Rockets were launched toward Kabul’s international airport on Monday morning as the U.S. withdrawal fromentered what President Biden has said will be its second-to-last day. There was no immediate word on who fired the projectiles, none of which hit Hamid Karzai International Airport in the capital.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement saying Mr. Biden had been briefed “on the rocket attack” and “was informed that operations continue uninterrupted at HKIA, and has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground.”
Witnesses told The Associated Press that some of the rockets had slammed down in Kabul’s Salim Karwan neighborhood, less than two miles from the airport. Gunfire then broke out, but it wasn’t clear who was shooting, the AP said.
At least five rockets were fired in the attack, U.S. officials told CBS News, and some may have been intercepted by a close-range missile defense system, but it was unclear if they were intercepted or just failed to reach their intended target. There were no initial reports of casualties.
The attempted rocket attack came one day afternear the airport. It was the second such strike against the militant group since a last week.
U.S. Navy Captain Bill Urban, a Central Command spokesman, said in a statement that the strike was carried out by a drone and eliminated “an imminent ISIS-K threat” to Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Urban initially said there were no suspected civilian casualties, but CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata said Taliban officials and Afghan media were reporting that the blast had killed nine civilians, including a number of small children.
The Pentagon later acknowledged that there could have been civilian casualties. Urban said Central Command was aware of the reports and that the U.S. military was “still assessing the results of this strike.”
“We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties,” Urban said. “It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further.”
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” he said in a statement.
A defense official told CBS News there was uncertainty over whether the strike destroyed a car bomb or killed a suicide bomber riding in the car. Initial reports indicated that the car was carrying a suicide bomber, but the size of the secondary explosion has convinced some analysts that it was a fully loaded car bomb.
A defense official said the strike was ordered after two men were seen loading explosives into the trunk of a car. The car was hit by a Hellfire missile, which produced a small explosion followed by a much larger secondary explosion.
Bilal Karimi, a senior aid to the Taliban’s spokesman, said the airstrike hit the vehicle near the airport. He said three suspected individuals were in the vehicle at the time of the strike. Karimi said the U.S military had told the Taliban that a vehicle full of explosives would arrive in Kabul and that the U.S. would destroy it.
Last week’s attack on the Abbey Gate at the Kabul airport left at least 170 people dead, including. U.S. officials have said a member of ISIS-K carried out the bombing, and vowed to retaliate against those responsible.
The gate hit by the massive, deadly explosion last week had been due to be closed, officials told CBS News, but it was kept open as British troops in a hotel several hundred yards away decided they were going to go back to the airport as part of withdrawal. But the suicide bomber got there first.
A U.S. airstrike on Friday, the first since the attack,two “high-profile” ISIS-K planners and facilitators and wounded another, according to Pentagon officials.
Sunday morning’s strike came after the State Department issued an alert warning people not to come to the airport because of a “specific, credible threat” — a similar warning to one issued just hours before the devastating blast at Abbey Gate last week.
The operations against ISIS-K militants come as the U.S. rushes to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from the city ahead of President Biden’s withdrawal deadline of August 31. As D’Agata reported, it’s one of the largest airlifts in U.S. history, and it was in its final hours, with American forces focused on getting themselves out of Afghanistan safely after helping more than 120,000 civilians escape.
Those who didn’t make it to the airport have been making a break for the border of neighboring countries, including Pakistan and Iran, by the hundreds of thousands.
The State Department said there may be some American citizens who don’t make the deadline to flee from the airport, along with thousands of Afghans who have been granted U.S. visas who will also be left behind.
But National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told Ed O’Keefe on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the Taliban won’t stop those people from leaving after the Tuesday deadline.
“The Taliban have both communicated privately and publicly that they will allow for safe passage,” Sullivan said. “We’re not just going to take their word for it.”
He said there would be “significant consequences” if Afghanistan’s new rulers don’t follow through with their commitment — and not just economic and diplomatic consequences, but other capabilities that he said could be “brought to bear.”
Mr. Biden vowed to retaliate against those who facilitated Thursday’s deadly attack.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down, and make you pay,” he said in remarks at the White House shortly after the blast.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Saturday that there were active threats against the airport, which were “still very real” and “dynamic.”
In a press briefing last week, General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said the U.S. was closely monitoring the threat of a vehicular suicide bomb in a small car or a large truck.