KABUL, Afghanistan – A U.S. drone strike blew up a vehicle carrying “multiple suicide bombers” from Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate on Sunday before they could attack the ongoing military evacuation at Kabul’s international airport, American officials said. An Afghan official said three children were killed in the strike.
The strike came just two days before the U.S. is set to conclude a massive two-week airlift of more than 114,000 Afghans and foreigners and withdraw the last of its troops, ending America’s longest war with the Taliban back in power.
A statement from U.S. Central Command said that the U.S. is aware of reports of civilian casualties and is assessing the results of the strike. Navy Capt. William Urban, spokesman for Central Command, said that “substantial and powerful” subsequent explosions resulted from the destruction of the vehicle, which may have caused additional casualties.
The U.S. State Department released a statement signed by around 100 countries, as well as NATO and the European Union, saying they had received “assurances” from the Taliban that people with travel documents would still be able to leave the country. The Taliban have said they will allow normal travel after the U.S. withdrawal is completed Tuesday and they assume control of the airport.
The Afghan official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. Witnesses to the drone strike said it targeted two cars parked in a residential building near the airport, killing and wounding several civilians. Officials had initially reported a separate rocket attack on a building near the airport, but it turned out to be the same event.
According to a senior U.S. official, the U.S. military drone fired a Hellfire missile at a vehicle in a compound between two buildings after individuals were seen loading explosives into the trunk. The official said there was an initial explosion caused by the missile, followed by a much larger fireball, believed to be the result of the substantial amount of explosives inside the vehicle. The U.S. believes that two Islamic State group individuals who were targeted were killed.
The official said it appears that the secondary explosion heavily damaged one of the buildings next to the vehicle.
Dina Mohammadi said that her extended family lived in the building and that several of them were killed, including children. She was not immediately able to provide the names or ages of the deceased.
Karim, a district representative, said the strike ignited a fire that made it difficult to rescue people. “There was smoke everywhere, and I took some children and women out,” he said.
“We would be deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life,” said Urban.
Earlier in the day, Urban said in a statement that the U.S. was confident that the missile successfully hit the target. And he said that the large secondary explosions indicated the presence of “a substantial amount of explosive material” in the vehicle.
The strike came two days after an Islamic State suicide attack outside the airport killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. The U.S. carried out a drone strike elsewhere in the country on Saturday that it said killed two IS members.
Britain ended its evacuation flights Saturday, and most U.S. allies concluded theirs earlier in the week. But U.S. military cargo planes continued their runs into the airport Sunday, ahead of a Tuesday deadline set by President Joe Biden to withdraw all American troops.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the U.S. has the capacity to evacuate the estimated 300 Americans who remain in the country and wish to leave. He said the U.S. does not currently plan to have an ongoing embassy presence after the withdrawal but will ensure “safe passage for any American citizen, any legal permanent resident” after Tuesday, as well as for “those Afghans who helped us.”
In interviews with Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. was working with other countries to ensure that the airport functions normally after the withdrawal and that the Taliban allow people to travel freely.
The Taliban have given similar assurances in recent days, even as they have urged Afghans to remain and help rebuild the war-ravaged country.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have sought to flee the country since the Taliban’s rapid takeover earlier this month, fearing a return to the harsh form of Islamic rule the group imposed on Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. Others fear revenge attacks or general instability.