Potential Islamic State threats against Americans in Afghanistan are forcing the U.S. military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul, a senior U.S. official said Saturday, adding a new complication to the already chaotic efforts to get people out of the country after its swift fall to the Taliban.
The official said that small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will be given specific instructions on what to do, including movement to transit points where they can be gathered up by the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.
The changes come as the U.S. Embassy issued a new security warning Saturday telling citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without individual instruction from a U.S. government representative. Officials declined to provide more specifics about the IS threat but described it as significant. They said there have beenno confirmed attacks as yet.
Time is running out ahead of President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining U.S. troops. In his remarks on the situation Friday, he did not commit to extending it, though he did issue a new pledge to evacuate not only all Americans in Afghanistan, but also the tens of thousands of Afghans who have aided the war effort since Sept. 11, 2001. That promise would dramatically expand the number of people the U.S. evacuates.
Biden faces growing criticism as videos depict pandemonium and occasional violence outside the airport, and as vulnerable Afghans who fear the Taliban’s retaliation send desperate pleas not to be left behind.
The Islamic State group — which has long declared a desire to attack America and U.S. interests abroad — has been active in Afghanistan for a number of years, carrying out waves of horrific attacks, mostly on the Shiite minority. The group has been repeatedly targeted by U.S. airstrikes in recent years, as well as Taliban attacks. But officials say fragments of the group are still active in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is concerned about it reconstituting in a larger way as the country comes under divisive Taliban rule.
Despite the U.S. Embassy warning, crowds remain outside the Kabul airport’s concrete barriers, clutching documents and sometimes stunned-looking children, blocked from flight by coils of razor wire.
Evacuations continued, though some outgoing flights were far from full because of the airport chaos. The German military said in a tweet that a plane left Kabul on Saturday with 205 evacuees. Two earlier flights carried out just seven and eight people, respectively.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said around 1,000 people a day were being evacuated amid a “stabilization” at the airport. But on Saturday, a former Royal Marine-turned charity director in Afghanistan said the situation was getting worse, not better.
“We can’t leave the country because we can’t get into the airport without putting our lives at risk,” Paul Farthing told BBC radio.
Army Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, told Pentagon reporters Saturday that the U.S. has evacuated 17,000 people through the Kabul airport since Aug. 15. About 2,500 have been Americans, he said. U.S. officials have estimated there are as many as 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan, but acknowledge they don’t have solid numbers. In the past day, about 3,800 civilians were evacuated from Afghanistan through a combination of U.S. military and charter flights, Taylor said.
The evacuations have been hampered by screening and logistical strains at way stations such as al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. U.S. officials said they have limited numbers of screeners, and they are struggling to work through glitches in the vetting systems.
Taylor said that the Kabul airport remains open, and that Americans continue to be processed if they get to the gates, but he and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the threat picture changes by the hour.
“We know that we’re fighting against both time and space,” Kirby said. “That’s the race we’re in right now.”
So far, 13 countries have agreed to host at-risk Afghans at least temporarily, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Another 12 have agreed to serve as transit points for evacuees, including Americans and others.