Pentagon officials said they cannot refute reports that a US drone strike on suspected Islamic State personnel in the Afghan capital on Sunday. several civilians killed.
“We are not in a position to dispute it at this time,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Monday, citing an ongoing investigation. Kirby’s comments came about 24 hours after the strike reportedly killed 10 members of the same family, including several children.
“Nobody wants innocent people to die,” Kirby said. “If we have verifiable information that we have indeed taken innocent lives here, then we will be transparent about that as well.”
In the absence of US troops on the ground outside the Kabul airport, Kirby said military officials rely on a “variety of information resources,” including news reports and discussions with Taliban contacts “about what they might see.”
Nevertheless, Kirby and Major General William “Hank” Taylor today expressed confidence that the targeted vehicle posed an “imminent ISIS threat” to US forces at the airport and to Afghan civilians trying to escape the Taliban rule. “This strike prevented a high-profile attack on coalition [and] US troops and Afghan civilians,” said Taylor, deputy director of regional operations at the Joint Staff.
The US Central Command announced on Sunday that it had launched an unmanned drone strike on a vehicle that poses an “imminent ISIS-K threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport”.
“Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a significant amount of explosive material,” said CENTCOM spokesman Capt. Bill Urban in the statement.
CENTCOM released a second statement later on Sunday recognizing that there may have been civilian casualties in the blast.
Pressed by reporters today, Kirby declined to say how U.S. officials were sure the vehicle had a secondary explosion. Nor would Pentagon officials reveal the names of the targeted Islamic State-Khorasan (ISKP, or ISIS-K) suspects. Defense Department officials have not released video of the strike, nor have they promised to do so.
The Taliban criticized the strike on Sunday, saying there were civilian casualties. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Chinese state television that seven people were killed in the strike. He criticized the United States for not first coordinating with Taliban officials, who are conducting security outside the airport in Kabul during the US withdrawal.
Sunday’s drone strike followed an attack on Friday that CENTCOM said killed an Islamic State official in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province. Zabihullah also criticized that strike, claiming that: two women and a child were killed.
Friday’s drone attack came in retaliation for a… suicide attack which killed more than a hundred Afghans and 13 American servicemen at the airport’s Abbey gate the day before. The brutal suicide attack drew condemnation around the world.
President Joe Biden said in a speech at the White House that evening that the US-led evacuations would continue. He has authorized US commanders in Kabul to use the necessary force to defend the airport and evacuate personnel, officials said.
Reports of significant civilian casualties from Sunday’s strike threaten the Pentagon’s confidence in reliably attacking jihadist targets in Afghanistan without troops and local intelligence networks on the ground. The reports come as new details emerge about how this month’s chaos unfolded in Kabul.
Politico reported earlier today that last week suicide attack at the Abbey Gate after US commanders decided to continue allowing people through the gate, despite known efforts to address the bottleneck. Kirby declined to comment on the report Monday, citing an illegal leak of classified material.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that CENTCOM commander General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie agreed to allow the Taliban security in Kabul . taking over during his meeting with Taliban officials in Doha earlier this month. The decision left the fighters to take positions outside the airport, an unlikely arrangement that has drawn criticism amid reports of some Taliban fighters barring Afghan visa applicants and foreign citizens.
The Taliban claimed late last week that their fighters had begun to assume security in parts of the airport as the US withdrawal deadline approaches Tuesday. At the start of the US operation, the Taliban, in consultation with US commanders, temporarily took control of the southern part of the airport.
“We are now in a particularly dangerous time,” Kirby told reporters on Monday, refusing to specify which side controlled the airport’s main gates, citing security reasons.
Suspected IS militants launched at least five rockets toward the airport on Sunday night, but they reportedly caused no damage to the evacuees or to personnel near the airport, Taylor said today. One of the missiles was shot down by a US air defense system known as a Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar unit, or C-RAM.
“The threat stream is still real, still active and in many cases specific. We take it seriously and will continue to the end,” Kirby said today.
Pentagon officials decline to discuss how US commanders will maintain security at the airport if troops withdraw tomorrow, but have expressed confidence that Apache helicopters, MQ-9 drones and AC-130 gunships provide significant protection.
US commanders on the ground Rear Admiral Peter Vasely and Major General Christopher Donahue have worked out “a carefully coordinated method” to carry out the withdrawal safely, Kirby said. “The commanders fulfilling the final part of this mission have all the resources they need in the air and on the ground, wherever they are, to complete the mission safely,” Taylor told reporters today.
The pace of evacuations slowed to a trickle by Sunday, with about 1,200 personnel being flown out by the US military in the 24 hours leading up to Monday morning.
Citing security concerns, the Pentagon no longer discloses how many US troops remain at the airport as the withdrawal continues. As many as 5,800 troops attended the mission’s summit last week after top buyer de original plan to send 3,000 troops due to the collapse of the Afghan government.
US allies, including: Turkey and the United Kingdom have already withdrawn their troops from Kabul, officials said Monday.