U.S. forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday after an Islamic State suicide bombing killed at least 92 people, including 13 U.S. service members, just outside Kabul airport.
The White House said the next few days of an evacuation operation that has taken more than 100,000 people out of the country in the past two weeks were likely to be the most dangerous.
Some U.S. media said the death toll was far higher in Thursday’s attack near the airport gates, where thousands of people have gathered to try to get inside the airport and onto evacuation flights since the Taliban took control of the country on Aug. 15.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States believed there are still “specific, credible” threats against the airport.
“We certainly are prepared and would expect future attempts,” Kirby told reporters in Washington. “We’re monitoring these threats, very, very specifically, virtually in real time.”
U.S. and allied forces are racing to complete evacuations of their citizens and vulnerable Afghans and to withdraw from Afghanistan by an Aug. 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.
Washington expects some ongoing engagement with the Taliban will be necessary after the withdrawal to facilitate further evacuations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.
Islamic State (ISIS), an enemy of the Islamist Taliban as well as the West, said one of its suicide bombers had targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army”.
The Pentagon said on Friday that the attack was carried out by one suicide bomber, not two as earlier thought.
The number of Afghans killed has risen to 79, a hospital official told Reuters on Friday, adding that more than 120 were wounded. A Taliban official said the dead included 28 Taliban members, although a spokesman later denied any of their fighters had been killed.
Some U.S. media including the New York Times cited local health officials up to 170 people, not including the U.S. troops, had died in the attack, which is the deadliest incident for U.S. service members there in a decade.
The attack underlined the realpolitik facing Western powers in Afghanistan: Engaging with the Taliban who they have long sought to fend off maybe their best chance to prevent the country from becoming a breeding ground for Islamist militancy.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the bombing as “especially abhorrent here” for targeting civilians trying to flee the country.
‘HUNT YOU DOWN’
Biden said on Thursday evening he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility. The group has killed dozens of people in attacks in Afghanistan in the past 12 months.
Asked on Friday if Biden sought to capture and put on trial those responsible, Psaki said “I think he made it clear yesterday that he does not want them to live on the earth anymore.”
Biden was already facing strong criticism at home and abroad for the chaos surrounding the troop withdrawal, which led to the Taliban’s lightning advance to Kabul. He has defended his decisions, saying the United States long ago achieved its rationale for invading the country in 2001.
The U.S.-led invasion toppled the then-ruling Taliban, punishing them for harbouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks that year.
General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said on Thursday that the United States will press on with evacuations.
Most of the more than 20 allied countries involved in airlifting Afghans and their own citizens out of Kabul said they had completed evacuations by Friday.
Taliban guards blocked access to the airport on Friday, witnesses said. “We had a flight but the situation is very tough and the roads are blocked,” said one man on an approach road.
Another 12,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan on Thursday, raising the total flown abroad by Western countries’ forces since Aug. 14 to about 105,000, w the White House said on Friday.
Pakistani officials told Reuters that at the Torkham border crossing, Pakistani security forces had opened fire on a group of people trying to illegally enter Pakistan, adding that two Afghans were killed and two others wounded.
The Taliban said on Friday that Afghans with valid documents would be able to travel freely in future at any time, in comments aimed at calming fears that the movement planned harsh restrictions on freedom.
It has also conveyed to the United States its desire to see a U.S. diplomatic presence remain in Kabul, U.S. officials said. But speaking at the White House, Psaki knocked down that idea.
“We’re not predicting a diplomatic presence on the ground in Afghanistan (after Aug. 31)”, she said.
Those killed on Thursday included two British nationals and the child of a third British national, British foreign minister Dominic Raab said on Friday.
ISIS-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country.
Russia called on Friday for efforts to help form an inclusive interim government in Afghanistan, saying ISIS was trying to capitalise on chaos in the country.
Up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland by year-end, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said, appealing to all neighbouring countries to keep their borders open.
While thousands have been evacuated, they are far outnumbered by those who could not get out.
There are also growing worries Afghans will face a humanitarian emergency with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.
The Taliban have asked all women healthcare workers to return to work, a spokesman said on Friday, amid mounting pressure on public services as trained and educated Afghans flee the country.
Medical supplies will run out within days in Afghanistan, the World Health Organization said on Friday, adding that it hopes to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistan.
Reporting by Reuters bureauxWriting by Stephen Coates, Mark Heinrich and Hugh LawsonEditing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry