In the days before a suicide bomber killed 13 service personnel at Kabul airport in 2021, U.S. military commanders were aware of the threat and twice missed chances to take out the deadly terrorist network behind the plot, according to a new book.
Daily Mail (h/t Nita) The Taliban, who had seized control of Afghanistan, refused a request to raid a hotel that was a known staging post for ISIS-K, who carried out the atrocity. And at around the same time, superior officers vetoed a plan for a drone strike elsewhere because of the ‘negative response’ of the Taliban to such a raid.
Taken together, the shocking conclusion is that the bloodiest moment in President Joe Biden‘s presidency might have been avoided if American troops had not been reliant on their enemy for protection in the final days of the evacuation. A total of 183 people were killed in the blast, including the bomber.
The details are set out in ‘Kabul: The Untold Story of Biden’s Fiasco and the American Warriors Who Fought to the End,’ which is published by Center Street on Tuesday — the two-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover. It describes how the effort to bring home American troops from a 20-year-war collapsed into confusion, as Taliban gunmen raced through the country and seized Kabul in a matter of weeks.
Tens of thousands of people descended on Hamid Karzai International Airport trying to flee the country’s brutal new rulers. With the Taliban in control of Kabul, U.S. forces made a deal with their foe of two decades, relying on their enemy to help keep the airport safe.
It ended in bloodshed. A suicide bomber with the Islamic State’s local affiliate detonated his deadly payload on August 26 at the airport’s Abbey Gate, where U.S. Marines were stationed to handle the crush of people.
‘Our findings — tucked away in the Pentagon’s own documents and in the own words of military officers personally involved in the Afghanistan evacuation — provide more damning evidence about the dangerous stupidity of relying upon terrorists like the Taliban to provide security at Kabul airport,’ said Jerry Dunleavy, one of the book authors and an investigator. He is helping lead the Afghanistan withdrawal investigation for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, although he wrote the book in a personal capacity.
He and co-author James Hasson, a former Army officer who served in Afghanistan, pieced together the story with interviews and information that in some cases was hiding in plain sight.
For example, a key insight comes from the official Central Command report into the bombing. It was published earlier this year after a freedom of information request. It includes an interview transcript describing how intelligence channels were humming with warnings two days before the attack
An officer, whose name is redacted, describes a meeting of ambassadors and military attachés in Kabul. ‘I shared intelligence about the pending attack, so everyone was aware, and knew it was happening,’ said the officer. ‘The intelligence community didn’t know the gate, but assessed it would be Abbey Gate due to the number of people there.’
The gate was initially due to close around then but the British government and others lobbied to keep it open as they sought to rescue their last remaining citizens.
The threat of an attack was so high, report Dunleavy and Hassan, that Marines there were ordered on to one knee all night to reduce their exposure to an explosion. A day later medical units were told to be on alert for a mass casualty event.
Another officer described how there were was daily coordination with the Taliban on security, and nightly intelligence meetings between U.S. units to share latest information. ‘Units at H.K.I.A (Hamid Karzai International Airport) used Chat Surfer to disseminate information on threats,’ he said.
‘Intelligence officers knew that ISIS-K. was staging in a hotel 2-3 kilometers west of H.K.I.A., and D2 asked the Taliban to conduct an assault on the hotel, but they never did.’ The identity of D2 is revealed in other documents as General Chris Donahue.
He was commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division during the evacuation and became famous as the last American service member to leave Afghanistan when he boarded a C-17 transport plane – a moment immortalized in a green-tinged photograph taken with a night-vision lens.
The location of the hotel was close to where the U.S. launched a botched drone strike in the aftermath of the suicide attack. It killed 10 civilians including seven children.
The investigation into the botched strike reveals the other missed opportunity in the build-up to the airport attack. The report includes the sworn statement of an officer who had ‘target engagement authority’ to conduct strikes in defense of American forces.
They described how nine days before the attack, intelligence indicated that I.S.I.S.-K planned to attack international forces and the Taliban in order to disrupt the ‘establishment of stability and governance.’
‘As a result of the threat reporting, we conducted a targeting effort focused on ISIS K threats leading into Kabul,’ the officer continued. The strike unit was ‘authorized to look at ISIS-K targets’ but had to submit detailed proposals for permission to engage.’
But it was rejected. Rear Adm. Peter Vasly, commander U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Forward and Donahue had ‘both determined conducting a strike was infeasible due to the negative response.’
Dunleavy said: ‘Combined with the courageous testimony from Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, these findings show the Abbey Gate attack was not inevitable — and likely was preventable if our leaders had done more to protect the brave troops under their command.
‘The Gold Star families deserve the truth from the Biden administration.’
In a hearing earlier this year, Vargas-Andrews, described how he was stationed in a snipe tower on the day of the blast. He said he identified a person in the throng that matching the description of a suspected suicide bomber just hours before the attack. He said his superiors failed to act on his warning. The result was one of the deadliest days for U.S. forces in the last decade of the war. At least 160 Afghans also died.
Hasson said three different officers — across two separate investigations — stated that the military and the intelligence community were tracking ISIS-K members likely linked to the Abbey Gate bombing, and that they were nearly certain that an attack was imminent, but no offensive measures were taken.
‘Leaders in D.C. made one unforced error after another throughout the withdrawal, and each mistake compounded the risk to the men and women on the ground.
‘Ultimately, it led to U.S. commanders tailoring decisions to the desires of Taliban leaders who had them surrounded, and to the loss of thirteen brave Americans.’