The United States attacked an Islamic State “planner” in Afghanistan in retaliation for a deadly bombing outside Kabul airport and said there was a high risk of further blasts as it nears the end of a mission to evacuate civilians and withdraw troops.
Among the scores killed in Thursday’s suicide bomb blast, claimed by an Islamic State affiliate in the country, were 13 U.S. service members, the most lethal incident for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a decade.
U.S. Central Command said on Friday the overnight drone strike took place in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul and bordering Pakistan.
“Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties,” a U.S. military statement said.
Spokesmen for the Taliban, which completed a rapid takeover of the country this month as U.S. forces withdrew, declined to comment on the drone strike. The Islamic State group in Afghanistan is an enemy of the Taliban as well as the West and the Taliban has said it arrested some suspects after the blast.
Up to 170 people, not including the U.S. troops, were killed in the bombing, according to U.S. media including the New York Times, citing health officials.
The White House said the next few days were likely to be the most dangerous of the U.S. evacuation operation that the Pentagon said has taken about 111,000 people out of Afghanistan in the past two weeks
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States believed there were still “specific, credible” threats against the airport after the bombing at one of its gates.
“We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts,” Kirby told reporters in Washington. “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned Americans to avoid Kabul’s airport because of security threats and those at its gates should leave immediately.
U.S. and allied forces have been racing to complete evacuations of their citizens and vulnerable Afghans and to withdraw from Afghanistan by the Tuesday deadline set by President Joe Biden after two decades of American military presence there.
Most of the more than 20 allied countries involved in airlifting Afghans and their citizens out of Kabul said they had completed evacuations by Friday.
Britain will end its operation on Saturday, its armed forces chief said, while acknowledging that it, like other countries, had not been able to get everyone out.
Throngs of people have gathered outside the airport to try to get onto evacuation flights since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, although on Friday Taliban guards stopped people from approaching.
Biden said earlier he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for Thursday’s bombing.
Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) after an old name for the region, appeared in eastern Afghanistan in 2014 and later made inroads into other areas, particularly the north.
Blasts in Jalalabad
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the drone strike was against an Islamic State militant planning attacks.
A reaper drone, which took off from the Middle East, struck the militant who was in a car with an Islamic State associate. Both are believed to have been killed, the official said.
In Jalalabad, community elder Malik Adib said three people were killed and four were wounded in the air strike at around midnight on Friday, adding he had been summoned by the Taliban investigating the incident.
“Women and children are among the victims,” said Adib, though he did not have information about their identity.
Residents of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, said on Saturday they had heard several explosions from an air strike around midnight, though it was not clear if the blasts were caused by a U.S. drone.
A senior Taliban commander said some ISIS-K members had been arrested in connection with the Kabul attack. “They are being interrogated by our intelligence team,” the commander said.
The number of Afghans killed in the airport bomb attack had risen to 79 on Friday, a hospital official told Reuters, adding that more than 120 were wounded.
While Kabul’s airport has been in chaos, the rest of the city has been generally calm. The Taliban have told residents to hand over government equipment including weapons and vehicles within a week, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
Biden was already facing criticism at home and abroad for the chaos surrounding the troop withdrawal and evacuations. As the Taliban rapidly advanced to Kabul amid the pullout, Afghanistan’s Western-backed government and military collapsed. Biden has defended his decisions, saying the United States long ago achieved its rationale for invading the country in 2001.
The U.S.-led invasion toppled the then-ruling Taliban, punishing them for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The Taliban have said Afghans with valid documents would be able to travel in future but the population left behind is facing a humanitarian catastrophe, U.N. officials say.