Kabul: US forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule braced themselves for more attacks Friday. The situation here is tense after twin Kabul airport blasts killed scores of civilians and 13 US soldiers outside the gates of Kabul airport.
The Taliban also have said that 28 of their fighters have been killed in the deadly blasts. Health officials here were quoted as saying 60 civilians were killed in the attacks on Thursday. Video shot by Afghan journalists showed dozens of bodies strewn around a canal on the edge of the airport.
General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said US commanders were on alert for more attacks by Islamic State (IS), including possibly rockets or vehicle-borne bombs targeting the airport. “We’re doing everything we can to be prepared,” McKenzie said. He added that some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and that he believed ‘some attacks have been thwarted by them’.
US forces are racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the August 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden. He had said the United States had long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001. The main idea of the US attack was to root out al- Qaeda militants and prevent a repeat of the September 11 attacks on the US.
Biden said he has ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said during televised comments from the White House.
Video taken in the aftermath of the attack showed corpses in a waste water canal by the airport fence. Some of them were fished out and laid in heaps while wailing civilians searched for loved ones.
“I saw bodies and body parts flying in the air like a tornado blowing plastic bags,” said one Afghan witness. “That little water flowing in the sewage canal had turned into blood,” the witness added.
Zubair, a 24 year-old civil engineer, said he was close to a suicide bomber who detonated explosives. “Men, women and children were screaming. I saw many injured people – men, women and children – being loaded into private vehicles and taken toward the hospitals,” he said.
A US Central Command spokesperson said 18 soldiers wounded in the attack were ‘in the process of being aeromedically evacuated from Afghanistan on specially equipped C-17s with embarked surgical units’.
A Taliban official confirmed that at least 28 members of the militant group were killed in the attack. “We have lost more people than the Americans in the airport blast,” he said. The official added the Taliban was ‘not responsible for the chaotic evacuation plan prepared by foreign nations’.
A NATO country diplomat here said all foreign forces were aiming to evacuate their citizens and embassy employees by August 30. The Taliban would tighten security around the airport, said the diplomat who declined to be identified. “Security is their responsibility,” the diplomat said and added that the Taliban should investigate the Islamic State network.
Western countries fear that the Taliban, who once sheltered Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, will allow Afghanistan to turn again into a haven for militants. The Taliban have said they will not let Afghanistan be used by terrorists.
ISIS-K who has claimed responsibility for the attack was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan. However, it has established a second front in the north of Afghanistan. The Combating Terrorism Centre has said ISIS-K includes Pakistanis from other militant groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.
The United States would press on with evacuations despite the threat of further attacks, McKenzie said. He noted that that there were still about round 1,000 US citizens in Afghanistan.
The pace of evacuation flights accelerated Friday and American passport holders had been allowed to enter the airport compound, said a Western security official stationed inside the airport.
The American casualties in Thursday’s attack were believed to be the most US troops killed in Afghanistan in a single incident since 30 personnel died when a helicopter was shot down in 2011. The US deaths were the first in action in Afghanistan in 18 months, a fact likely to be cited by critics who accuse Biden of recklessly abandoning a stable and hard-won status quo by ordering an abrupt pullout.