U.S. airlift out of Kabul presses on as officials warn more attacks could come
The U.S. issued a new security alert for four of the airport gates early Saturday morning
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The United States pressed on into the final days of the chaotic airlift from Afghanistan on Friday amid tighter security measures and fears of more bloodshed, a day after a suicide attack at the Kabul airport killed scores of Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
The U.S. warned more attacks could come ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's fast-approaching deadline Tuesday to end the airlift and withdraw American forces. The next few days "will be our most dangerous period to date" in the evacuation, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, hours before the U.S. issued a security alert for four of the airport gates.
The Pentagon also said Friday that Thursday's bombing was carried out by just one suicide bomber, at the airport gate, not two, as U.S. officials initially said. The Islamist militant group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of ISIS-K, its offshoot in Afghanistan, which opposes both the Taliban and the West.
A U.S. official said that the suicide bomber carried a heavier-than-usual load of more than 11 kg of explosives, loaded with shrapnel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary assessments of the attack.
The reported death toll from Thursday's attack varied, with some reports saying at least 95 Afghans died, along with 13 American troops. The U.S. said it was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan since 2011.
As the call to prayer echoed Friday through Kabul along with the roar of departing planes, the anxious crowds thronging the airport in hope of escaping Taliban rule appeared as large as ever despite the bombing. Afghans, American citizens and other foreigners were all acutely aware the window is closing to board a flight before the airlift ends and Western troops withdraw.
The attacks led Jamshad to head there in the morning with his wife and three small children, clutching an invitation to a Western country he didn't want to name.
"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.
The Afghan victims ranged from a hard-working young journalist to an impoverished father, driven to to the airport by hopes of a better life.
The American dead were 11 marines, a navy sailor and an army soldier. Many had been tiny children when U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan in 2001.
One, Lance Cpl. Kareem Mae'lee Grant Nikoui, sent a video to a family friend in the United States just hours before he was killed, showing himself smiling and greeting Afghan children.
"Want to take a video together, buddy?" the marine asked young boy, leaning in to be in the picture with him. "All right, we're heroes now, man."
British officials said two of the country's citizens and the child of another Briton also were among those killed when the bomb exploded in the crowd.
Makeshift barrier near airport
On the morning after the attack, the Taliban posted a pickup full of fighters and three captured humvees and set up a makeshift barrier 500 metres from the airport, holding the crowds farther back from the U.S. troops at the airport gates.
U.S. military officials said that some gates were closed and other security measures put in place. They said there were tighter restrictions at Taliban checkpoints and fewer people around the gates. The military said it had also asked the Taliban to close certain roads because of the possibility of suicide bombers in vehicles.
The Pentagon noted the airport already had defences against rocket attacks and said the U.S. would keep up manned and unmanned flights over the airport for surveillance and protection, including the use of AC-130 gunships.
U.S. officials said evacuees with proper credentials were able to get through. Inside the airport gates, about 5,400 evacuees awaited flights.
In Washington, U.S. commanders briefed Biden on developing plans to strike back at the Islamic State. On Thursday, the president warned those responsible for the carnage: "We will hunt you down and make you pay."
Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Pentagon's Joint Staff said U.S. forces in the region were ready for any retaliatory action ordered. "We have options there right now," Taylor said.
Biden on Friday called U.S. efforts to evacuate Americans, Afghan allies and others most at risk from the Taliban a "worthy mission."
"And we will complete the mission," he said.
The UN Security Council called the targeting of fleeing civilians and those trying to help them "especially abhorrent."
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.
Their return to power has terrified many Afghans, who have rushed to flee the country ahead of the American withdrawal as a result.
More than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated through the Kabul airport, according to the U.S., but thousands more are struggling to leave in one of history's biggest airlifts.
The White House said Friday afternoon that U.S. military aircraft had flown out 2,100 evacuees in the previous 24 hours. Another 2,100 people left on other coalition flights.
The number was a fraction of the 12,700 people carried out by U.S. military aircraft one day early in the week, when the now two-week-old airlift not only met but exceeded intended capacity for a couple days.
Risk remains at airport
Outside the airport, Afghans acknowledged that going to the airport was risky — but said they had 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.
Many others will try to escape over land borders. The UN refugee agency said a half-million people or more could flee in a worst-case scenario in the coming months.
But chances to help those hoping to join the evacuation are fading fast. U.S. allies and others have ended or are ending their airlifts, in part to give the U.S. time to wrap up its own operations. France ended evacuation operations on Friday and its team at the makeshift French Embassy at Kabul's airport pulled up stakes.
The Taliban have said they will 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.
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 required women to be accompanied by a male relative when they left home, banned television and music, and held public executions.
On Friday, the Taliban ministry of public health urged all female employees to resume their duties around the country. It promised "no impediment … to carrying out their work."
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.