U.S. starts troop withdrawal from Kabul; hits Islamic State with drone attack
(Reuters) -U.S. troops have begun their withdrawal from Kabul airport, the Pentagon said on Saturday, following a two-week scramble by Washington and its allies to fly out their nationals and Afghans at risk of reprisals under Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers.
As it neared the end of a 20-year military involvement in the country, the United States said it had killed two Islamic State militants planning attacks in Afghanistan, following a deadly suicide bombing outside the airport on Thursday.
American officials also warned of a high risk of further attacks by the group – enemies of both the West and the Taliban – as it winds up its mission by a Tuesday deadline set by President Joe Biden.
Biden promised on Thursday that Washington would hunt down the perpetrators after scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. troops were killed in Thursday’s blast, the most lethal incident here for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a decade.
An overnight U.S. drone attack killed two Islamic State planners and wounded another in Nangarhar province, U.S. Army Major General William Taylor said on Saturday, referring to an eastern area that borders Pakistan.
The Taliban condemned here the U.S. strike.
“The Americans should have informed us (Taliban) before conducting the air strike, it was a clear attack on Afghan territory,” a Taliban spokesman told Reuters, adding that two women and a child were wounded in the attack.
The Taliban have said they have arrested some suspects involved in the airport blast.
Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also said the Taliban would take over the airport “very soon”, after U.S. forces withdraw, and announce a full cabinet in the coming days.
The Western-backed government and Afghan army melted away as the hardline Islamist militants entered the capital on Aug. 15, leaving an administrative vacuum that has bolstered fears of a financial collapse and widespread hunger.
Mujahid told Reuters the group had appointed governors and police chiefs in all but one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and would act to solve the country’s economic problems.
A U.S. official told Reuters on Saturday there were fewer than 4,000 troops left at the airport, down from 5,800 at the peak of the evacuation mission. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby later confirmed to reporters that the withdrawal had begun but declined to say how many service members remained.
Thursday’s suicide blast, claimed by (ISIS-K here), the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, caused a bloodbath outside the gates of the airport – where thousands of Afghans have gathered to try to get a flight out since the Taliban returned to power.
The U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 overthrew the then-ruling Taliban in punishment for harbouring the al Qaeda militants behind the Sept. 11 attacks that year.
The Taliban, facing the loss of billions of dollars of aid for the country, appealed to the United States and other Western nations to maintain diplomatic relations after their withdrawal; Britain said that should only happen if the Taliban allow safe passage for those who want to leave and respect human rights.
The White House said the next few days were likely to be the most dangerous here of the evacuation operation. The United States and allies have taken about 111,900 people out of Afghanistan in the past two weeks, the Pentagon has said.
US officials said another attack against the Kabul airport was a near certainty. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned Americans to avoid the airport.
U.S. media, including the New York Times, cited health officials saying Thursday’s blast had killed up to 170 people, not including the U.S. troops.
Most of the more than 20 allied countries involved in airlifting their citizens and Afghans out of Kabul said they had completed evacuations here by Friday.
The last British flight here evacuating civilians from Afghanistan left Kabul on Saturday, bringing to an end an operation that has airlifted almost 15,000 Afghan and British citizens in the two weeks since the Taliban took control.
British troops would take small numbers of Afghan citizens with them as they leave this weekend, a defence ministry spokesperson said. Armed forces chief Nick Carter said hundreds of people who had worked with Britain would not make it through.
A U.S. official said a reaper drone flown from the Middle East struck an Islamic State militant who was planning attacks and was in a car with an associate.
Residents of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, said they had heard several explosions around midnight and community elder Malik Adib said three people were killed and four were wounded in an air strike, adding that he had been summoned by the Taliban investigating the incident.
“Women and children are among the victims,” said Adib, though he did not have information about their identity.
The U.S. military statement said: “We know of no civilian casualties.”
While Kabul’s airport has been in chaos, the rest of the city has been generally calm. The Taliban have told residents to hand over government equipment including weapons and vehicles within a week, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
Some U.S. officials said here the airport attack could have been avoided in the rushed operation to withdraw troops and get out people at risk.
Biden was already facing criticism at home and abroad for the chaos after Afghanistan’s government and military collapsed in the face of a lightning Taliban advance. He has defended his decisions, saying the United States long ago achieved its rationale for invading in 2001.
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