Biden warns of more attacks as army begins final withdrawal
WASHINGTON (AP) – On alert for more terror attacks, the US military has begun its final withdrawal from Afghanistan in the final stages of a frenzied airlift of Americans, Afghans and others desperate to escape the Taliban regime before the evacuation is complete. President Joe Biden said Saturday that commanders told him an attack was “very likely” within the next 24 to 36 hours.
The remains of 13 US soldiers killed in a suicide bomb attack on Thursday by the affiliate of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-K, were headed for the United States, the Pentagon said. His trip marked a painful moment in a nearly 20-year American war that cost more than 2,400 American military lives and ends with the return to power of a Taliban movement that was toppled when American forces invaded in October 2001.
A US drone strike in response to the ISIS bombing killed two militants, the Pentagon said. “This attack was not the last,” Biden said in a statement after meeting with his national security team and military commanders.
The Pentagon released the names of the 13 dead: 11 Marines, a Navy sailor and an Army soldier. Twelve of them were in their twenties; some were born in 2001, the year America’s longest war began. The oldest was 31 years old. They were the first American servicemen to be killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, the month the Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban in which the militant group halted attacks on Americans in exchange for an American agreement to withdraw all troops and contractors by May 2021. Biden announced in April that the remaining 2,500-3,000 soldiers would be leaving in September, ending what he has called America’s eternal war.
With Biden’s approval, the Pentagon sent thousands of additional troops to Kabul airport this month to provide security and facilitate the State Department’s chaotic effort to evacuate thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans who had assisted the United States during war. The evacuation was marred by confusion and chaos when the US government was caught off guard when the Afghan army collapsed and the Taliban seized power on August 15.
About 5,400 Americans have been evacuated from the country so far, including 300 in the last day. The State Department believes that about 350 more want to leave; He said there are about 280 people who have said they are Americans but have not informed the State Department of their plans to leave the country, or who have said they plan to stay.
Untold numbers of vulnerable Afghans, fearful of reverting to the brutality of the pre-2001 Taliban regime, are likely to be left behind. Biden and 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 US-led evacuation ended.
The Pentagon said some 6,800 people, mostly Afghans, were airlifted in the 24 hours ending Saturday morning, bringing to 117,000 the total number of people of all nationalities evacuated since the rush began on Saturday. August 14.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US military force at Kabul airport, which peaked at around 5,800, had begun its final withdrawal. The number had fallen below 4,000 on Saturday, according to a US official who discussed details that have not yet been made public on condition of anonymity. Kirby said that for security reasons, the Pentagon will not provide a daily overview of the final stages of the military’s withdrawal, which includes the flight of national troops and equipment.
The Pentagon said an airstrike early Saturday local time in the eastern Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, killed two ISIS-K “planners and enablers.”
Biden said in his statement that commanders had told him that “an attack is very likely to occur in the next 24-36 hours” and Kirby said the drone strike had not ended the threat at Kabul airport. .
“They have lost some capacity to plan and carry out missions, but make no mistake, no one is dismissing this and saying, ‘Well, we have them. We no longer have to worry about ISIS-K. ‘ This is not the case, ”Kirby said at a news conference.
Biden also faces the long-term problem of containing a host of potential Afghanistan-based extremist threats, which will be more difficult with fewer US intelligence resources and no military presence in the nation. Critics say that 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 the use of Afghanistan as a base by Al Qaeda, with the acquiescence of the Taliban, that led the United States to invade the country in October 2001, beginning the longest war in American history.
Saturday’s drone mission came less than two days after the Kabul attack and a public promise from Biden that he would make ISIS-K “pay” for his suicide bomb attack. Authorities did not claim that the two people killed played a direct role in Thursday’s attack on the Kabul airport.
Kirby refused to reveal the names and nationalities of the two dead. He said another person was injured in the attack. The speed with which the United States retaliated reflected its close surveillance of the Islamic State and years of experience in targeting extremists in remote parts of the world. But it also shows the limits of America’s power to remove the threat from extremists, who some believe will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban are in power.
Kirby said the United States had “the capacity and the means to bring counterterrorism capabilities over the horizon and that we are going to defend ourselves,” referring to the use of aircraft based in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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