A US air strike in Afghanistan has killed two high-profile targets of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) group, an ISIL (ISIS) affiliate, and left another wounded, the Pentagon said.
No civilians were hurt in the attack early on Saturday, which followed the suicide bombing at Kabul airport on Thursday – claimed by ISKP – that killed at least 175 people, including 13 US troops, Major General Hank Taylor told a news conference later on Saturday.
The Pentagon declined to say if the people targeted in the US attack were directly involved in the suicide bombing or to identify them, but said the United States knew who they were.
“They were ISIS-K planners and facilitators. That’s enough reason there alone,” said spokesman John Kirby.
“The fact that two of these individuals are no longer walking on the face of the Earth, that’s a good thing,” Kirby added.
But the Taliban condemned the US drone strike on ISKP members, with a spokesman describing the operation as a “clear attack on Afghan territory”.
Zabihullah Mujahid also told Reuters news agency on Saturday that the Taliban expected to take full control of Kabul airport very shortly, once US forces leave, and would announce a full cabinet in the coming days.
The suicide bombing on Thursday, which targeted throngs of Afghans gathered outside the airport in hopes of fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, opened a deadly new chapter in the drama unfolding as the frantic US evacuation drive approaches its Tuesday deadline for completion.
US officials have said more attacks on the evacuation effort are likely.
More than 5,000 people remained inside Kabul airport awaiting evacuation on Saturday.
There are no longer crowds of thousands around the airport’s perimeter hoping to be let through and allowed onto a plane as the Taliban has sealed off roads leading to the airport and are only letting sanctioned buses pass.
“We have lists from the Americans … if your name is on the list, you can come through,” one Taliban official told the AFP news agency near the civilian passenger terminal.
The carnage of Thursday injected further stress and tension into a situation already fraught with panic and despair for those wanting to leave and high risk for the US forces tasked with securing the operation.
On Friday, the Pentagon corrected its initial report that there had been suicide bombings at two locations. It said there was just one – at or near the Abbey Gate – followed by gunfire. The initial report of a second bombing at the nearby Baron Hotel proved to be false, Taylor said.
The bombing followed a chorus of warnings about an imminent threat and, as people gathered outside the airport on Saturday, the US issued a fresh alert for its citizens to leave areas around the main gates “immediately”.
At the White House on Friday, President Joe Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki said US national security experts consider another attack is “likely” and the next few days will be “the most dangerous period to date”.
Evacuations enter ‘end game’
Under enormous criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the Afghan crisis and the US military withdrawal, Biden has pledged to stick to the airlift deadline and punish those responsible for the suicide blast.
About 112,000 people have been flown out of the country since August 14, the day before the Taliban swept to power, according to the US government.
Many Western allies have announced an end to their airlifts, with some admitting that at-risk Afghans eligible for evacuation had been left behind.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kabul, said that since Friday evening the US military has been pulling back its forces and giving up its guard posts to the Taliban on the outer perimeter of Kabul airport and in some positions inside the airport before the final withdrawal of its troops by August 31.
“You do get a sense this Saturday evening here in Kabul that this long, drawn-out, often chaotic and traumatic evacuation process [is] finally in the end game,” he said.
Racing to meet the Tuesday withdrawal deadline has required close US cooperation with the Taliban on evacuee movements and the ISKP threat.
And with the Taliban poised to take over when the last US plane leaves, discussions have begun on resuming normal flight operations.
Turkish officials have held initial talks with the Taliban in Kabul about helping get the airport back up and running.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Taliban offer was for them to oversee security at the airport, while Ankara runs logistical operations.
The Taliban has promised an inclusive brand of rule compared with their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, which ended when the US invaded Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But many Afghans fear a repeat of their brutal interpretation of Islamic law, as well as reprisals against those working with foreign militaries, Western missions or the previous US-backed government.
Women’s role in society has been one of the biggest concerns, as they were banned from work and education and confined to their homes during the group’s previous rule.
The United Nations said it was bracing for a “worst-case scenario” of up to half a million more refugees from Afghanistan by the end of 2021.