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Biden Warns Another Kabul Attack Is Likely In Coming Hours

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Biden administration said today that the U.S. military has killed two members of the group blamed for a suicide attack outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thirteen American troops died in that blast, along with about 170 Afghan civilians who were crowded at the gates of the airport trying to flee the country. With three days before the United States plans to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden said the strike on Islamic militants will not be the last. Meanwhile, evacuations continue from Kabul, even as American troops begin to leave. NPR's national security correspondent and former Kabul bureau chief Quil Lawrence is here with the latest.

Quil, thanks so much for joining us.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Can you just describe the latest developments in the U.S. mission? This airlift that you've reported on was winding down?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, yes. It's definitely slowing down from the peaks of last week. The U.S. has now - they've evacuated 5,400 U.S. citizens. And the total evacuation number's up to 117,000. Most of these are Afghans who want to flee the country. But the operation has been very confusing. I mean, the rush to the airport when the Kabul government suddenly fell. There's been confusion between the Taliban who are holding this - the perimeter and checkpoints outside the airport and then the U.S. troops who are guarding the airport itself and rumors about the Taliban coming in. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said today, though, that the operation is still going on.

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JOHN KIRBY: We're not shutting down evacuation operations. We're going to continue going to the end. We are still in charge of the airport, and we are still in charge of security at the airport. And what was true a few days ago is still true today. The Taliban have checkpoints around the airport in a loose perimeter, if you will.

LAWRENCE: So the trick is really how they manage 'cause they are starting to what they call retrograde, which basically pulling out. How do they do that as the Taliban move in? That's going to be sensitive.

MARTIN: So earlier today, the Pentagon said the U.S. military conducted a drone strike in Afghanistan last night that killed two members of the Islamic State affiliate ISIS-K in retaliation for the Kabul airport attack. Can you tell us more about that?

LAWRENCE: There aren't a lot more details. We know what happened in Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan. There aren't troops on the ground that can go in and verify this as they would have in the past. The Pentagon jargon for what happened is that they killed a planner and a facilitator, but they would not give us any details about who - what they might have planned or facilitated, even if they were directly linked to Thursday's attack. We don't know their nationalities, for example. But the Biden administration is saying that it's highly likely there will be more attacks by this group at a time when U.S. troops are in this vulnerable transition.

MARTIN: Also today, the Pentagon released the names of the troops killed outside the airport. What can you tell us about them?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. What sticks out mostly is their ages. Five of them were only 20 years old, the young Marine lance corporals just working the gate. The oldest was 31. I mean, these people are the same age as the war. And these details are trickling in. One of the young Marines that was killed - 23-year-old Sergeant Nicole Gee had posted on her Instagram page just a few days ago a picture of herself holding an Afghan baby and commenting, I love my job. And, you know, this bomb hit all those people that these Marines were trying to protect.

MARTIN: And now with the Taliban in control, what are you hearing about life in Afghanistan now?

LAWRENCE: I - the communications are really tricky. I'm calling all around and generally hearing a lot of trepidation and anxiety. People are being told to go back to school, but it's not clear that they'll send their girls back to school under the Taliban. People are worried about the economy. The currency is crashing, and the prices of food are going up. And the aid economy that has sustained this country is uncertain. What people are most worried about, though, is a return to civil war, which is really the only thing in the past that people say was worse than living under the Taliban.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thank you so much.

LAWRENCE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.