U.S. Strikes Explosive-Laden Vehicle in Kabul

The drone strike came after a warning from President Biden that another terrorist attack at the Afghan capital’s airport was “highly likely.”

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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 the military was trying to determine whether the strike had caused civilian casualties, though he noted that there was no immediate evidence of that.

“We are confident we successfully hit the target,” he said. “Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.”

A senior military official said the United States was confident that no civilians were in the vehicle, but acknowledged that the secondary explosions might have caused some “collateral damage.”

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.

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.

Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan

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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.

How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.

What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.

What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there.

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.”

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