US strikes ISIL target in Afghanistan, pushes airlift into final stage
The U.S. conducted a drone strike against an Islamic State target in Afghanistan on Aug. 28, as the airlift of those desperate to flee moved into its fraught final stages with fresh terror attack warnings and encroaching Taliban forces primed to take over Kabul airport.
U.S. forces overseeing the evacuation have been forced into closer security cooperation with the Taliban to prevent any repeat of a suicide bombing that killed scores of civilians crowded around one of the airport’s main access gates and 13 American troops.
The attack was claimed by a regional chapter of the Islamic State group, and the Pentagon announced it had carried out a drone attack on a "planner" from the jihadist group in eastern Afghanistan.
"Initial indications are that we killed the target," said Captain Bill Urban of the Central Command.
With the airlift window narrowing sharply ahead of an August 31 deadline, more than 5,000 people remain inside Kabul airport awaiting evacuation, and crowds continue to throng the perimeter gates pleading for entry.
The carnage of Thursday’s suicide attack only 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.
The suicide bombing followed a chorus of warnings about an imminent threat and, as people gathered outside the airport Saturday, the United States issued a fresh alert for US citizens to leave areas around the main gates "immediately".
In recent years, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in those countries - massacring civilians at mosques, shrines, public squares and even hospitals.
At the White House, President Joe Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. national security experts consider another attack is "likely" and the next few days will be "the most dangerous period to date".
Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi said on Twitter that the group’s fighters had already moved into parts of the military side of Kabul airport, but the Pentagon stressed that U.S. forces retained control over the gates and airlift operations.
Racing to meet the Tuesday deadline for the U.S. withdrawal has required close cooperation with the Taliban on evacuee movements and the ISIL threat.
The head of U.S. forces at the airport, Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, is in constant contact with the Taliban official overseeing security around the airport.
And with the Taliban poised to take over when the last U.S. 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 Erdoğan said the Taliban offer was for them to oversee security at the airport, while Ankara runs logistical operations.
Under enormous criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the Afghan crisis and the U.S. military withdrawal, Biden has pledged to stick to the airlift deadline and to punish those responsible for the suicide blast.
About 109,000 people have been flown out of the country since August 14, the day before the Taliban swept to power, according to the U.S. government.
Some Western allies, including Britain and Spain, announced an end to their airlifts on Friday, following other nations such as Canada and Australia earlier in the week.
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.
The Taliban have promised a softer brand of rule compared with their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, which ended when the United States invaded Afghanistan following the September 11 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 U.S.-backed government.
The role that women will be allowed to play in society has been one of the biggest concerns, after women were banned from work and education and confined to their homes during the group’s previous rule.
Taliban official Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the former deputy chief negotiator of peace talks in Doha, said Friday that women have "an innate right" to work.
"They can work, they can study, they can take part in politics and they can do business," he told a press conference.