(CNN)A grave and specific ISIS terror threat is hanging over the frantic endgame of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with time fast running out to rescue up to 1,500 Americans and the fate of fleeing Afghans looking darker by the hour.President Joe Biden is so far sticking to his Tuesday deadline for the final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan, after an initially chaotic drawdown that has since evolved into a mammoth and daring airlift of more than 95,700 people out of Kabul — with more than 13,400 people evacuated in the last 24 hours on US and coalition flights, according to the White House.But in an alarming sign of the deteriorating security environment, US diplomats in Kabul early Thursday local time suddenly warned American citizens to “immediately” leave several gates into the airport, citing security threats.
The warning came hours after a US defense official had told CNN that officials were alarmed by a “very specific threat stream” about the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, which planned to attack crowds outside the airfield.
Inside, thousands of troops are braving testing conditions and intense heat to fill cargo aircraft with US citizens and Afghans who helped American troops and officials and fear gruesome punishment by the Taliban.
The question now is how long the Pentagon will give the evacuation operation before it transitions to a mission to extract thousands of troops and materiel, which could take several days and curtail the departures of noncombatants.A source familiar with the situation told CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh that there are an estimated 150 American citizens in Afghanistan who the United States needed to get to the airport. The source said the estimate is the number known to need assistance to get to the airport as of Thursday morning.
That means a race against the clock to find and extract the remaining Americans who want to leave and likely means that thousands of Afghan translators and others could be left behind, in a final tragedy of America’s longest war.But the intense military mobilization has bought Biden some political space, after the lightening collapse of the Afghan state and army directly contradicted his predictions that the Taliban would not suddenly seize power and force the United States into a hurried, humiliating retreat.The operation has so far not cost a single American life. Biden told Americans this week that he would send no more of their sons and daughters to die in Afghanistan. And the fact that US troops are not actively seeking to round up American citizens far from the airport in Taliban territory — apart from a few publicly known examples — suggests the White House is keeping the risks of the operation as low as possible. But Washington is on edge, hostage to developments halfway across the globe. Any US fatalities, terror attacks or exchanges of fire with the Taliban could turn a crisis that is poised on a knife edge for the President into a full-blown political disaster, in addition to the human pain and loss they would cause.As hundreds of Afghans reach US soil, meanwhile, attention is beginning to focus on how the US will absorb the refugees, with some Republicans, including ex-President Donald Trump, already attacking their arrival in a toxic political offensive.