US military begins final withdrawal amid terrorist threats from Kabul

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WASHINGTON (AP) – On alert for further terrorist 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 domination of the Taliban before the closure of the evacuation.

The remains of 13 US soldiers killed in an airport attack Thursday by members of the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group, known as ISIS-K, were on their way to the United States, the report said on Saturday. Pentagon. Their journey marked a painful moment in a nearly 20-year American war that claimed the lives of more than 2,400 American servicemen and ends with the return to power of a Taliban movement that was ousted during the invasion. US forces in 2001.

The Pentagon released the names of the 13 killed – 11 Marines, one Navy sailor and one Army soldier. Twelve of them were in their twenties; some were born in 2001, the year in which America’s longest war began. The oldest was 31 years old. They were the first U.S. servicemen killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, the month the Trump administration struck a deal with the Taliban in which the militant group ended attacks on Americans in exchange for a U.S. agreement to withdraw all troops and contractors by May 2021. Biden announced in April that the remaining 2,500 to 3,000 troops would be out by September, ending what he called America’s Eternal War.

With Biden’s approval, the Pentagon earlier this month sent thousands of additional troops to Kabul airport to provide security and facilitate the State Department’s chaotic efforts to evacuate thousands of Americans and dozens. thousands of Afghans who had helped the United States during the war. The evacuation was marred by confusion and chaos, with the US government taken by surprise 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 on the last day. The State Department estimates that about 350 other people are lacking; he said there are about 280 more people who have said they are American but have not informed the State Department of their intention to leave the country, or who have said they plan to stay.

The Pentagon said about 6,800 people, mostly Afghans, were airlifted in the 24 hours that ended Saturday morning, bringing to 117,000 the total number of people of all nationalities evacuated since the start of the rushed out on August 14.

The US military strength at Kabul airport, which peaked at around 5,800, was 4,000 or less on Saturday, according to a US official who discussed the not yet released details on condition of anonymity. The Pentagon has said that for security reasons it will not provide a day-to-day description of the final stages of the military withdrawal, which includes transporting troops to the country as well as equipment.

The Pentagon said an airstrike early Saturday in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, killed two ISIS-K “planners and facilitators”, but spokesman John Kirby said the killings had not ended the terrorist threat at Kabul airport.

“They lost some ability to plan and conduct missions, but make no mistake, no one forgets that and says, ‘Well, we got them. We don’t have to worry about ISIS-K anymore. It’s not, “Kirby said at a press conference, adding,” We don’t think for a minute that what happened (Saturday) sets us clear – not a minute. “

Biden also faces the longer-term problem of containing an array of potential extremist threats based in Afghanistan, which will be more difficult with less U.S. intelligence assets and no military presence in the country. Critics say Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves the door open for al-Qaida, ISIS-K and other extremist groups to expand and potentially threaten the United States. It was al-Qaida’s use of Afghanistan as a base, with the assent of the Taliban, that prompted the United States to invade the country in October 2001, starting the longest war in state history. -United.

Saturday’s drone mission was authorized by President Joe Biden and ordered by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin less than two days after the Kabul attack and a public promise by Biden that he would make ISIS-K ‘pay’ for their suicide bombing. Officials did not claim that the two people killed played a direct role in the attack on Kabul airport on Thursday.

Kirby refused to disclose the names and nationalities of the two killed. He said another person was injured in the strike. The speed with which the United States retaliated reflected its close monitoring of ISIS and years of experience targeting extremists in remote parts of the world. But it also shows the limits of US power to eliminate the threat from extremists, who some say will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban are in power.

Saturday’s drone mission seemed unlikely to be the Biden administration’s latest attempt to degrade ISIS-K’s leadership and attack capacity.

“We have the capacity and the means to bring counterterrorism capabilities to the horizon and we will defend ourselves,” Kirby said, referring to the military’s use of planes based in the Persian Gulf region and elsewhere. to carry out strikes in Afghanistan.

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Associated Press editors Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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