With help from Sabrina Rodriguez
Welcome to National Security Daily, your guide to the global events roiling Washington and keeping the administration up at night.
Twelve U.S. troops were killed and 15 other service personnel were injured after two explosions shook the area outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in rapid succession this morning, where the United States and NATO allies had been evacuating thousands of people from the Afghan capital, the Pentagon confirmed. Dozens of Afghans were also killed in the attack.
“We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties,” tweeted Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY, referring to the entrance to the airport, where four sources tell POLITICO that U.S. personnel until recently welcomed American citizens to board evacuation flights.
Kirby also confirmed a second explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, roughly 300 meters from the site of the first detonation. British troops had been using the hotel as a base for evacuating U.K. personnel.
An ISIS militant wearing a suicide vest was responsible for the first bombing, two U.S. officials and a person familiar with the situation told POLITICO, detonating around 5 p.m. local time just outside Abbey Gate. Three sources said the U.S. troops returned fire soon after. NATO troops have been ordered to leave the airport gates immediately, two people said.
The news comes just hours after defense officials began warning about an increased terrorist threat from the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan. Defense officials briefed lawmakers Tuesday about the new threat targeting airport gates and military commercial aircraft evacuating people from Kabul, POLITICO first reported.
Gen. FRANK MCKENZIE, chief of U.S. Central Command, confirmed ISIS was responsible for the attack. “The threat to our forces from ISIS-K is very real, as we have seen today,” he said in a news conference today.
President JOE BIDEN warned this week that ISIS wanted to strike the airport. U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence detailed some of its specifics to POLITICO, such as ISIS’ plans to detonate a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device and launch shoulder-fired rockets.
ISIS has moved fighters and materials for the bombs from Nangarhar and Kunar provinces to areas around the airport, a U.S. official said. On Thursday morning, that U.S. official added that an IED attack to breach the outer perimeter wall of the airport might come within six hours. Afterward, ISIS fighters would shoot into the crowd with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades “in hopes of reaching processing centers” at the airport, the official said.
Read more of POLITICO’s story on the chaos here.
U.S. HANDED TALIBAN NAMES OF AFGHAN ALLIES: U.S. officials in Kabul gave the Taliban a list of names of American citizens, green card holders and Afghan allies to grant entry into the militant-controlled outer perimeter of the city’s airport, a choice that’s prompted outrage behind the scenes from lawmakers and military officials, three U.S. and congressional officials told LARA SELIGMAN, ANDREW DESIDERIO and Alex.
“Basically, they just put all those Afghans on a kill list,” said one defense official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “It’s just appalling and shocking and makes you feel unclean.”
After the fall of Kabul, in the earliest days of the evacuation, the joint U.S. military and diplomatic coordination team at the airport provided the Taliban with a list of people the U.S. aimed to evacuate. Those names included Afghans who served alongside the U.S. during the 20-year war and sought special immigrant visas to America. U.S. citizens, dual nationals and lawful permanent residents were also listed.
“They had to do that because of the security situation the White House created by allowing the Taliban to control everything outside the airport,” one U.S. official said.
But after thousands of visa applicants arrived at the airport, overwhelming the capacity of the U.S. to process them, the State Department changed course — asking the applicants not to come to the airport and instead requesting they wait until they were cleared for entry. From then on, the list fed to the Taliban didn’t include those Afghan names.
As of Wednesday, only U.S. passport and green card holders were being accepted as eligible for evacuation, the defense official said.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — LEE, AOC PRESS BIDEN TO RAISE REFUGEE CAP: Our own SABRINA RODRIGUEZ sends this in: Reps. BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.) and ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-N.Y.) on Thursday led a group of more than 65 House Democrats in calling for Biden to increase the annual refugee admissions cap to no less than 200,000 for fiscal 2022.
The ask is a sharp increase from Biden’s pledge earlier this year to raise the limit to 125,000 for the next fiscal year. But in a letter to Biden, the group of Democrats argue that the higher number is necessary given the ongoing situation in Afghanistan, as well as crises in other countries, including Ethiopia, Lebanon and Haiti. They also call on Biden to expand humanitarian parole for Afghans in danger following the Taliban’s takeover.
“To those questioning if it is really our responsibility to provide refuge for those fleeing conflict, persecution, or dire living conditions — yes, it is. In fact, it is not only our responsibility, but it is our greatest strength,” the lawmakers wrote.
TREASURY SAYS AFGHANISTAN AID MAY PROCEED: The Treasury Department has told humanitarian organizations they can provide relief to Afghanistan despite U.S. antiterrorism sanctions against the Taliban, per The Wall Street Journal’s IAN TALLEY and MENGQI SUN. But the aid groups are still pressing the department to issue formal waivers making the decision official.
In addition to a mounting economic crisis, Afghans are “also facing multiple humanitarian crises, not just the current violence, but also internally displaced persons, a looming and persistent drought, as well as structural unemployment,” said ALEX ZERDEN, a former Treasury Department attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
MORE TALIBAN MEDIA OFFENSIVE: The militant group’s spokesperson ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID sat down for an interview with NBC News’ RICHARD ENGEL in Kabul to falsely declare that “there was no proof” OSAMA BIN LADEN was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Mujahid also denied reports of Taliban fighters barging into Afghans’ homes and forcing young, unmarried women to become their brides. “This is propaganda from the old regime. We have no evidence of a single case,” he said.
And as for the United States evacuating its Afghan allies, Mujahid told Engel: “We don’t want our countrymen to go to America. Whatever they have done in the past, we have given them amnesty, we need young, educated professionals for our nation. But If they want to leave, it’s their choice.”
The Taliban has set up a perimeter outside the airport with multiple checkpoints, often stopping evacuees from reaching a readied plane.
Mujahid later added: “The withdrawal is almost finished. These are our happiest moments.”
AMERICANS SAY U.S. SHOULD STICK UP FOR TAIWAN: The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has an arresting new poll: For the first time ever, a (slim) majority of Americans want to see the United States defend Taiwan after a Chinese invasion.
“[J]ust over half of Americans (52%) favor using US troops to defend [Taiwan] if China were to invade the island. This is the highest level ever recorded in the Council’s surveys dating back to 1982, when the question was first asked,” write DINA SMELTZ and CRAIG KAFURA.
That’s a notable shift in public opinion. Smeltz told NatSec Daily “the increase in support for defending Taiwan has been steadily growing in tandem with public concern over the threat posed by China. And our data show this sense of threat from China overshadows the motivation of ‘protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression.’”
Chances are still low that China might attack the island democracy — and that Biden would be faced with the decision to put troops in harm’s way. But if he is, it’s helpful for the White House to know that about half of the country supports the idea.
During his interview with ABC News’ GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS last week, Biden sent China-Taiwan watchers into a tizzy by implying he would surely come to Taiwan’s defense during a crisis. “We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan,” he said.
But U.S. officials contacted by NatSec Daily afterward said the American policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan’s defense hasn’t changed.
IT’S THURSDAY (AND QUINT’S BIRTHDAY): Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily, the newsletter for top U.S. and foreign officials, lawmakers, lobbyists, experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.
While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi, @woodruffbets, @politicoryan, @PhelimKine, @BryanDBender, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmccleary, @leehudson, @AndrewDesiderio and @JonnyCustodio.
WHITE HOUSE CYBER SUMMIT GETS RESULTS: After a meeting Wednesday with Biden and his top national security officials, U.S. tech giants and other major companies are promising to boost cybersecurity spending, give away free security tools and help train the next generation of security professionals, per our own ERIC GELLER.
Microsoft said it would spend $20 billion over the next five years to better build security into its products and pledged to offer $150 million worth of “technical services” to federal, state and local government agencies that need help securing their systems.
Google committed to investing more than $10 billion on cybersecurity over five years and said it would donate $100 million to organizations that help maintain and fix vulnerabilities in open-source code.
IBM CEO ARVIND KRISHNA called for “the establishment of voluntary public reporting standards on cybersecurity practices” and announced a new product to speed up the process of recovering corrupted data after a ransomware attack. Amazon also said it would send free hardware security tokens to users of its cloud hosting service.
K STREET MOVES TO CASH IN AFTER KABUL’S COLLAPSE: A slew of Middle Eastern countries have ramped up their outreach to Washington lobbying firms in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, per our own HAILEY FUCHS, DANIEL LIPPMAN and CAITLIN OPRYSKO.
A few firms have already sought to pitch their services to ALI NAZARY, Afghan resistance leader AHMAD MASSOUD’s head of foreign relations and spokesperson. But Nazary declined to say which firms had contacted him, citing non-disclosure agreements he had signed.
Nazary confirmed they would consider hiring a firm “[p]robably in the future,” and asked if he had been to the White House yet, he said: “No representative of the National Resistance Front, including myself, has been invited to the White House or State Department yet[,] but we are hopeful it might happen soon.”
GOP TRYING TO INJECT AFGHANISTAN INTO MIDTERMS: House Republicans are holding out hope that Biden’s messy Afghanistan withdrawal will wound Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, per our own OLIVIA BEAVERS and ANDREW DESIDERIO, but they may have trouble making the fallout stick.
The midterm contests are nearly 15 months away, and voters tend to cast their ballots based on domestic rather than foreign priorities. But Republicans think the bipartisan criticism of the pullout planning will turn the current chaos into a legacy-defining failure for the president — and the suicide bombings in Kabul on Thursday morning underscore the GOP’s projection.
Still, Republicans have their own messaging hurdles to overcome, including prominent members of their party stoking fears about Afghan refugees and former President DONALD TRUMP’s role in negotiating the U.S. drawdown with the Taliban.
HOUSE REPUBLICANS ALREADY BLAMING BIDEN: Republicans in Congress have wasted no time admonishing the president and his team over the deaths in Kabul.
Rep. ELISE STEFANIK (R-N.Y.), the third-ranking House Republican, tweeted “Joe Biden has blood on his hands,” adding “This horrific national security and humanitarian disaster is solely the result of Joe Biden’s weak and incompetent leadership. He is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.”
Rep. JODY HICE (R-Ga.) took it a step further: “Biden policies in Afghanistan are now attacking American troops via terrorist bombs,” he tweeted. “Biden Admin has forsaken America!”
BUSH, OBAMA OFFICIALS OPINE ON PULLOUT: A new report from CHRIS WHIPPLE in Vanity Fair — featuring interviews with LEON PANETTA, ANDREW CARD and JAMES STAVRIDIS — contains some blistering criticism of Biden’s withdrawal decision, as well as the past two decades of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan.
Panetta, who served as BILL CLINTON’s White House chief of staff and BARACK OBAMA’s CIA director and defense secretary, described the early scenes of chaos at Kabul’s international airport as akin to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. “I refuse to believe that we couldn’t have done this in a better way,” he said of the U.S. troop drawdown.
Card, GEORGE W. BUSH’s first White House chief of staff, said he believed Biden’s national security team needed “a handful of really deep contrarians to say, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing?’ … to make sure you don’t get ‘gang think.’”
Stavridis, the retired Navy admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, concluded: “The central failure of Afghanistan was our certainty that we could create a modern, democratic, centralized government with a strong national army. We always knew it would be ‘Mission: Very, Very Hard.’ History should have taught us it was in fact ‘Mission: Impossible.’”
— Biden has appointed ELIZABETH M. ALLEN, a partner at Finsbury Glover Hering and an Obama White House alumna, as assistant secretary of State for global public affairs. He also will nominate Milwaukee Mayor THOMAS BARRETT as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
— RACHEL TECOTT, Foreign Affairs: “Why America Can’t Build Allied Armies”
— KHALEDA RAHMAN, Newsweek: “Which Countries Are Taking in Afghan Refugees and Which Aren’t?”
— The Editorial Board, USA Today: “Mr. President, get them out. Get them out now. Bring them home safely.”
— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “Implementing Mosaic Warfare and Decision-Centric Operations”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
- Alex Ward @alexbward