Two suicide bombers struck a packed crowd outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday, killing at least 12 American service members and scores of Afghan civilians, officials said.
In the final days of its 20-year presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. military sustained one of the highest single-day American tolls of the war.
“Today is a hard day,” said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the United States Central Command. And he warned that the danger was not over.
“We have other active threats against the airfield,” General McKenzie told reporters at a news conference in Washington.
The bombs were set off near a crowd of families at the airport gates who were desperately hoping to make one of the last evacuation flights out. Gunfire was reported in the aftermath of the explosions.
The Islamic State released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.
“We’re outraged as well as heartbroken,” President Biden said from the East Room of the White House, where he vowed to continue evacuating Americans from Kabul and retaliate against those responsible for the attack.
“Know this: We will not forgive, we will not forget,” he said. “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
The American death toll was confirmed by General McKenzie. He said that 15 other service members were wounded.
The American troops, mostly Marines, were part of the deployment of 5,800 sent by President Biden to help evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from the country after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
“Terrorists took their lives at the very moment these troops were trying to save the lives of others,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said Thursday.
Estimates of the total dead and wounded differed, and were rising quickly as different hospitals and officials reported in.
One Afghan health official said at least 60 people were confirmed dead and at least 140 wounded. Another health official said at least 40 were dead and 120 wounded. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Taliban told them not to brief the press, they said.
The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, condemned the attack, and said that at least 13 civilians had been killed and 60 wounded.
In one part of one hospital alone, a New York Times journalist saw dozens of people who were killed or severely wounded.
As the day drew to a close, the Taliban tried to reassure jittery Afghans that the blasts punctuating the evening air were not more attacks but the U.S. military destroying its equipment as it prepared to withdraw.
trying to escape city
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The night before the attack, a senior U.S. official warned of a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport by an affiliate of the Islamic State — the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K — and Western governments began urging people to leave the area.
Even with such a specific warning, military officials said, it would be very difficult to pick out a suicide bomber with a concealed explosive vest in a huge throng of people, like that at the airport.
In a statement Thursday, Mr. Austin said, “We will not be dissuaded from the task at hand,” seeming to indicate that evacuations from Kabul airport would continue in the last four days before the Aug. 31 deadline.
“To do anything less — especially now — would dishonor the purpose and sacrifice these men and women have rendered our country and the people of Afghanistan,” he said.
Since the Taliban takeover earlier this month, thousands of Afghan civilians and foreign citizens have gathered at the gates of the airport, which has a military and civilian side, desperate to be airlifted out of the country. At times, the area has descended into chaos as people scrambled toward evacuation flights.
Two U.S. military officials said evacuation flights were continuing, though it was not clear whether any gates at the airport were open.
“We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties,” John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a post on Twitter. “We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate.”
The Abbey Gate is a main entryway to the international airport. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and avoid airport gates, and urged Americans who were at the Abbey Gate, East Gate or North Gate entrances to leave immediately.
U.S. military officials at the airport said that given the speed and confusion surrounding the entire evacuation, an attack was never a matter of if but when. The U.S. Marines guarding Abbey Gate had been briefed on the potential of a suicide bomber striking near their position, but continued processing those trying to gain entry.
One Afghan, Barat, who had traveled to the airport with his cousin to show documents to foreign soldiers, said he was about 30 feet away from one of the blasts.
“The crowd was packed and people were pushing,” he said. “I tripped — and that’s when the explosion happened. I think four or five soldiers were hit.”
“We fell to the ground and the foreign soldiers started shooting,” Barat said. “There were bodies everywhere, people were running.”
Fahim, a shopkeeper from Kunduz Province, came to Kabul two weeks ago in an attempt to leave the country, and was outside the airport when he witnessed what he described as “two big explosions” nearby. “People were fleeing and the Taliban forced us to leave the area,” he said.
“Americans were firing to disperse people,” Fahim said.
Elsewhere in the city, sporadic gunfire and alarms could be heard from the airport.
Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper, Megan Specia, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Jim Huylebroek, Matthieu Aikins, Victor J. Blue, Fatima Faizi, Najim Rahim, Fahim Abed and Sharif Hassan contributed reporting.
President Biden on Thursday denounced a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport that killed a dozen American service members and injured 15 more, saying that the frantic evacuation of U.S. citizens and allies from Afghanistan will continue even as he pledged to hunt down those responsible for the attacks.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive,” the president said. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Mr. Biden said he had asked his commanders to find ways to target ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks earlier in the day.
“We will respond with force of precision at our time, place, we choose in a moment of our choosing,” he said.
Mr. Biden spoke from the East Room of the White House shortly after the Pentagon confirmed the deaths of the American service members in what officials said were suicide bomber attacks.
“These American service members who gave their lives,” Mr. Biden said, were “heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others.”
He called Thursday “a tough day” and pledged that the United States would uphold its “sacred obligation” to the families of the fallen.
The troops who died Thursday were the first American service members killed in Afghanistan since February 2020. For the U.S. military, it was a day with more deaths than any other since 2011.
Those deaths were just the kind of military loss Mr. Biden has repeatedly said he was trying to avoid by ending America’s 20-year war in the country.
Acting against the advice of his generals and overruling some of his top foreign policy advisers, Mr. Biden made the decision in April that he could not ask more American troops — or their families — to sacrifice themselves for a war that he no longer believed was in the best interests of the United States or its allies.
The president has said that he did not want to call the parents of another Marine, soldier or airman killed in action in Afghanistan.
But the rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban caught the administration off-guard and set in motion a chaotic evacuation in which 6,000 American troops attempted to secure the Kabul airport against the Taliban and terror groups. Earlier this week, Mr. Biden rejected calls from lawmakers, activists and other world leaders to extend the American presence at the airport past Aug. 31, citing the potential for terrorist attacks.
Last Friday, as he pledged to evacuate all Americans and Afghan allies who wanted to leave the country, Mr. Biden vowed that “any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response.”
It was unclear on Thursday whether a military response of any kind was already in the works, or whether the U.S. troops on the ground had the capacity to strike back while also securing the airport.
But Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the United States Central Command, said the military would pursue those responsible for the attack. And Mr. Biden later suggested that he would not let the attack pass without a response.
For more than a week, the roadways outside the Kabul airport had been a scene of desperation and chaos, but in a single instant Thursday, unspeakably bad somehow found a way to become even worse.
At least two blasts tore through crowds of people trying to flee Afghanistan, killing dozens and wounding well over a hundred others, including U.S. service members.
The explosions happened at Abbey Gate, one of Hamid Karzai International Airport’s main entries, and the Baron Hotel, which boasts “the most secured lodging arrangement in Kabul” on its website.
After the explosion at Abbey Gate, sounds of gunfire and sirens could be heard.
Taliban fighters, wearing a medley of uniforms, brandished lengths of pipe and cables in an attempt to clear the crowds that had gathered earlier to try to enter the airport.
“There was an explosion against the Americans, a bunch of people were killed, civilians and military,” said one Taliban fighter at the gate, who declined to give his name. “The situation is out of control. There’s a lot of dead people on the ground there.”
The Taliban condemned the attack, and U.S. officials said they did believe the organization was not behind it, given its desire to maintain an orderly evacuation. Officials this week warned about potential attacks by a Taliban rival, the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
A number of U.S. service members were among the dead, and others were being treated for wounds, the Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a statement. They appeared to be the first American service members killed in Afghanistan since February 2020.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones and teammates” of those killed, Mr. Kirby said.
Estimates of the number of casualties varied. But video posted on Twitter after the explosions appeared to show bloodied bodies piled on a sidewalk and floating in a canal near the entrance to the airport.
At one emergency hospital, ambulance after ambulance could be seen arriving under the glare of floodlights and the eyes of an anxious crowd, some of them children.
A journalist and former government worker wept as she described how she had received a call from a taxi driver, informing her that her husband was among the wounded.
“I begged him not to go, but he went this morning with his government I.D. card to try to show the foreigners,” she said. “We have four children. What will happen to us now?”
Seth Eden, a former U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who worked for years in Afghanistan, said he had been helping an Afghan friend, a former deputy minister, try to get out of the country. His friend was told to go to the Abbey Gate to get into the airport.
But when the former minister arrived with his family on Thursday, the gate was closed.
Mr. Eden got on the phone with the Marines guarding it, who had been warned of a possible attack, and persuaded them to let his friend in. Two minutes after the former minister and his family were let through, a bomb went off.
“It is a really, really bad situation right now,” said Mr. Eden, who has worked over the last two weeks to get some 100 former colleagues and family members through the American bureaucracy and on the airport.
DOHA, Qatar — Since the Taliban returned to power after two decades underground, counterterroism experts have feared that Afghanistan will become a fertile environment for terrorist groups, notably Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Driving home that threat on Thursday were two explosions near the Kabul airport that killed dozens of people and injured scores of others, just hours after U.S. officials had warned of just such a scenario.
The warnings had cited threats from the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State, the jihadist organization that once ruled large swaths of Syria and Iraq and created franchises in other countries in an effort to globalize its violent ideology.
By day’s end, the Islamic State had released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack on behalf of its loyalists in Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
Both the Islamic State and Al Qaeda remain a potent threat in the country, terrorism experts say, despite having their numbers ground down by years of military action by the United States and a range of partners.
Yet the two are bitter rivals and operate in different ways.
Al Qaeda has changed substantially since Osama bin Laden oversaw the organization and plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the years since, the stature of its central leadership has declined while local militant groups in Syria, Iraq, West Africa and parts of Asia have adapted, sometimes jettisoning Al Qaeda ideology in pursuit of local goals.
The Islamic State, which itself defected from Al Qaeda, has maintained a more centralized leadership, with its local branches maintaining not just the ideology of the original organization, but also strong operational links to it.
That difference has allowed the Islamic State to maintain unity in a way that Al Qaeda has not, said Hassan Hassan, the co-author of a book about the Islamic State and the editor-in-chief of Newlines Magazine.
For Al Qaeda, “it’s like opening a Domino’s franchise and you send someone out for quality control,” he said.
The Islamic State, on the other hand, would “take it one step further and appoint a manager from the original organization,” he said.
In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is still believed to operate under the umbrella of the Taliban, who vowed in an agreement last year with the Trump administration not to allow the group to use Afghan territory to attack the United States.
How closely the Taliban will respect that commitment remains an open question — but the Islamic State, which has condemned the Taliban as not hard line enough, has no such constraints.
That could leave it better positioned to exploit the chaos surrounding the Aug. 31 deadline for the United States’ withdrawal and the transition from a United States-backed government to the Taliban.
“The changeover from one security force to another, by default, provides an opportunity for ISIS,” Mr. Hassan said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
WASHINGTON — Most of the estimated 1,500 U.S. citizens who officials believed were still in Afghanistan had either left the country as of Thursday or were preparing to evacuate, the State Department said in a statement.
An additional 500 people have come forward over the last day, claiming to be Americans, and are now being vetted to verify their citizenship, the statement said.
A State Department analysis had identified around 6,000 American citizens who were living in Afghanistan as of Aug. 14, shortly before the Taliban seized power. By Wednesday, about 4,500 of them had been evacuated in an airlift of U.S. military and government charter planes from the international airport in Kabul.
Another 500 American citizens were flown out as of Thursday afternoon, the statement said. It said that U.S. officials were in contact with most of the rest of the remaining 1,000 — and that about two-thirds wanted to leave.
Nearly all of the people whom the Biden administration has sought to track down over the past week — in tens of thousands of emails, phone calls and text messages — are dual citizens of the United States and Afghanistan.
Dozens of them have signaled they do not want to leave, for “a range of reasons,” the statement said. That all but certainly includes Americans who do not want to leave behind Afghan relatives who do not qualify for a U.S. visa, former U.S. officials have said.
At the same time, about 500 people have reached out over the last 24 hours, identifying themselves as U.S. citizens and asking for help to evacuate.
“Based on our experience, many of these will not turn out to be U.S. citizens in need of our assistance,” the State Department statement said. It said the shifting numbers of Americans in Afghanistan “speak to the realities” of the fast-moving situation in Kabul as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw by Aug. 31.
Senior Democrats and Republicans in Congress have demanded that President Biden delay the deadline until all Americans, as well as Afghan allies who worked for the 20-year U.S. mission, in Afghanistan are evacuated.
Several nations announced on Thursday that they were halting their evacuations from the Kabul airport, as governments around the world gave dire warnings about threats to the crowds gathered there in an attempt to flee Afghanistan.
By nightfall, at least two explosions struck the area: one at the Abbey Gate and another by the nearby Baron Hotel. A Pentagon spokesman said the blasts were “a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties.”
Even before the blasts, world leaders were deciding they could no longer assist the evacuations. Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands all said that they would no longer be able to facilitate airlifts from Hamid Karzai International Airport, which has both civilian and military sections.
“We stayed in Afghanistan as long as we could,” Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s acting chief of the defense staff, told a news conference on Thursday. “We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone who was so desperate to leave. That we could not is truly heartbreaking.”
General Eyre said Canada had airlifted about 3,700 people out of Afghanistan on a combination of military flights and planes of allied nations. The exact number of Canadians, permanent residents and others assisted by the Canadian military was not immediately clear, nor was the number of people left behind.
After warnings of suicide attacks in the vicinity of the airport, Belgium decided to end its evacuation flights from Kabul on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Thursday morning.
“On Wednesday, during the day, the situation quickly got worse,” Mr. De Croo said. “We learned that there was a threat of suicide-bomb attacks in the vicinity of the airport and in the crowds. We also saw that access to the airport gates became more difficult and even impossible as a result.”
Defense officials from the Netherlands and Denmark made similar calculations. Before the explosions on Thursday, Britain urged people trying to flee Afghanistan to head for international land borders, like those with Pakistan or Iran, and to avoid the Kabul airport.
“We couldn’t do anything but change the travel advice last night to advise people against moving to Kabul airport and if they are at the airport to move away to a place of safety,” James Heappey, the armed forces minister, said in an interview with LBC Radio.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr. Heappey said that Britain had evacuated just fewer than 2,000 people in the previous 24 hours but said that perhaps a further 1,000 of those it wants to extract remained inside the country.
Evacuations had continued through the increasing alarm about security. White House officials said early on Thursday that 13,400 people had been evacuated from the Kabul airport in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total since the Taliban retook the city to 95,700.
The Pentagon vowed that the U.S. civilian airlift would continue, with a spokesman, John F. Kirby, saying, “we will continue to evacuate as many people as we can until the end of the mission.”
Turkey’s troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, where they have run Kabul’s international airport for the last six years, abandoning a plan to remain after the U.S. withdrawal.
“We aim to complete the transfer of soldiers in the shortest possible time,” Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, said in a statement on Thursday. He thanked Pakistan and Tajikistan for their cooperation in the evacuation of troops.
The Turkish Defense Ministry announced on Twitter on Wednesday the return of the first troops to Turkish soil that same day, adding that the whole operation would take just 36 hours.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had offered to keep Turkish troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul’s main airport with both a civilian and military sections, after the departure of American troops by the Aug. 31 deadline, in order to support the Afghan government and maintain access by air for Western embassy personnel and international aid organizations.
The Taliban had repeatedly demanded that Turkey, a member of the NATO mission in Afghanistan for the last 20 years, should leave. But Mr. Erdogan had continued to hold discussions with Taliban representatives and regional countries, in particular Pakistan, which has close ties with the Taliban, to explore the possibility for a continued Turkish presence.
When the Taliban seized control of the capital earlier this month and the United States and NATO partners accelerated their departures from the country, Turkey increased its force of some 600 personnel to 3,000 to assist with the evacuations.
But in the face of chaos at the airport during the last 10 days, worsening security concerns and the unyielding stance of the Taliban — as well as a growing chorus of opposition at home arguing that Turkey should not bear the risk of securing the airport on its own — Mr. Erdogan decided to withdraw troops.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for the president and national security adviser, said that Turkey was still offering the Taliban government technical assistance to run the airport.
“After our soldiers withdraw, we can keep the duty of managing the airport,” he said in an interview on the Turkish news channel NTV. “There is a dimension of logistical capacity of running an airport. Negotiations on that are ongoing,” he said.
The Turkish help would be a professional service which the Taliban lacked, he added.
Vice President Kamala Harris said on Thursday that the United States would work with its allies to protect women and children in Afghanistan, as the Taliban takeover forced her to confront troubling historical parallels and diverted attention from her original mission on a five-day trip to Southeast Asia.
“There’s no question that any of us who are paying attention are concerned about that issue in Afghanistan,” said Ms. Harris, referring to the protection of women and children in that country.
The vice president made her comments in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on the final day of her trip to Southeast Asia, a key part of the Biden administration’s strategy to forge partnerships in the region and refocus American foreign policy on competing with China’s rising influence.
Ms. Harris has faced the steep challenge of reassuring partners in Asia, and across the world, that the United States can still be a credible ally amid the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan and the United States’ hurried evacuations.
With the Biden administration racing to meet an Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan, the situation in Kabul has cast a shadow over a trip meant to focus on public health, supply chain issues and economic partnerships.
Almost two dozen students and their parents from San Diego County in California are trapped in Afghanistan after they visited the country this summer, the authorities said.
The 20 students and 14 parents are stuck in Afghanistan and have requested government assistance to fly home, according to a statement from the Cajon Valley Union School District and a tweet from Representative Darrell Issa, who represents the district where the students are from. The children range in age from preschool to high school, said David Miyashiro, the district superintendent.
The students and parents, who make up five families, went to Afghanistan to visit their extended families, the school district said. But they soon realized they wouldn’t make it back for the first day of school on Aug. 17; two days earlier, the Taliban had stunned the world by capturing Kabul at alarming speed.
It became nearly impossible to secure a flight out of the country, and the families could not reach the airport even though they had plane tickets, Cajon Valley School Board President Tamara Otero told the Los Angeles Times.
The families were not among the hordes of people desperately trying to board a plane out of the Kabul airport, Dr. Miyashiro said in an interview on Wednesday night.
“Most of them are hiding and sheltering in place until somebody contacts them to help them get out,” he said.
One of the families asked on Aug. 16 that the school “hold their children’s spots in their classrooms while they were stranded,” the school district said.
However, one family secured passage out of Afghanistan. Four students and two parents, along with one infant, returned home this week after stopping in another country, Dr. Miyashiro said.
Mr. Issa said Wednesday on Twitter that he was “working diligently” to bring the stranded families home.
“I won’t stop until we have answers and action,” he said.
Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesman for Mr. Issa, said in a statement that the congressman is trying to obtain immigration paperwork for his constituents who are stuck in Afghanistan.
“We are in consistent contact with official channels including the State Department and the Pentagon,” the statement said.
The resettlement of Afghan allies in the U.S. is exposing an internal divide between the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant wing and conservatives who want to help the refugees.
Many Republican leaders have accused President Biden of abandoning the Afghan interpreters and guides who helped the United States during two decades of war, leaving thousands of people in limbo in a country now controlled by the Taliban.
But others — including former President Trump and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader — have criticized Mr. Biden for opening the United States up to what they characterized as dangerous foreigners.
“We’ll have terrorists coming across the border,” Mr. McCarthy said last week on a call with a bipartisan group of House members, according to two people who were on the call, where he railed against the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal.
The debate is pitting traditional conservatives, who are more inclined to defend those who have sacrificed for America, against the anti-immigrant wing of the party. And it is a fresh test of Mr. Trump’s power to make Republican leaders fall in line behind him.
For now, the faction of Republicans that supports welcoming Afghan refugees to the United States is larger than the one warning of any potential dangers that could accompany their resettlement, according to a poll.