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The Attack Outside Kabul Airport Pushes The U.S. Exit Into Deeper Disarray

Smoke rises from a deadly explosion outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday. A suicide bomber targeted crowds massing near the airport in the waning days of a massive airlift that has drawn thousands of people seeking to flee the Taliban takeover.
Smoke rises from a deadly explosion outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday. A suicide bomber targeted crowds massing near the airport in the waning days of a massive airlift that has drawn thousands of people seeking to flee the Taliban takeover.

If the intention of the attack at the Kabul airport was to throw into disarray an already chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, the effects of Thursday's violence are only beginning to take shape. Flights have been taking off from the airport since the explosions occurred, and President Biden said the American withdrawal will continue.

"America will not be intimidated," Biden said.

It was a combative stance from a U.S. president who was already facing criticism for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and who will now face the fallout from the attack, which saw the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

Thursday's deadly attack, which came just days before Biden's Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, was claimed by ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press and Reuters. The group posted the claim of responsibility on its Telegram channel, though NPR has not been able to independently verify the announcement.

A U.S. official confirmed to NPR that four U.S. Marines were among those killed, while Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the attack wounded "a number" more U.S. troops. The Associated Press reported that at least 60 Afghan civilians were killed and more than 140 others were wounded.

U.S. citizens were told before the attack to avoid the area

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the blast took place at the "Abbey Gate" of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The gate is one of the airport entrances that the embassy had specifically asked U.S. citizens to avoid on Wednesday due to heightened fears of an attack. The Baron Hotel, where a second explosion went off, was a staging ground for many of those trying to evacuate.

In addition to the explosions, there were reports of ongoing gunfire in the Afghan capital, according to an alert from the U.S. Embassy.

The Taliban, whose rapid takeover of Afghanistan in recent weeks precipitated the U.S. withdrawal, have condemned the attack and said the area where it happened was controlled by U.S. forces.

"The Islamic Emirate strongly condemns the bombing of civilians at Kabul airport," Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a tweet.

The Pentagon warned of more violence ahead

At an afternoon press briefing, Pentagon officials said the suicide bomber who attacked the airport gate was not able to get onto the airfield at the Kabul airport. Rather, the explosion took place at a gate where people are screened for bombs and weapons before moving forward.

"This is close-up work, the breath of the person you are searching is upon you," said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command.

"Today is a hard day," McKenzie said. "We have other active threats against the airfield," he went on to warn.

Despite the threat, McKenzie said evacuation efforts will continue, referring to the withdrawal as the "No. 1 mission."

"We are continuing to bring people onto the airfield [on buses], we continue to process, the plan is designed to operate while under stress, while under attack," he said.

McKenzie also praised the heroism of the U.S. service members stationed in Kabul.

"We can all appreciate the courage and dedication of those who do this job and do it time after time," the commander said.

The evacuation is continuing

Matthieu Aikins, an Afghanistan-based New York Times reporter, told NPR's All Things Considered that flights have been taking off from the airport since the explosions occurred, "so it seems the evacuation is now continuing."

But the moments outside the airport after the blasts were "very tense," Aikins said.

"We were speaking with people who had been there and we were speaking with the Taliban guards who were quite agitated and trying to clear people from the area, bringing pipes and planks of cable," he said.

"Taliban were yelling and brandishing cables and trying to forcibly clear people out. And it was a very tense situation. We could hear sounds of firing from inside the airport as well as sirens," he said.

Outside the hospital where victims were being carried in, Aikins said there was a large crowd with several ambulances arriving. The hospital in Kabul is equipped to handle mass trauma, but with this massive influx, another hospital might be needed, he said.

"They were wheeling bodies of people, you know, injured people into the hospital, some clearly very badly injured, unconscious. Some of them were children. The relatives are weeping nearby."

Biden was in the Situation Room when it happened

At the time of the attack, President Biden was in the White House Situation Room with his top national security aides discussing the situation in Afghanistan.

The president postponed a planned meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and canceled his virtual meeting with governors about resettling Afghan refugees.

In remarks from the White House, Biden vowed to hunt down those responsible for the attack.

"We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay. Our mission will go on, America will not be intimidated," Biden said.

At the same time, the president said the attack demonstrated why it is necessary for the United States to leave Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

His remarks came just two days after Biden said that the U.S. was on track to withdraw from Afghanistan by his Aug. 31 deadline.

"The sooner we finish, the better," Biden said at the White House on Tuesday, warning that staying longer would bring added risk to U.S. troops. He specifically mentioned a possible attack from ISIS-K on Kabul's airport.

The international community is condemning the attack

The attack was loudly condemned by the international community, including by key U.S. allies in NATO.

"I strongly condemn the horrific terrorist attack outside #Kabul airport. My thoughts are with all those affected and their loved ones. Our priority remains to evacuate as many people to safety as quickly as possible," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack in Kabul "vile" and said Germany will continue to help those who want to leave Afghanistan. The country's defense minister also announced that the last German military aircraft has left Afghanistan, marking the end of the country's mission there.

United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said, "This incident underscores the volatility of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan but also strengthens our resolve as we continue to deliver urgent assistance across the country in support of the Afghan people."

Dujarric said that humanitarian efforts in the country are still ongoing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 27, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misspelled U.N. spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric's first name as Stephanie and last name as Dujaric.
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.