WASHINGTON — A U.S. military drone strike blew up a vehicle laden with explosives in Kabul on Sunday, Defense Department officials said, hours after President Biden had warned that another terrorist attack against the Afghan capital’s airport was “highly likely.”
The strike, which came two days before Mr. Biden’s deadline to withdraw from the country, eliminated an imminent threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport from the Islamic State Khorasan group, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command said. The group had claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the airport on Thursday that killed 13 American service members and as many as 170 civilians.
The spokesman, Capt. Bill Urban, said that Central Command was aware of reports of civilian casualties after the strike on Sunday.
“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,” he said. “It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further.”
He added, “We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life.”
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said that civilians had suffered casualties in the strike and that a house had been targeted. “We are investigating the reason of the airstrike and the exact number of casualties,” he said.
The strike followed a retaliatory strike on Friday for the suicide bombing, which was one of the deadliest in the nearly two decades since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Earlier on Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul had said that there was a “specific, credible threat” to the airport area. State Department officials have issued several similar warnings in recent days.
A U.S. official said the military shot down rockets using a counter-rocket system after five were aimed at the Kabul airport on Monday. There were no initial reports of casualties, and the airport remained open, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.
As American troops move to complete their withdrawal, the Pentagon has shifted its focus from vetting and airlifting Afghan and American civilians to bringing its personnel home. At the same time, U.S. intelligence sources are refining target sites for possible drone strikes on suspected Islamic State militants, in particular suicide bombers aiming to attack the airport.
The strike on Sunday, which was carried out by an MQ-9 Reaper drone operating from a base in the United Arab Emirates, demonstrated the degree to which American intelligence officials have refined their target list, defense officials said. A Hellfire missile fired from the Reaper hit the vehicle approximately two miles from the airport, a military official said.
Based on the secondary explosions after the drone strike, the military assessed that there were one to three people in the vehicle wearing explosive vests. There may have been other explosives in the car, making it a vehicle-borne bomb itself, two defense officials said.
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In the past 24 hours, the United States has evacuated about 2,000 people on military transport planes, including more than 100 American citizens. The military determined that there were still about 250 Americans in Kabul who had expressed a desire to leave.
Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said the number of American citizens in Kabul may be closer to 300. “There are some people who have chosen, so far, not to leave and that is their right,” he said.
“They are not going to be stuck in Afghanistan” after Tuesday, Mr. Sullivan added. “We are going to ensure that we have a mechanism to get them out of the country should they choose in the future to come home.”
Military officials said that they had no indication that Mr. Biden would ask the military to stay past Tuesday to get more Americans or vulnerable Afghans out of the country.
But the drone strike on Sunday demonstrated how dangerous the last two days in America’s 20-year war would be, defense officials acknowledged. The strike follows the one on Friday on a vehicle in Nangarhar Province, near the Pakistan border, which the Pentagon press secretary, John F. Kirby, said killed two “high-profile” Islamic State militants — one a “planner” and one a “facilitator.”