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US strikes at Islamic State militants in Kabul as withdrawal nears end

US strikes at Islamic State militants in Kabul as withdrawal nears end

US Marines and German service member watch an entry gate during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 28, 2021.

US Marine Corps/Corporal Davis Harris/Handout/Reuters

(4th UPDATE) A Taliban official says they are waiting for the 'final node' from the Americans to secure full control over Kabul airport

The United States carried out a missile strike on Islamic State militants in Kabul on Sunday, August 29, US officials said, as its forces at the capital’s airport worked to complete a withdrawal that will end two decades of involvement in Afghanistan.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the strike targeted suspected ISIS-K militants, a group that is an enemy of both the West and the Taliban and was responsible for a suicide bomb attack outside the airport gates on Thursday.

The attack by ISIS-K, a branch of Islamic State, killed at least 90 Afghans and 13 American troops as a huge evacuation operation was underway following the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul on August 15.

The US officials said they were citing initial information and cautioned it could change.

Television footage showed black smoke rising into the sky but there was no immediate word on any casualties.

Two witnesses said the blast appeared to have been caused by a rocket that hit a house in an area to the northern side of the airport but there was no immediate confirmation.

The US strike took place while about 1,000 civilians waited at the airport to be flown out before the last troops leave, a Western security official told Reuters.

“We want to ensure that every foreign civilian and those who are at risk are evacuated today. Forces will start flying out once this process is over,” said the official, who is stationed at the airport.

US President Joe Biden has said he will stick by his deadline to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by Tuesday, August 31. A US official told Reuters on Saturday, August 28, that fewer than 4,000 troops remained at the airport.

US and allied forces have mounted a massive two-week effort to ferry foreign nationals and tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans out of the country.

The airlift – one of the biggest such evacuation operations ever – marked the end of a 20-year Western mission in Afganistan that began when US-led forces ousted a Taliban government that had provided safe haven for the perpetrators of the September. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The final chapter came quickly after the United States and the Taliban made a deal to end the foreign involvement. The Western-backed government and Afghan army melted away as Taliban fighters swept across the country and took control of Kabul on August 15.

The United States and allies have taken about 114,400 people out of Afghanistan in the past two weeks, but tens of thousands who want to go will be left behind.

“We tried every option because our lives are in danger. They (the Americans or foreigners) must show us a way to be saved. We should leave Afghanistan or they should provide a safe place for us,” said one women outside the airport.

A Taliban official told Reuters the Islamist group had engineers and technicians ready to take charge of the airport.

“We are waiting for the final nod from the Americans to secure full control over Kabul airport as both sides aim for a swift handover,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Britain’s last military flight left Kabul on Saturday night after a chaotic two weeks at the airport that was plunged into a bloodbath on Thursday when an Islamic State suicide bomb attack outside the airport gates killed at least 90 Afghans and 13 American troops.

Biden headed on Sunday to Dover Air Force Base to honor members of the US military killed in the attack as their remains were returned to the United States.

A top US official said the Biden administration expects the Taliban to continue allowing safe passage for Americans and others to leave Afghanistan after the US military withdrawal is completed.

“The Taliban have both communicated privately and publicly that they will allow for safe passage,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, in a CBS TV interview set to be broadcast Sunday.

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Financial and humanitarian crisis

The collapse of the government leaves an administrative vacuum that has led to fears of an economic crisis and widespread hunger.

Prices for commodities like flour, oil and rice are rapidly rising and the currency is plunging, with money changers across the border in Pakistan already refusing to accept the afghani.

On Saturday, officials ordered banks to re-open and imposed a limit on withdrawals of $200 or 20,000 afghani. Long queues forming outside bank branches of people trying to get money out.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said the difficulties will subside quickly once the new administration is up and running.

But with its economy shattered by 40 years of war, Afghanistan is now facing the end of billions of dollars in foreign aid poured in by Western donors.

Mujahid said the Taliban would announce a full cabinet in the coming days. It had appointed governors and police chiefs in all but one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, he said.

It also appealed to the United States and other Western nations to maintain diplomatic relations after withdrawing. Britain said that should happen only if the Taliban allow safe passage for those who want to leave and respect human rights.

The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by a harsh version of sharia, Islamic law, with many political rights and basic freedoms curtailed and women severely oppressed.

Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again.

City calm

While Kabul’s airport has been in chaos, the rest of the city has been generally calm. The Taliban have told residents to hand over government equipment including weapons and vehicles within a week.

The Western security official said crowds at the airport gates had diminished after a specific warning from the U.S. government of another attack by ISIS-K, the branch of Islamic State in Afghanistan that is an enemy of both the West and the Taliban.

US strikes at Islamic State militants in Kabul as withdrawal nears end

The United States said on Saturday it had killed two ISIS-K militants. Biden had vowed to hunt down the perpetrators of the explosion and said the strike was not the last.

The Taliban condemned the US drone strike, which took place in Nangarhar province, an eastern area that borders Pakistan.

The airport attack added fuel to criticism Biden faced at home and abroad for the chaos. He has defended his decisions, saying the United States long ago achieved its rationale for invading in 2001.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the evacuation operation, but he faced accusations that his government had been “asleep on watch.”

Johnson said Britain would not have wished to leave Afghanistan in such a manner. But Richard Dannatt, a former head of the British army, said the British government need to investigate why it was so ill-prepared for the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

“It is unfathomable why it would appear that the government was asleep on watch,” Dannat told Times Radio. – Rappler.com

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