DOD: Taliban Collaboration ‘Possible’ For Strikes Targeting ISIS-K

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley watch the final U.S. C-17 depart Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 30.
Credit: Defense Department

The Pentagon is not ruling out possible collaboration with the Taliban as it looks to target the Islamic State-Khorasan group within Afghanistan for “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strikes with no U.S. forces in the country. 

The U.S. military in recent weeks worked with the Taliban in Kabul to get U.S. citizens and some Afghans to the airport as part of the massive airlift, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said Sept. 1 “it’s possible” when asked if the collaboration could continue to help U.S. forces target ISIS-K.

“Going forward … I would not make any predictions,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III added during a Pentagon briefing. “I would tell you we will do everything we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K, to understand that network, and at the time of our choosing in the future, hold them accountable for what they’ve done.”

The U.S. military is seeking retribution for the Aug. 26 suicide bomb attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which killed 13 U.S. service members and killed or injured more than 200 Afghans. Days after that attack, the U.S. military conducted a drone strike in Kabul on a reported ISIS-K vehicle-borne improvised explosive device that killed an ISIS-K “facilitator” but also reportedly killed several civilians.

Milley said the U.S. military had been monitoring the location “through various means and all of the engagement criteria were being met and we went through the same level of rigor that we’ve done for years, and we took a strike.” There were then “secondary explosions” at the site, indicating the target had explosives. 

“At this point we think the procedures were correctly followed and it’s a righteous strike,” Milley said.

The strike is a likely preview of what U.S. over-the-horizon operations will look like, with extended-range remotely piloted aircraft taking off from bases in the Persian Gulf to conduct limited strikes in Afghanistan.

Austin and Milley used the Sept. 1 briefing to also thank those who flew the massive airlift mission in a dangerous situation. The evacuation, which began Aug. 14 and ended Aug. 30, included a total of 387 U.S. military C-17 and C-130 flights, and another 391 non-U.S. military flights. All told, 778 sorties evacuated a total of 124,334 people, Milley said.

“Our outstanding men and women showed steady judgment under crushing pressure, including some very young service members who summoned up exceptional courage at close quarters,” Austin said. “They sped up visas, they fed the hungry, they comforted the desperate, and they got plane after plane after plane into the sky.”  

With the flights of evacuees from Kabul complete, the Pentagon is shifting its airlift focus to tens of thousands who still need to be flown from intermediate bases across the world. 

There are 20,000 evacuees at seven staging bases in five countries across the Middle East, and another 23,000 at seven staging bases in Europe who need flights to the U.S. after their visas are processed. With U.S. military aircraft no longer flying out of Kabul, they will shift to these flights along with Civil Reserve Air Fleet civilian airliners activated to assist. About 20,000 Afghan evacuees have been flown to the U.S. and are staying at eight different military bases.