US forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee new Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday (Aug 27) after an Islamic State attack killed 92 people including 13 US service members just outside Kabul airport.
General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said US commanders were watching for more attacks by Islamic State, including possibly rockets or car bombs targeting the airport.
"We're doing everything we can to be prepared," McKenzie said, adding that some intelligence was being shared with the Taliban and that he believed "some attacks have been thwarted by them".
Thursday's two blasts and gunfire took place near the airport gates where thousands of people have gathered to try to get inside the airport and onto evacuation flights since the Taliban took control of the country on Aug 15.
US and allied forces are racing to complete evacuations of their citizens and vulnerable Afghans and to withdraw from Afghanistan by an Aug 31 deadline set by President Joe Biden.
Most of the more than 20 allied countries involved in airlifting Afghans and their own citizens out of Kabul said they had completed evacuations by Friday.
Islamic State, an enemy of the Islamist Taliban as well as the West, said one of its suicide bombers had targeted "translators and collaborators with the American army" on Thursday.
The attack underlined the realpolitik facing Western powers in Afghanistan: Engaging with the Taliban whom they have long sought to fend off may be their best chance to prevent the country sliding into a breeding ground for Islamist militancy.
The number of Afghans killed has risen to 79, a hospital official told Reuters on Friday, adding more than 120 were wounded. A Taliban official said the dead included 28 Taliban members, although a Taliban spokesman later denied that any of their fighters guarding the airport perimeter had been killed.
It was not clear if suicide bombers detonated both blasts or if one was a planted bomb. It was also unclear if Islamic State gunmen were involved in the attack or if the firing that followed the blasts was Taliban guards firing into the air to control crowds.
Hard-pressed medical staff in the three operating theatres of Kabul's Emergency Hospital worked through the night into Friday treating casualties.
"Everybody is concerned at this moment in Kabul, nobody knows what to expect in the coming hours," said Rossella Miccio, president of the Italian aid group that runs the hospital.
'HUNT YOU DOWN'
Biden said on Thursday evening he had ordered the Pentagon to plan how to strike ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility. The group has killed dozens of people in attacks in Afghanistan in the past 12 months.
"We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay," Biden said during televised comments from the White House.
Biden, criticised at home and abroad for the chaos around the final US troop withdrawal even before Thursday's deadly attacks, says the United States long ago achieved its original rationale for invading the country in 2001.
The US-led invasion toppled the then-ruling Taliban, punishing them for habouring al Qaeda militants who masterminded the Sep 11 attacks.
Taliban guards blocked access to the airport on Friday, witnesses said. "We had a flight but the situation is very tough and the roads are blocked," said one man on an airport approach road.
Another 12,500 people were evacuated from Afghanistan on Thursday, raising the total airlifted abroad by the forces of Western countries since Aug 14 to about 105,000, the White House said on Friday.
The United States will press on with evacuations despite the threat of further attacks, McKenzie said, noting that there were still about 1,000 US citizens in Afghanistan. The pace of flights accelerated on Friday and American passport holders had been allowed to enter the airport compound, according to a Western security official inside the airport.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the threat of attacks would increase as Western troops got closer to completing the huge airlift and leaving.
"The narrative is always going to be, as we leave, certain groups such as ISIS will want to stake a claim that they have driven out the US or the UK," Wallace told Sky News. He also vowed action against Islamic State wherever it manifests itself.
ISIS-K was initially confined to areas on the border with Pakistan but has established a second front in the north of the country. The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point says ISIS-K includes Pakistanis from other militant groups and Uzbek extremists in addition to Afghans.
Western officials acknowledge that thousands of Afghans seeking to leave will be left behind when the last US troops leave next week.
Up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland by year-end, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday, appealing to all neighbouring countries to keep their borders open for those seeking safety.
There are also growing worries that Afghans will face a humanitarian emergency with the coronavirus spreading and shortages of food and medical supplies looming.
Medical supplies will run out within days in Afghanistan, the World Health Organization said on Friday, adding that it hopes to establish an air bridge into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of Pakistan.