Rockets Target US Troops as Afghanistan Withdrawal Enters Final Stage

U.S. anti-missile defences intercepted as many as five rockets that were fired at Kabul’s airport early on Monday, a U.S. official said, as the United States rushed to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan to end its longest war.

Having evacuated about 114,400 people, including foreign nationals and Afghans deemed “at risk”, in an effort that began a day before Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, U.S. and allied forces are set to complete their own withdrawal by a Tuesday deadline agreed with the Islamist militants.

The number of U.S. troops at the airport had fallen below 4,000 over the weekend, as departures became more urgent after an Islamic State suicide bomb attack outside the gates on Thursday killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. troops.

Afghan media said Monday’s rocket attack was launched from the back of a vehicle. The Pajhwok news agency said several rockets struck different parts of the Afghan capital.

Initial reports did not indicate any U.S. casualties from the latest rocket attack, the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

In a statement, the White House said President Joe Biden reconfirmed his order for commanders to do “whatever is necessary to protect our forces on the ground” after he was briefed on the attack. Biden was informed that airport operations continued uninterrupted, it added.

On Sunday, a U.S. drone strike here killed a suicide car bomber who Pentagon officials said had been preparing to attack the airport on behalf of ISIS-K, a local affiliate of Islamic State that is an enemy of both the West and the Taliban.

U.S. Central Command said it was investigating reports of civilian casualties from Sunday’s drone strike.

“We know 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 said.

The drone attack killed seven people, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told China’s state television CGTN on Monday, criticising the U.S. action on foreign soil as unlawful.

It was the second such condemnation after a U.S. drone strike on Saturday killed two Islamic State militants in the eastern province of Nangarhar, in an attack the spokesman said had wounded two women and a child.

For all the efforts made by Western powers to evacuate as many people as possible, tens of thousands of desperate Afghans faced being left behind.

“We tried every option because our lives are in danger,” said one woman outside the airport. “They (the Americans or foreign powers) must show us a way to be saved. We should leave Afghanistan or they should provide a safe place for us.”

Two U.S. officials told Reuters evacuations would continue on Monday, prioritising people deemed at extreme risk. Other countries have also put in last-minute requests to bring out people in that category, the officials said.

Biden attended a ceremony on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base here in Delaware to honour members of the U.S. military killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing.

As the flag-draped transfer caskets carrying the remains emerged from a military plane, the president, who has vowed to avenge the Islamic State attack, shut his eyes and tilted his head back.

None of the fallen service members was older than 31, and five were just 20, as old as the war in Afghanistan itself.

The departure of the last troops will end the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan that began in late 2001, after the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

U.S.-backed forces ousted a Taliban government that had provided safe haven for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was finally killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011, and have engaged in a counter-insurgency war against the Islamist militants for the past two decades.

The Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001 was marked by a harsh version of sharia Islamic law, with many political rights and basic freedoms curtailed and women severely oppressed.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said the group will announce a full cabinet in coming days, and that difficulties will subside quickly once the new administration is in place.

But with its economy shattered by decades of war, Afghanistan now faces a sudden halt in inflows of billions of dollars in foreign aid.

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