Acting swiftly on President Joe Biden’s promise to retaliate for the deadly suicide bombing at Kabul airport, the U.S. military said it killed two members of the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate with a drone strike in the group’s eastern stronghold.
The attack Saturday local time came amid what the White House called indications that IS planned to strike again as the U.S.-led evacuation from Kabul airport moved into its final days. Biden has set Tuesday as his deadline for completing the exit.
Biden authorized the drone strike and it was ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details not yet publicly announced. It was not immediately clear whether the targeted IS members were directly involved in Thursday’s airport attack. The U.S. military initially said one person was killed.
“It was a single mission to get these targets and as the assessments and information flowed over time, we were able to recognize that another was killed as well and one wounded,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a Defense Department briefing Saturday.
“They were ISIS-K planners and facilitators and that’s enough reason there alone. I won’t speak to the details of these individuals and what their specific roles might be,” Kirby said. He added: “We have the ability and the means to carry over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities and we’re going to defend ourselves.”
He declined to identify those killed but said the United States knew who they were.
The airstrike was launched from beyond Afghanistan less than 48 hours after the devastating Kabul attack that killed 13 Americans and 169 Afghans with just days left in a final U.S. withdrawal after 20 years of war. U.S. Central Command said it believed its strike killed no civilians.
The speed with which the U.S. military retaliated reflected its close monitoring of IS and years of experience in targeting extremists in remote parts of the world. But it also shows the limits of U.S. power to eliminate extremist threats, which some believe will have more freedom of movement in Afghanistan now that the Taliban is in power.
The airstrike came after Biden declared Thursday that perpetrators of the attack would not be able to hide. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said. Pentagon leaders told reporters Friday that they were prepared for whatever retaliatory action the president ordered.
The president was warned Friday to expect another lethal attack in the closing days of a frantic U.S.-led evacuation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s national security team offered a grim outlook.
“They advised the president and vice president that another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport,” Psaki said, echoing what the Pentagon has been saying since the bombing Thursday at Kabul airport.
Late Friday, the State Department again urged Americans to stay away from airport gates, including “the New Ministry of Interior gate.”