Washington: The Pentagon was prepared for a “mass casualty” attack at Kabul airport hours before Thursday’s deadly explosion, says a news report citing detailed notes of three classified calls.
According to POLITICO, top Pentagon officials knew of an imminent threat, but struggled to close Abbey Gate.
On Thursday, just hours before a suicide bomber detonated an explosive among thronging crowds outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, senior military leaders gathered for the Pentagon’s daily morning update on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
Speaking from a secure video conference room on the third floor of the Pentagon at 8 a.m. Wednesday — or 4:30 p.m. in Kabul — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin instructed more than a dozen of the department’s top leaders around the world to make preparations for an imminent “mass casualty event”, according to classified detailed notes of the gathering shared with POLITICO.
During the meeting, Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of “significant” intelligence indicating that the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, ISIS-K, was planning a “complex attack”, the notes quoted him as saying.
Commanders calling in from Kabul relayed that the Abbey Gate, where American citizens had been told to gather in order to gain entrance to the airport, was “highest risk”, and detailed their plans to protect the airport.
“I don’t believe people get the incredible amount of risk on the ground,” Austin said, according to the classified notes. On a separate call at 4 that afternoon, or 12:30 a.m. on Thursday in Kabul, the commanders detailed a plan to close Abbey Gate by Thursday afternoon Kabul time.
But the Americans decided to keep the gate open longer than they wanted in order to allow their British allies, who had accelerated their withdrawal timeline, to continue evacuating their personnel, based at the nearby Baron Hotel.
American troops were still processing entrants to the airport at Abbey Gate at roughly 6 p.m. in Kabul on Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest there, killing nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
In the week before the attack, President Joe Biden and top administration officials repeatedly spoke in public about the general threat ISIS posed to the airport. Biden even cited that threat as a reason not to extend the military mission beyond Aug. 31. The president warned this weekend that an additional ISIS attack was “highly likely.”
This account of the internal conversations among top Pentagon leaders in the hours leading up to Thursday’s attack at the airport is based on classified notes from three separate calls provided to POLITICO and interviews with two defense officials with direct knowledge of the calls.
POLITICO said it is withholding information from the Pentagon readouts that could affect ongoing military operations at Kabul airport.
“This story is based on the unlawful disclosure of classified information and internal deliberations of a sensitive nature,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement. “As soon as we became aware of the material divulged to the reporter, we engaged Politico at the highest levels to prevent the publication of information that would put our troops and our operations at the airport at greater risk.”
“We condemn the unlawful disclosure of classified information and oppose the publication of a story based on it while a dangerous operation is ongoing,” he continued.
The White House declined to comment further.
Following the attack, Biden gave the Pentagon the green light to take out anyone who might have been involved. The military said it killed two ISIS-K terrorists and wounded another in a drone strike on Saturday, and thwarted another imminent attack on the airport on Sunday.
Biden vowed on Saturday to keep striking the extremist group amid the continuing threat to the airport.
“This strike was not the last,” Biden said in a statement. “We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.”