The Charlotte Observer (Sunday)
Biden promises more strikes against ISIS-K militants
President Joe Biden vowed Saturday to keep up airstrikes against the Islamic extremist group whose suicide bombing at the Kabul airport killed scores of Afghans and 13 American service members.
Another terror attack, Biden said, is “highly likely” this weekend as the U.S. winds down its evacuation.
The Pentagon said the remaining contingent of U.S. forces at the airport, now numbering fewer than 4,000, had begun their final withdrawal ahead of Biden’s deadline for ending the evacuation on Tuesday.
NATO allies, including the British, were also pulling out the last of their forces from Kabul on Saturday. As the evacuations ended, Taliban forces tightened access to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where thousands of civilians were still hoping to get out of Afghanistan.
After getting briefed on a U.S. drone mission in eastern Afghanistan that the Pentagon said killed two members of the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate early Saturday, Biden said the extremists of the group known as ISIS-K can expect more.
“This strike was not the last,” Biden said in a statement. “We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.” He paid tribute to the “bravery and selflessness” of the American troops executing the hurried airlift of tens of thousands from Kabul airport, including the 13 U.S. service members who were killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing at an airport gate.
The evacuation proceeded as tensions rose over the prospect of another ISIS-K attack.
“Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours,” Biden said, adding that he has instructed them to take all possible measures to protect their troops, who are securing the airport and helping bring onto the airfield Americans and others desperate to escape Taliban rule.
The remains of the 13 American troops were on their way to the United States, the Pentagon said. Their voyage marked a painful moment in a nearly 20-year American war that cost more than 2,400 U.S. military lives and is ending with the return to power of a Taliban movement that was ousted when U.S. forces invaded in October 2001.
The Pentagon released the names of those killed – 11 Marines, one Navy sailor and one Army soldier. Twelve of them were in the 20s; some were born in 2001, the year America’s longest war began. The oldest was 31. They were the first U.S. service members killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, the month the Trump administration struck an agreement with the Taliban in which the militant group halted attacks on Americans in exchange for a U.S. agreement to remove all troops and contractors by May 2021. Biden announced in April that the 2,500 to 3,000 troops who remained would be out by September, ending what he has called America’s forever war.
About 5,400 Americans have been evacuated from the country so far, including 300 in the last day. The State Department believes about 350 more want out; it said there are roughly 280 others who have said they are Americans but who have not told the State Department of their plans to leave the country, or who have said they plan to remain.
The Pentagon said that about 6,800 people, mostly Afghans, were flown out in the 24 hours that ended Saturday morning, bringing to 117,00 the total number of people of all nationalities evacuated since the hurried exit was begun Aug. 14, just one day before the Taliban swept to power.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. military force at the Kabul airport, which peaked at about 5,800, had begun its final withdrawal.
The Pentagon said an airstrike early Saturday local time in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, killed two ISIS-K “planners and facilitators.”
“They have lost some capability to plan and to conduct missions, but make no mistake, nobody’s writing this off and saying, ‘Well, we got them. We don’t have to worry about ISIS-K anymore.’ Not the case,” Kirby told a news conference.
Biden also faces the problem over the longer term of containing an array of potential extremist threats based in Afghanistan, which will be harder with fewer U.S. intelligence assets and no military presence in the nation. Critics say Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the door open for al-Qaida, ISIS-K and other extremist groups to grow and potentially threaten the United States. It was al-Qaida’s use of Afghanistan as a base, with the Taliban’s acquiescence, that prompted the United States to invade the country in October 2001, beginning the longest war in U.S. history.