The Pentagon warned Monday of a “real” and “specific” threat of new attacks at the Kabul airport just hours before a US deadline to complete its frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has been marred by ISIS violence.
President Joe Biden set a deadline on Tuesday to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, ending his country’s longest war that began in retaliation for the September 11 attacks.
The return of the hardline Islamist Taliban movement, which was overthrown in 2001 but took back power two weeks ago, sparked a mass exodus of terrified people aboard US-led evacuation flights.
Those flights, which took more than 122,000 people from Kabul’s airport, officially end on Tuesday as the last of thousands of US troops withdraw.
U.S. troops are now primarily focused on keeping themselves and U.S. diplomats flying safely.
The regional ISIS-K group, rivals of the Taliban, pose the biggest threat to the withdrawal, after carrying out a suicide bombing outside the airport late last week that claimed more than 100 lives, including those of 13 US troops.
On Monday, they claimed to have fired six missiles at the airport. A Taliban official said the attack was intercepted by the airport’s missile defense systems.
Even as the US troop presence in Afghanistan drew to a close, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters it was “an especially dangerous time right now.”
“The threat stream is still real, it’s still active and in many cases it’s still specific,” he said Monday.
– ‘We can’t sleep’ –
The White House confirmed a missile strike was targeted at the airport Monday, but said airlift operations there were “continuous”.
“The President… has reaffirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize everything necessary to protect our forces on the ground,” a White House statement said.
An AFP photographer took photos Monday of a destroyed car with a launch system still visible in the back seat.
A Taliban official on the ground said he believed five rockets had been fired.
A suspected US drone strike had hit the car about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the airport.
While there were no reports of fatalities or damage to airports from the rocket attacks, they caused greater fear among locals already traumatized from years of war.
“Since the Americans took control of the airport, we can’t sleep well,” Abdullah, who lives near the airport and mentioned only one name, told AFP.
“It is either gunfire, missiles, sirens or sounds of huge planes that disturb us. And now that they are attacked directly, it could endanger our lives.”
An AFP journalist in Kabul said there was a constant noise from overhead planes taking off and landing, as well as fighter jets providing surveillance and protection.
– ‘Potential loss of innocent life’ –
The United States previously said an airstrike on Sunday night had eliminated another threat from ISIS jihadists.
However, it is also possible that civilians have died.
“We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our attack on a vehicle in Kabul today,” Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for the US Central Command, said in a statement.
“We would be deeply saddened by any possible loss of innocent lives.”
In recent years, ISIS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan branch has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in those countries.
They have slaughtered civilians in mosques, public squares, schools and even hospitals.
While both ISIS and the Taliban are hardline Sunni Islamists, they are bitter enemies – each claiming to be the true standard-bearers of jihad.
Last week’s suicide bombing at the airport resulted in the worst single-day death toll for the US military in Afghanistan since 2011.
The ISIS threat has forced the US military and the Taliban to work together to ensure airport security in a way that was unimaginable just weeks ago.
The Taliban have already begun taking over areas cleared by US forces.
– Taliban leader –
The Taliban have promised a softer rule compared to their first stint in power, which the US military put an end to because the group gave al-Qaeda a haven.
But many Afghans fear a repeat of the Taliban’s brutal interpretation of Islamic law, as well as violent retaliation for working with foreign military personnel, Western missions or the previous US-backed government.
On Sunday, the Taliban announced that their supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada was in southern Afghanistan and planned to appear in public.
“He is present in Kandahar,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, referring to the movement’s spiritual birthplace.
(This story was not edited by NewsMadura staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)