As Evacuations Wrap Up, There Are Threats Of Another Attack At Kabul Airport
NOEL KING, HOST:
Earlier this morning, someone fired rockets toward the international airport in Kabul. The U.S. intercepted at least five rockets using a missile defense system. No one has claimed responsibility yet, and no casualties have been reported in that exchange. White House officials say around 250 Americans are still trying to get out of Afghanistan, and they say the U.S. has capacity to airlift 300 people if they want to leave now. With us now are NPR's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Good morning to you both.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: Tom, let me start with you and ask you, what do you know about what happened this morning in Kabul?
BOWMAN: Well, we assume it was an ISIS attack and, as you say, multiple reports that six rockets were fired, five aimed at Kabul Airport. They were intercepted by a missile defense system. The sixth one, according to eyewitnesses, hit a residential building; no reports of casualties. And, Noel, I've seen this defense system demonstrated before in Afghanistan years ago. It's called the C-RAM. And it's a Gatling gun system that locks on a target and spews explosive bullets. So picture a R2-D2 from "Star Wars." That's what it looks like.
BOWMAN: And the president was advised of the rocket attack and also was told that evacuation operations continue uninterrupted at the airport.
KING: Now, in the meantime, there is another story developing with respect to something that happened on Sunday. The U.S. carried out an airstrike on a vehicle in Kabul. Two ISIS militants were reportedly killed, but there are also reports that civilians were killed, too. What are military leaders are telling you?
BOWMAN: Well, this was an ISIS target, several men in a vehicle, at least one had a suicide vest. And when the vehicle was hit by a drone missile, there was a massive explosion, what they call a secondary explosion. So clearly, there were explosives inside. And I'm told the U.S. military was on the lookout for such a possibility. Of course, this follows Friday's strike on an ISIS planner and facilitator in Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border. And yes, there are reports of civilian casualties from the strike in Kabul. But it's still being investigated by CENTCOM; no specifics yet.
KING: OK. And, Franco, what is President Biden saying about the possibility that there could be another attack before tomorrow?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, the likelihood is that there - it's high. I mean, President Biden said this weekend that his commanders predict, you know, a likely attack in the next 24 to 36 hours. As Tom was just noting, he was briefed on yesterday's drone strike and ordered his commanders to redouble their security efforts as they pull out troops and also equipment from Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. prevented this alleged attack, but the deadline to get out is tomorrow. So really, as tough as the past two weeks have been, the next two days are potentially going to be even more tense.
KING: And, Tom, I wonder what that looks like. How are U.S. troops preparing for a possible attack but also keeping up with evacuations and the plan to withdraw from Afghanistan by tomorrow?
BOWMAN: Well, at this point, after the suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. service members, the Pentagon and commanders on the ground are, of course, more aware of the threat and likely taking extra precautions with, you know, less than 24 hours left. The number of people, Americans and Afghans, coming into the airport has dropped sharply. So fewer people are actually getting into the airports. You don't have a large numbers of people who the troops will have to search and likely be exposed to an attack. And as a result, the troops are kind of hunkering down, packing up equipment. And, Noel, they'll likely be destroying munitions and other equipment. And most, if not all, State Department people, by the way, have left, I'm told.
KING: OK. Franco, let's talk about the aftermath of that attack last week. This weekend, you traveled with President Biden to Dover Air Force Base, where the president was paying respects to the 13 service members who were killed. What was that ceremony like?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, this was Biden's first visit to Dover Air Force Base, as, you know, the president, you know, came to honor those fallen service members. We reporters were kind of positioned across from him and the first lady, as well as several of his aides. You know, Noel, it was really an emotional event. It's steeped in history and tradition. Next to us were the family members. And although there was a bus, you know, kind of between us to block our views from them, you could hear some of their weeping as their loved ones were carried across the tarmac. It was really hard, but it was also very touching and delicate. The Marines, for example, you know, in their white gloves, walked so softly, you know, toe to heel, carrying the cases one by one across the tarmac and gently placing them into a waiting vehicle. It was really so quiet that the only thing you could hear were the soft commands of the officers, the machinery of the plane and, you know, as I mentioned, the soft cries from family.
KING: What is the president's role in that ceremony?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, he was there to honor the fallen, as well as comfort the loved ones. He met with the families of all 13 service members who were killed. During the ritual, the president would stand at attention with his hand over his heart as each of the teams, first from the Army, then the Marines, then the Navy, brought the flag-draped cases across the tarmac. He would often bow his head for a moment after each service member was lifted into the van. He was joined there by the first lady, of course, and a group of aides that included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, as well as a few members of Congress.
KING: How is Joe Biden reacting to criticism from lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, that this evacuation is a disaster, it's not being done well?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, he's digging in and not backing down despite, you know, taking some major political hits over what's really been, as you note, a very chaotic exit of this long war. He argues that the airport attack on Thursday is all the more reason to leave. It's just too dangerous, you know, but the chaos and the deaths of 13 service members has really increased that criticism. And Biden's image, frankly, is suffering with many Americans supporting keeping U.S. troops in the country of Afghanistan until all Americans and Afghan supporters who backed up the United States during, you know, the last 20 years are evacuated. Now, Noel, you can add the challenges of that delta variant, the pandemic, and it's been a really, really difficult month for Biden. And frankly, it's hurt this image that he and his team have tried to carve out for himself during his administration of, you know, being a steady leader at the helm.
KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
KING: And Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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