Speaking on August 26, hours after a suicide attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport’s Abbey Gate killed more than 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. servicemembers, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed retribution against the group responsible, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK or ISIS-K): “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
His words echoed comments President George W. Bush made to reporters shortly after the 9/11 attacks: “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly attacks.”
Seeking retribution sounds righteous, but attempts to achieve it inevitably generate new tragedies.
On August 27, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson announced that “U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner.” The strike, via drone, hit a target in Nangarhar province. “Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties,” the statement said.
Two days later, the U.S. carried out another drone strike on a vehicle in Kabul, referring to it as a “self-defense unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike.” U.S. statements cite a “significant secondary explosion” after the vehicle was struck as indicating “the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.”
“We are assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, though we have no indications at this time.”
An updated statement issued later on August 29, said, “We are aware of reports of civilian casualties following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today.” The updated statement stressed that the strike had thwarted an imminent ISK threat to the airport and suggested that the explosives present in the car that was hit “may have caused additional casualties.”
On August 30, the Washington Post reported that the strike allegedly also killed a family of 10 who were getting out of a nearby vehicle.
ISK is not a new actor in Afghanistan. (Note: The nomenclature here is fluid. The U.S. government has seemingly settled on ISIS-K, given that the group is an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; The Diplomat and other English-language media have previously used ISKP after the group’s name in English: Islamic State-Khorasan Province; regional media and commentators usually use the term “Daesh” after the Arabic-language acronym of the group’s name.)
In a region with no shortage of brutality, at the hands of governments, militants, and drones in the sky flown remotely by pilots a continent away, ISK has carried out horrific attacks targeting civilians, especially Shiite Hazaras. For example, in May 2020, gunmen entered the maternity ward in a Kabul hospital in the mostly Hazara Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood and killed 24 people, including women and newborn babies. The United States blamed the attack on ISK. In October and November 2020, gunmen attacked a tutoring center in Dasht-e-Barchi and then Kabul University. In May 2021, a vehicle packed with explosives detonated outside a girls’ school in the same neighborhood, killing more than 80 teenage girls and a dozen others.
In most cases, attribution is difficult. Often, the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani would blame the Taliban, while the Taliban would deny and blame either the government or ISK; the United States would occasionally attributed such attacks to ISK, and in some cases ISK would itself claim credit.
The United States tried in 2017 to airstrike its way out of an ISK problem in Afghanistan. In April 2017, the Trump administration ordered the dropping of one of the largest non-nuclear bombs available on a tunnel complex in Nangarhar’s Achin district. It was the first time the U.S. has used a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, commonly known as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB), in combat.
Despite the destruction and subsequent operations targeting ISK leaders in Afghanistan, the group persisted. The August 26 attack at the airport in Kabul, which killed mostly Afghan civilians desperate to leave the country, illustrates that persistence. And the family of 10 killed in the course of a U.S. defensive strike days later illustrates, once again, that every action has consequences. Those consequences are often borne by the innocent.
Much ink has been spilled on whether, and how, the Taliban have changed since their last stint in government in the 1990s. But of greatest concern to Afghanistan’s civilians is perhaps whether, and how, the Taliban will manage against ISK. The fight between the two — neither group known for taking great care of civilian populations — is liable to be extremely ugly. Once again, the consequences will be borne by the innocent.