U.S. airstrike targets Islamic State member in Afghanistan, officials say

Acting swiftly on U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise to retaliate for the deadly suicide bombing at Kabul airport, the U.S. military said it used a drone strike to kill a member of the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate Saturday.

The strike came amid what the White House called indications that ISIS planned to strike again as the U.S.-led evacuation from Kabul airport moved into its final days. Biden has set Tuesday as his deadline for completing the exit.

Biden authorized the drone strike and it was ordered by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, a defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet publicly announced.

The airstrike was launched from beyond Afghanistan less than 48 hours after the devastating Kabul attack that killed 13 Americans and scores of Afghans with just days left in a final U.S. withdrawal after 20 years of war. U.S. Central Command provided few details; it said it believed its strike killed no civilians.

Not clear if target linked to airport attack

The speed with which the U.S. military retaliated reflected its close monitoring of ISIS 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 extremist threats, which some believe will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban is in power.

Central Command said the drone strike was conducted in Nangarhar province against an ISIS member believed to be involved in planning attacks against the United States in Kabul. The strike killed one individual, spokesperson Navy Capt. William Urban said.

It wasn’t clear if the targeted individual was involved directly in the Thursday suicide blast outside the gates of the Kabul airport, where crowds of Afghans were desperately trying to get in as part of the ongoing evacuation.

The airstrike came after Biden declared Thursday that perpetrators of the attack would not be able to hide. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said. Pentagon leaders told reporters Friday that they were prepared for whatever retaliatory action the president ordered.

“We have options there right now,” said Maj.-Gen. Hank Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

Another attack ‘likely’

The president was warned Friday to expect another lethal attack in the closing days of a frantic U.S.-led evacuation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s national security team offered a grim outlook.

“They advised the president and vice-president that another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport,” Psaki said, echoing what the Pentagon has been saying since the bombing Thursday at Kabul airport.

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Late Friday, the State Department again urged Americans to stay away from airport gates, including “the New Ministry of Interior gate.”

Few new details about the airport attack emerged a day later, but the Pentagon corrected its initial report that there had been suicide bombings at two locations. It said there was just one — at or near the Abbey Gate — followed by gunfire. The initial report of a second bombing at the nearby Baron Hotel proved to be false, said Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff; he attributed the mistake to initial confusion.

As many as 92 killed

Based on a preliminary assessment, U.S. officials believe the suicide vest used in the attack carried about 25 pounds (11 kilograms) of explosives and was loaded with shrapnel, a U.S. official said Friday. A suicide bomb typically carries five to 10 pounds (two to 4.5 kilograms) of explosives, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary assessments of the bombing.

Death counts from the attack differ. The Associated Press is reporting 169 people were killed in the attack, while Reuters gave the toll as 92. 

A vendor selling Taliban flags stands next to the posters of Taliban leaders as he waits for customers along a street in Kabul on Friday. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Biden still 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.

Emily Harding, a former CIA analyst and deputy staff director for the Senate intelligence committee, said she doubted Biden’s assurances that the United States will be able to monitor and strike terror threats from beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The Pentagon also insists this so-called “over the horizon” capability, which includes surveillance and strike aircraft based in the Persian Gulf area, will be effective.

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