US President Joe Biden has promised further attacks against the ISIL (ISIS) group’s affiliate in Afghanistan in retaliation for a deadly suicide bombing on Thursday outside Kabul airport and warned that the situation on the ground continues to be “extremely dangerous” with another attack “highly likely” in the coming hours.
“This strike was not the last. We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.
“Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours. I directed them to take every possible measure to prioritise force protection.”
A suicide bombing at Kabul airport on Thursday – claimed by Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) – killed at least 175 people, including 13 US soldiers.
The Pentagon said earlier on Saturday that a US air attack in Afghanistan killed two high-profile ISKP targets and left another wounded.
No civilians were hurt in the US attack early on Saturday, Major General Hank Taylor told a news conference.
The Pentagon declined to say if the people targeted in the US attack were directly involved in the suicide bombing.
“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.”
The Taliban condemned the US drone attack 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 shortly, once US forces leave, and would announce a full cabinet in the coming days.
Thursday’s blast, 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.
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 is 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.
Thursday’s carnage 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 new alert for its citizens to leave areas around the main gates “immediately”.
At the White House on Friday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said US national security experts consider another attack “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 the US military has been pulling back its forces since Friday evening 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 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.