Barely four days before the American deadline of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, fears mounted of more terror attacks, a day after 85 people, including 13 US troops, were killed in twin blasts outside Kabul airport swamped by those desperate to flee the Taliban-controlled country, media reports said.
General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said US commanders were on alert for more attacks by Islamic State, including possibly rockets or vehicle-borne bombs targeting the airport.
The deadly attacks are believed to have been carried out by the Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-K. The US is frantically trying to evacuate as many as 1,000 Americans who may still be in the country as well as the Afghans fearing Taliban executions because they helped US forces.
The American casualties in the August 27 attack were believed to be the most US troops killed in Afghanistan in a single incident since 30 personnel died when a helicopter was shot down in 2011. The US deaths were the first in action in Afghanistan in 18 months, a fact likely to be cited by critics who accuse President Biden of recklessly abandoning a stable and hard-won status quo by ordering an abrupt pullout.
Also read: Deadliest days for US troops in Afghanistan
Two blasts and gunfire rocked the area outside the airport on August 26 evening. A video shot by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies strewn around a canal on the edge of the airport.
A health official and a Taliban official said the toll of Afghans killed had risen to 72, including 28 Taliban members. The US military said 13 of its service members were killed.
Islamic State (ISIS), an enemy of the Taliban as well as the West, said one of its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”. US officials also blamed the group and vowed retribution.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” US President Biden has said. “We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation.”
Biden, speaking for the first time since the American deaths were confirmed, said he has asked military commanders to develop plans to strike ISIS-K assets. The U.S. has “some reason to believe” they know who the responsible ISIS-K leaders are, he said.
Biden had warned earlier that the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS Khorasan or ISIS-K, posed a serious threat to the evacuations of Americans and vulnerable Afghans.
The ISIS-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point says ISIS-K includes Pakistanis from other terrorist groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.
Gen. McKenzie warned that new threats from ISIS-K, which means that the next four days will be among the tensest and dangerous of the entire war for US troops. In a cruel irony, the latest American casualties took place in a land where al Qaeda terrorists were sheltered, resulting in the 9/11 attack and triggering the war on terror nearly two decades back.
“We’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” said Gen. McKenzie, adding that some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and that he believed “some attacks have been thwarted by them.”
In the past 12 days, Western countries have evacuated nearly 100,000 people. But they acknowledge that thousands will be left behind when the last US troops leave at the end of the month.
Addressing the nation from the White House, Biden bowed his head for a moment of silence before taking questions from journalists. He appeared occasionally close to tears as he spoke of the dead “heroes”.
Biden’s presidency has been shaken to the core by the Kabul airport bombing. In January, he took office promising calm at home and respect for the United States abroad after the turbulent Donald Trump years.
The 78-year-old Democrat was already reeling from the almost overnight collapse of the US-backed government and US-created army, leaving the handful of remaining US troops and many thousands of US citizens and allies at the Taliban’s mercy.
Shutting himself away with aides in the Situation Room, Biden canceled a meeting of state governors and told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that their planned meeting in the Oval Office would have to wait.
Throughout a day of meetings with national security staff, Biden was “somber” and “outraged,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “Any day where you’ll lose service members is maybe the worst day of your presidency.”