WASHINGTON - The United States used a drone strike Saturday to retaliate against the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan for conducting an attack Thursday that killed 169 Afghans and 13 American troops.
The strike killed two ISIS-K targets. President Joe Biden said Saturday’s drone strike won’t be the last. He said whenever anyone seeks to harm the U.S. or attack American troops, "we will respond."
"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. "This strike was not the last. We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay."
Emboldened by the withdrawal of American and Western forces, the Taliban swept through Afghanistan earlier this month, culminating with the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15.
Since then, Afghans have flocked to the airport in Kabul, desperate to get out of the Taliban’s reach. More than 117,000 people have fled the country. 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.
ISIS-K conducted a suicide bombing at the airport Thursday and Biden said American commanders have informed him it’s highly likely another attack will occur in the next 24-36 hours.
President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 26, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
"I directed them to take every possible measure to prioritize force protection, and ensured that they have all the authorities, resources and plans to protect our men and women on the ground," Biden said. "They assured me that they did, and that they could take these measures while completing the mission and safely retrograding our personnel."
The Department of Defense identified the 13 service members killed in the Kabul attack. Biden called them "heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice."
"Their bravery and selflessness has enabled more than 117,000 people at risk to reach safety thus far," Biden said. "May God protect our troops and all those standing watch in these dangerous days."
With Biden’s approval, the Pentagon this month sent thousands of additional troops to the Kabul airport to provide security and to facilitate the State Department’s chaotic effort to evacuate thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who had helped the United States during the war. The evacuation was marred by confusion and chaos as the U.S. government was caught by surprise when the Afghan army collapsed and the Taliban swept to power Aug. 15.
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.
Untold numbers of vulnerable Afghans, fearful of a return to the brutality of pre-2001 Taliban rule, are likely to be left behind. Biden and the leaders of other Western countries have said they would try to work with the Taliban to allow Afghans who had worked with them to leave after the U.S.-led evacuation ends.
The Pentagon said that about 6,800 people, mostly Afghans, were flown out in the 24 hours that ended Saturday morning, bringing to 113,500 the total number of people of all nationalities evacuated since the hurried exit was begun Aug. 14.
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 number had dropped below 4,000 on Saturday, according to a U.S. official who discussed details not yet publicly released on condition of anonymity. Kirby said that for security reasons the Pentagon will not provide a day-by-day description of the final stages of the military’s withdrawal, which includes flying home troops as well as equipment.
The Pentagon said an airstrike early Saturday local time in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, killed two IS "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, using an abbreviation for the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.
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, the Islamic State 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.
Saturday’s drone mission came less than two days after the Kabul attack and a public pledge by Biden that he would make IS "pay" for their suicide bomb attack. Officials made no claim that the two individuals killed played a direct role in Thursday’s Kabul airport attack.
Kirby declined to release the names and nationalities of the two killed. He said one other person was wounded in the strike. The speed with which the U.S. retaliated reflected its close monitoring of IS and years of experience in targeting extremists in remote parts of the world. But it also shows the limits of U.S. power to eliminate the threat from extremists, who some believe will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban is in power.
Kirby said the U.S. had "the ability and the means to carry over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities and we’re going to defend ourselves," referring to the military’s use of aircraft based in the Persian Gulf area and elsewhere to carry out strikes in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.