By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — A group aligned with Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for several rockets fired at Kabul’s airport in the waning hours of a U.S.-led military operation to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan of diplomats, foreign citizens, and Afghans who helped them over 20 years of war.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the August 30 attack, which comes the day before the United States is set to withdraw all its remaining forces from Afghanistan, drawing to a close its longest-lasting war.
Islamic State’s Nasher News said on its Telegram channel that its militants, operating under Islamic State-Khorosan (IS-K), fired six Katyusha rockets at the airport.
U.S. officials have been quoted as saying that anti-missile defenses intercepted as many as five rockets.
The United States has carried out two drone strikes on targets affiliated with IS since August 26, when the group claimed responsibility for killing more than 170 people — including 13 U.S. troops — in a suicide attack outside the airport.
The U.S.-led airlift, the biggest air evacuation in history, has taken more than 117,000 foreigners and Afghans out of Kabul’s airport since the Taliban took control of the capital over two weeks ago.
As the August 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden approaches, U.S. forces are now mostly focused on flying themselves and American diplomats out safely.
International media reported on August 30 that “core” U.S. diplomatic staff had left Kabul, though they did not say whether this included top envoy Ross Wilson, who is expected to be among the last to leave before the final troops themselves.
The White House said that Biden was briefed “on the rocket attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport” early on August 30, and was informed that operations there “continue uninterrupted.”
The president “has reconfirmed his order that commanders redouble their efforts to prioritize doing whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground,” spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
About 2 kilometers from the airport, an AFP photographer took images of a destroyed car with a launcher system still visible in the back seat.
AP quoted witnesses as saying that rockets struck the Salim Karwan neighborhood near Kabul’s airport. They said that gunfire followed the explosions.
U.S. military cargo planes continued their evacuations at the airport after the rocket fire, according to the news agency.
Biden and other top U.S. officials have warned that the final hours of the operation in Kabul will be extremely dangerous.
On August 29, the U.S. military said a drone strike on a vehicle in Kabul thwarted an imminent attack by IS-K on the military evacuation at the airport.
A Taliban spokesman said the strike resulted in civilian casualties and chided the United States for failing to inform the militants before ordering the strike. The Tolo news agency said at least 10 civilians died in the air strike.
The U.S. military said it was investigating the reports, which said the dead included children.
“We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties. It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
The U.S. military also carried out a retaliatory drone strike in the eastern Nangarhar Province the previous day that the Pentagon said killed two members of IS-K.
The strikes came after an IS-K suicide attack outside the airport killed some 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops — the deadliest single incident for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a decade.
In recent years, IS-K has been behind some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While both IS and the Taliban are hard-line Sunni Islamist groups, they are bitter foes.
The Taliban has promised an inclusive government since sweeping back into power on August 15, and to exercise a softer brand of rule compared with their first regime in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
But many Afghans fear a repeat of the militants’ brutal interpretation of Islamic law, as well as violent retribution for working with foreign militaries and missions and with the previous Western-backed government.
Late on August 29, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi that the group’s leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, was in the southern city of Kandahar.
A Taliban source said the Taliban was “preparing for a mass gathering after August 31 to discuss the future government in Afghanistan.”
As evacuations from Kabul draw to a close, Biden’s national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on August 29 that for those U.S. citizens seeking immediately to leave Afghanistan by the looming deadline, “we have the capacity to have 300 Americans, which is roughly the number we think are remaining, come to the airport and get on planes in the time that is remaining.”
Western allies have warned that thousands of at-risk Afghans have not been able to get on the evacuation flights by the United States and its allies.
But the United States and dozens of other countries have committed to ensuring that “our citizens, nationals and residents, employees, Afghans who have worked with us and those who are at risk can continue to travel freely to destinations outside Afghanistan.”
“We will continue issuing travel documentation to designated Afghans, and we have the clear expectation of and commitment from the Taliban that they can travel to our respective countries,” according to a joint statement published on the State Department website on August 29.
Russia was not among the signatories, but the Russian Embassy in Kabul said it was accepting applications from those seeking to leave Afghanistan on additional evacuation flights, after Moscow evacuated about 360 people from the country last week.
Meanwhile, another plane carrying 150 Afghans arrived in Albania, the Albanian Foreign Ministry said, bringing the total number of Afghans brought to the Balkan country to 607.
The ministry said the plane had come from the United Arab Emirates.
Later on August 30, the United States said it will host a virtual ministerial meeting with allies such as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, Turkey, Qatar, the European Union, and NATO to discuss “an aligned approach [on Afghanistan] for the days and weeks ahead.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has said that France and Britain plan to propose at a meeting of the UN Security Council’s permanent members on August 30 a resolution “aimed at defining a safe zone in Kabul under UN control” that would allow for continued “humanitarian operations.”
The permanent members of the Security Council are Russia, China, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.
In Rome, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the Afghan crisis exposed the need for the bloc to set up a rapid-reaction force of about 5,000 soldiers to respond to similar events in future.
“As Europeans we have not been able to send 6,000 soldiers around the Kabul airport to secure the area. The U.S. have been, we haven’t,” Borrell told the newspaper Il Corriere della Sera in an interview.
This story includes reporting by Radio Azadi correspondents on the ground in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection.