US forces in Kabul on high alert as evacuations enter final phase
US forces sought to assert control in Kabul on Saturday, insisting that they were in command of the airport there and announcing the deaths of senior Islamic State leaders in a retaliatory airstrike earlier this week.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Saturday that US forces remained in control of the airport and would remain in control until the Tuesday deadline for their forces to pull out.
The statement was a response to statements by the Taliban - who surprised Washington by ousting a US-backed government earlier this month - that their forces had taken control of some of the access gates to the airport.
The world's attention has been focused on the airport since August 16 - the day after the Taliban takeover - as expatriates in Afghanistan and Afghans who fear for their life under the ultra-conservative Taliban have tried to reach the airport for a flight out.
Taliban forces have tried at times to block Afghans from reaching the airport and those who made it were met by administrative chaos. The situation grew worse after a deadly suicide attack on Thursday.
Most Western allies have ended their airlift evacuations, though some like France are negotiating for ways to keep bringing people out. There are fears that not everyone who had hoped to get out will have made it.
The US is continuing its evacuations through Tuesday. As of Friday, it still had 5,000 troops working at the airport, but now says it will no longer provide updates on troop status for security reasons, even as reports swirl that numbers are being drawn down in advance of Tuesday's deadline.
US officials say there are about 350 Americans still in Afghanistan. Of those, about 280 have made no plans to leave or have announced plans to stay in Afghanistan.
Some 6,800 people have been flown out of Kabul in the past 24 hours. A White House spokesperson said that by Saturday morning, the US Air Force had flown 32 flights to bring about 4,000 people to safety, and allied aircraft had evacuated about 2,800 people.
Since the start of the mission in mid-August, the United States and its partners have flown out a total of 112,000 people.
By Saturday a total of about 20,500 evacuees from Afghanistan had landed at the US Ramstein Air Base in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate since the evacuations began.
Many of those who want to get out of Afghanistan fear life under the Taliban, which ruled from 1996 to 2001 and enforced a strictly Islamist lifestyle, which stripped most women of their rights and banned things like Western music.
But there are other forces working in the country too, such as Islamic State affiliates, which oppose both Taliban rule and the US occupation. One such group claimed responsibility for Thursday's bombing, which left at least 182 dead, including 13 US soldiers.
On Saturday, the Pentagon revealed that the deceased were mostly Marines, but also one service member from the army and navy each. They were aged 20 to 31, with most between 20 and 23. Their coffins were on the way to the United States on Saturday.
The US responded with an airstrike on the same day. On Saturday, US Major General William Taylor reported that two high-ranking Islamic State members are dead and a third is wounded.
Further terrorist attacks targeting the airlift operations out of Kabul's airport are likely in the very near future, warned US President Joe Biden on Saturday.
"The situation on the ground continues to be extremely dangerous, and the threat of terrorist attacks on the airport remains high. Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours," he said.
The priority has to be maintaining safety for troops working at the airport, where US personnel are still overseeing operations to airlift out people trying to flee the country now that the Taliban have taken over.
"This strike was not our last," said Biden in the wake of the Thursday attack, building on earlier threats when he told the terrorists: "We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay."