliminate the threat of another attack on the Kabul airport airlift, and that close cooperation with longtime enemy the Taliban is crucial to keeping it safe.

One day after an Islamic State suicide bombing killed at least 85 people, including 13 American troops, the Pentagon said it was determined to keep processing refugees through the gates of the airport and onto aircraft through the August 31 deadline.

Thursday’s attack showed the high risks being taken with the evacuation, which has flown at least 105,000 people out of the country since the operation began on August 14 as the Taliban claimed control of the country.

After the explosion, IS gunmen opened fire, adding to the carnage.

“We still believe there are credible threats… specific, credible threats,” Kirby said.

The more than 5,000 US troops who control the airport have assumed the role of gatekeepers, clearing evacuees through entrances while standing guard on the airport compound’s razor-wired walls.

“We can’t do that with standoff. You ultimately have to get very close to that person,” he said of the Marine guards. “There’s really no other way to do it.”

US troops brought with them defenses against possible mortar and rocket attacks, but so far none have emerged as, on some days, nearly 100 evacuation flights have lifted off from the airport.

The head of US forces at the airport, Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, is in constant contact with the Taliban official overseeing security in the area of the airport.

While President Joe Biden has been criticized for cooperating with the hardline Islamist group, McKenzie defended it, including sharing intelligence with them related to the evacuation.

“We believe that some attacks have been thwarted by them,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything to convince me that they let it happen.”

Retired General Joseph Votel, who previously served as head of Central Command, said the cooperation and deconfliction efforts with the Taliban was appropriate.

“The circumstances they find themselves in is they’re operating from an airfield that is surrounded by a large urban area that is controlled by the Taliban,” he said.