A U.S. drone strike on Sunday hit a suicide bomber in a vehicle who was aiming to attack Kabul airport as U.S. forces worked to complete a withdrawal that will end two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The strike was the second by the U.S. military since an Islamic State suicide bomb just outside the airport on Thursday killed 13 U.S. troops and scores of Afghan civilians.
The airport has been the scene of a massive airlift by U.S. and allied forces evacuating their citizens and Afghans desperate to leave a country since the Islamist Taliban took control two weeks ago.
Officials said the strike targeted suspected militants from ISIS-K, a local affiliate of Islamic State that is an enemy of both the West and of the Taliban movement that took over the capital on Aug. 15 after a lightning offensive.
One U.S. official said it was carried out by an unmanned aircraft piloted from outside Afghanistan, and that secondary explosions following the strike showed the target had been carrying a substantial amount of explosives. Television footage showed black smoke rising into the sky.
U.S. officials had said they were particularly concerned about the ISIS-K attacking the airport as American troops depart, in particular the threat from rockets and vehicle-borne explosives.
The drone strike took place while remaining civilians waited at the airport to be flown out before the last troops leave, a Western security official told Reuters. A U.S. official told Reuters on Saturday that fewer than 4,000 troops remained.
The Taliban also said the explosion was caused by a U.S missile strike. “The vehicle and those inside it were killed in the drone strike,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
They had started their own investigations to determine whether it was really a suicide bomber driving a vehicle loaded with explosives, he said.
President Joe Biden has said he will stick by his deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Tuesday. He had said on Saturday that his military chiefs had told him another militant attack was highly likely.
The United States and allies have taken about 114,400 people – foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans – out of the country in the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who want to go will be left behind.
“We tried every option because our lives are in danger. They (the Americans or foreign powers) must show us a way to be saved. We should leave Afghanistan or they should provide a safe place for us,” said one woman outside the airport.
The airlift – one of the biggest such evacuation operations ever – marked the end of a 20-year Western mission in Afghanistan that began when U.S.-led forces ousted a Taliban government that had provided safe haven for the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
The final chapter came after the United States and the Taliban made a deal to end the foreign involvement by Aug. 31. The Western-backed government and Afghan army melted away as Taliban fighters swept across the country, taking control of Kabul on Aug. 15.
A Taliban official told Reuters the Islamist group had engineers and technicians ready to take charge of the airport.
“We are waiting for the final nod from the Americans to secure full control over Kabul airport as both sides aim for a swift handover,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Honoring the dead
Biden headed on Sunday to Dover Air Force Base to honor members of the U.S. military killed in Thursday’s attack as their remains were returned to the United States.
He vowed to go after the perpetrators and on Saturday the States said on Saturday it had killed two ISIS-K militants in a drone strike. The Taliban condemned that strike, which took place in eastern Nangarhar province which borders Pakistan.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Washington expected the Taliban to still allow safe passage for Americans and others to leave after the U.S. military withdrawal is completed.
“The Taliban have both communicated privately and publicly that they will allow for safe passage,” Jake Sullivan said in a CBS TV interview.
The Afghan government’s collapse leaves an administrative vacuum that has led to fears of an economic crisis and widespread hunger.
Prices for commodities like flour, oil and rice are rapidly rising and the currency is plunging, with money changers across the border in Pakistan already refusing to accept the afghani.
On Saturday, officials ordered banks to re-open and imposed a limit on withdrawals of $200 or 20,000 afghani. Long queues forming outside bank branches of people trying to get money out.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said the difficulties will subside quickly once the new administration is up and running.
But with its economy shattered by decades of war, Afghanistan is now facing the end of billions of dollars in foreign aid poured in by Western donors.
Mujahid said the Taliban would announce a full cabinet in the coming days. It had appointed governors and police chiefs in all but one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, he said.
The Taliban also appealed to the United States and other Western nations to maintain diplomatic relations after withdrawing. Britain said that should happen only if the Taliban allow safe passage for those who want to leave and respect human rights.
The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by a harsh version of sharia, Islamic law, with many political rights and basic freedoms curtailed and women severely oppressed.
Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again.
Biden has faced criticism at home and abroad for the chaos surrounding the final weeks of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. He has defended his decisions, saying the United States long ago achieved its rationale for invading in 2001.
Britain’s last military flight left Kabul on Saturday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain would not have wished to leave Afghanistan in such a manner.