KABUL, Afghanistan — 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.
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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.
Scenes of chaos, desperation and horror from the airport have transfixed the world. Images of people standing knee-deep in sewage and families thrusting documents and even young children toward U.S. troops behind razor wire have come to symbolize both the disarray of the last days of the American presence in the country and the fears Afghans have for their future.
But chances to help those hoping to flee are fading fast for many. Many American allies have already ended their evacuation efforts, in part to give the U.S. time to wrap up its own operations before getting 5,000 of its troops out by Tuesday.
Britain said Friday its evacuations from Afghanistan will end within hours, and the main British processing center for eligible Afghans has been closed. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News there would be “eight or nine” evacuation flights on Friday. British troops will leave over the next few days.
The Spanish government said it has ended its airlift. Sweden’s foreign minister said its evacuation was also over but not everyone got out. And the French European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, said on Europe 1 radio that the country will end its operation “soon” but may seek to extend it until after Friday night.
The Taliban have said they’ll allow Afghans to leave via commercial flights after the U.S. withdrawal, but it remains unclear which airlines would return to an airport controlled by the militants.
They have asked Turkey to operate Kabul airport, but a decision will be made “after the administration (in Afghanistan) is clear,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday. Taliban leaders have been holding talks with former Afghan leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, who headed the previous government’s reconciliation council, tasked with negotiating a deal with the Taliban.
Untold numbers of Afghans, especially ones who had worked with the U.S. and other Western countries, are now in hiding, fearing retaliation despite the group’s offer of full amnesty. The new rulers have sought to project an image of moderation in recent weeks — a sharp contrast to the harsh rule they imposed from 1996 to 2001, when they forced women to wear the all-encompassing burqa, required them to be accompanied by a male relative when they left home, banned television and music, and held public executions.
Despite the promises, Afghans in Kabul and elsewhere have reported that some Taliban members are barring girls from attending school and going door to door in search of people who worked with Western forces.
The bombings also raise questions about the Taliban’s vows to bring security to Afghanistan. No one knows how effective they will be at combating the Sunni extremists of IS, who have carried out a series of brutal attacks in Afghanistan, mainly targeting its Shiite Muslim minority.
- Sayed Ziarmal Hashemi, Tameem Akhgar, Kathy Gannon and Cara Anna