Kabul: Two explosions outside Kabul’s international airport killed 13 US service members and at least 60 Afghans, and wounded dozens more, less than a week before US forces departed. Pentagon officials said Islamic State terrorists were probably to blame.
In addition to those killed in Thursday’s attacks, 15 US service members were injured, and the Associated Press reported at least 143 Afghan casualties. It was the deadliest day for the US military in nearly a decade.
President Joe Biden began an address to the nation from the White House on Thursday evening by saying, “Tough day.” He said the U.S. wouldn’t change its plans to evacuate thousands more from Kabul by Aug. 31, and he vowed to go after the terrorists behind the attacks.
“We will rescue the Americans who are there, we will get our Afghan allies out,” Biden said. “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.”
General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters that evacuations at the airport continued in the hours following the bombing. He said Islamic State terrorists were believed responsible for the attack and that more strikes are possible.
“The threat from ISIS is extremely real,” McKenzie said. “ISIS will not deter us from accomplishing the mission, I can assure you of that.”
McKenzie said his “working assumption” is that a suicide bomber got past Taliban checkpoints near the airport’s Abbey Gate and was trying to get onto the airport compound. After the first bomb went off, one or more militants started spraying the crowd with bullets, he said. Then there was a second detonation, close to a nearby hotel.
U.S. forces had no choice but to risk dealing closely with Afghans at the Kabul airport gates to screen those entering, McKenzie said. “You don’t want somebody on an airplane carrying a bomb,” he said.
The top U.S. general in the Middle East also said his forces have at times shared intelligence with Taliban officials to help reduce the threat from groups like Islamic State. He said the Taliban shares the U.S. goal of having all American forces out next week. Biden defended that approach in his speech.
“It’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of mutual self-interests,” Biden said in his remarks. “They’re not the good guys, the Taliban.”
The deaths of U.S. troops, after about 104,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan in the past two weeks, will raise the pressure on Biden, especially from members of Congress, to delay his Aug. 31 deadline. It will also focus scrutiny on the U.S. failure to forecast the Afghan government’s sudden collapse.
But Biden signaled the attack wouldn’t change the U.S. calculus.
“We will not let them stop our mission,” Biden said. “We will continue the evacuation. I also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities.”
The blasts on Thursday came after U.S. and NATO officials warned their citizens to avoid heading toward the airport. A U.S. official said flights departing Kabul have been temporarily halted.
The Taliban blamed the U.S., which is directing a military-led evacuation from Kabul, for drawing large crowds to the airport perimeter.
“We strongly condemn this lethal attack which happened at an area of Kabul airport which is under the control of Americans,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said by phone. “They are responsible for the security of the area.”
The blasts occurred around the time Biden was scheduled to meet with his national security team about the situation in Afghanistan. He then scrubbed a in-person meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which was rescheduled for Friday, as well as a virtual meeting with governors to discuss taking in Afghanistan refugees.
After the attack, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted a meeting of the government’s emergency committee on Thursday while German Chancellor Angela Merkel canceled a planned trip to Israel.
“The explosion happened within a large crowd at the Abbey gate where people are being screened and processed by the Americans,” Mustafa Shah, an Afghan who was near the blast and took a wounded friend to the hospital, said in a phone call. Shah said he saw body parts on the ground and “10 to 15 people” who appeared to be dead.
Afghans and others trying to flee Kabul have packed around the airport trying to get onto one of the many military flights leaving the country.
After the explosion, European military officials sent a message to citizens in the country saying, “Get away from the airport. Very, very, very dangerous situation. Go now!” according to Dina Haynes, a lawyer who got a client into the Kabul airport compound a few minutes before the explosion.
Earlier this week, Biden cited Islamic State – Khorasan, the terrorist group’s Afghan offshoot, as a potential threat to Americans in Kabul.
“Those are real and important challenges that we need to take into account that the longer we live, starting with the rapid and increasing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K, which is in Afghanistan. There is an ISIS ally, who is also an enemy of the Taliban,” Biden said on Tuesday. “Every day we are on the ground. Another day we know how to target ISIS-K airports and attack the U.S. And trying to attack both Allied forces and innocent civilians.”
The president defended his decision to stick to the end of August deadline and pull US troops out of Afghanistan. “It was time to end the 20 Years War.”