The US military announced its first retaliatory strike in Afghanistan since an attack on the Kabul airport killed as many as 170 people in addition to 13 US servicemen, while US officials again warned Americans to leave the airport due to security threats.
“U.S. forces today conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation against an ISIS-K planner,” said Capt. US Central Command spokesman Bill Urban said in a statement citing the Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as Islamic State Khorasan, which has claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack.
“The unmanned aerial attack took place in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province,” said Captain Urban. “The first indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”
The attack on the airport was one of the deadliest in nearly two decades since the US-led invasion. US officials believe that “another terror attack in Kabul is likely,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday afternoon. “The threat is ongoing and it is active. Our troops are still in danger.”
A US embassy in Afghanistan warned that US citizens at the Kabul airport “who are now at the Abbey Gate, East Gate, North Gate or the New Ministry of the Interior gate should leave immediately.”
Less than a day after the attack, crowds again tried to reach the airport on Friday, their desperation to flee the Taliban mingled with grief at the sheer scale of the violence.
At the airport and on the streets, the US military and the Taliban tried to exercise as much authority as possible. Militants with Kalashnikov rifles kept crowds further away from the airport entrance gates, guarding checkpoints with trucks and at least one Humvee parked on the road. The US military resumed evacuation flights and the White House said early Friday that 12,500 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan in the past 24 hours, despite the attacks.
The waiting crowd, many standing by buses with bags by their side, numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands from the previous days. It is estimated that there are still hundreds of thousands in the country desperate to escape the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, but very few appeared to make it to the airport gates on Friday.
The airport itself turned out to be largely, if not completely, closed. At the southern and eastern gates of the airport, Taliban guards told a reporter that no one was allowed near the airport and that all entrance gates were closed. About 5,400 people stayed inside while awaiting evacuation, the Pentagon said Friday.
The eerie scenes on Thursday, when children were among the dead in the crowd, illustrated the intense danger to those who braved the risky journey to the airport.
On Friday, the U.S. military revised its report of what happened at the airport the day before, with Joint Staff Major General William Taylor saying, “We do not believe there was a second explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, which was it was a suicide bomber.” But many witnesses reported hearing two explosions.
The death toll rose sharply on Friday as health officials revised the number of casualties from bombings upwards, not counting the 13 dead and 15 wounded of US military personnel. The number of 170 dead and at least 200 injured was supported by interviews with hospital officials, who requested anonymity because the Taliban had told them not to talk to the media. They said some of the dead civilians were Afghan Americans who had US citizenship.