Evacuation flights from Afghanistan resumed with new urgency on Friday, a day after two suicide bombings targeted the thousands of people desperately fleeing a Taliban takeover and killed more than 100. The U.S. warned more attacks could come ahead of the looming deadline for foreign troops to leave, ending America’s longest war.
As the call to prayer echoed through Kabul along with the roar of departing planes, the anxious crowd outside the city’s airport was as large as ever. Dozens of Taliban members carrying heavy weapons patrolled one area about 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the facility to prevent anyone from venturing beyond.
Thursday’s bombings near the airport killed at least 95 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops, Afghan and U.S. officials said, in the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan since August 2011.
Afghan officials warned that the toll could rise, with morgues stretched to capacity and the possibility that relatives are taking bodies away from the scene. One official said as many as 115 may have died, with even more wounded. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
At least 10 bodies lay on the grounds outside Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, where relatives said the mortuary could take no more. Afghans said many of the dead are unclaimed because family members are travelling from distant provinces.
In an emotional speech Thursday night, President Joe Biden blamed the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, which is far more radical than the Taliban militants who seized power less than two weeks ago in a lightning blitz across the country.
“We will rescue the Americans; we will get our Afghan allies out, and our mission will go on,” Biden said. But despite intense pressure to extend Tuesday’s deadline and his vow to hunt down those responsible, he has cited the threat of more terrorist attacks as a reason to keep to his plan – and the Taliban have repeatedly insisted he must stick to it.
The Taliban have wrested back control of Afghanistan two decades after they were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks, which were orchestrated by al-Qaida extremists being harbored in the country. Their return to power has terrified many Afghans, who fear they will reimpose the kind of repressive rule they did when they were last in control. Thousands have rushed to flee the country ahead of the American withdrawal as a result.
The U.S. said that more than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul, but as many as 1,000 Americans and tens of thousands more Afghans are struggling to leave in one of history’s largest airlifts. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command chief overseeing the evacuation, said about 5,000 people awaited flights at the airfield on Thursday.
And more continued to arrive Friday. The attacks led Jamshad to head to the airport in the morning with his wife and three small children, clutching an invitation to a Western country he didn’t want to name. This was his first attempt to leave.
“After the explosion I decided I would try because I am afraid now there will be more attacks, and I think now I have to leave,” said Jamshad, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
Others acknowledged that going to the airport was risky – but said they have few choices.
“Believe me, I think that an explosion will happen any second or minute, God is my witness, but we have lots of challenges in our lives, that is why we take the risk to come here and we overcome fear,” said Ahmadullah Herawi, also seeking to flee.
In the wake of the attacks, McKenzie warned that more were possible, and Americans commanders were working with the Taliban to prevent them. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde tweeted Friday that “we have renewed information about a high terrorist threat to the area around Kabul Airport,” but offered no details.