The US drone strike on the Islamic State in Afghanistan killed two of the terror group’s operatives — but the Pentagon believes another terrorist attack in Kabul is imminent.
Major Gen. William Taylor said that a “planner” and a “facilitator” were dead following Friday’s operation.
Officials conceded that ISIS-K remains a deadly threat, and President Biden warned Saturday afternoon a new attack “is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours.”
Officials refused to identify the individuals killed by name, or say if they played specific roles in the suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport that killed 13 US service members and at least 169 Afghans. The lack of detail led some experts to conclude the two were not high-value targets.
“I’m not gonna talk about intelligence matters one way or the other,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
Kirby characterized the two targets as confirmed operatives for Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the local affiliate of the jihadist group that took credit for Thursday’s bloodshed.
“They were ISIS-K planners and facilitators, and that’s enough reason there alone,” Kirby said. “The fact that two of these individuals are no longer walking on the face of the earth, that’s a good thing.”
Biden said it won’t be the last US strike on the terrorists.
“I said we would go after the group responsible for the attack on our troops and innocent civilians in Kabul, and we have,” Biden said in a statement released Saturday afternoon. “This strike was not the last. We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.”
Taking those two terrorists out didn’t change the dynamics of the evacuation operation.
‘”We aren’t thinking for a minute that what happened yesterday gets us in the clear,” Kirby said. “Not a minute. But do we believe we hit valid targets, bad guys who can do bad things and can plan bad missions? Absolutely. And do we think that will have some impact on their ability going forward? Absolutely.”
The Taliban criticized the drone strike and said they should have been informed before it took place and that women and children were among the victims. The US military said there were no civilian casualties.
The Taliban also claimed to have arrested some suspects involved in the airport attack.
Kirby said the bodies of the soldiers killed in the airport attack were on their way back to the U.S. He would not say if Biden would meet the transport when it arrives.
Even as the US continues to process people desperately trying to evacuate Afghanistan before Tuesday’s US deadline, some troops have started to leave Kabul, Kirby said.
“The retrograde has begun,” he said of the 5,000 troops deployed there to conduct the evacuation.
Gen. Taylor said 32 US military flights and 34 allied flights got 6,800 people out of Kabul from Friday to Saturday, bringing the total number of evacuees over 117,000. Roughly 5,400 of those were American citizens.
“This is an incredible number of people who are now safer, thanks to the heroism of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line each day to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans out of Kabul,” Taylor said.
Flights are beginning to bring Afghan evacuees to US soil, including one scheduled to fly Saturday from Italy to Philadelphia. US military bases in several states are readying space for about 21,000 evacuees.
The general said the US military still controls the airport, denying Taliban claims that it was holding some positions within the facility in preparation of taking control when the Americans depart.
But State Department officials warned Americans to avoid the airport because of security threats, and told those desperately waiting at the gates to leave.
The Taliban deployed extra forces Saturday in a bid to prevent large crowds from forming near the airport and creating new targets for terror attacks. Areas where large crowds had gathered in recent days hoping to escape the country following the Taliban takeover were largely empty.
New checkpoints also sprang up on the roads leading to the airport, some manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with US-supplied Humvees and night-vision goggles captured from Afghan security forces. Taliban members were reportedly letting only people with US passports go through, sealing off possible escape routes for Afghans.
Access to the airport isn’t the only thing blocked. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside a bank in Kabul amid a cash shortage in the country that has seen ATM withdrawals limited to $200 per day.
Criticism of the chaotic situation continued.
“I’ve lost my son,” said Jim McCollum, father of 20-year-old Marine Rylee McCollum, who was killed Thursday. “We gave them everything they need, and we are pinned down a the airport. I’m scared sh-tless to see what’s going to happen next, and what’s going to come our way.”
While officials pledged that the US will continue the evacuation until Tuesday’s deadline, most NATO allies flew their troops out of Kabul Saturday, ending two decades of involvement in the war-ravaged country.
The UK was carrying out its final evacuation flights, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “shift heaven and earth” to get more of those at risk from Taliban reprisals to Britain by other means.
Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, said in a video from the Kabul airport that it was “time to close this phase of the operation.”
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