Two explosions struck within a dense crowd outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday, leaving dozens injured or dead, including some American Marines who were killed, officials said.
The Pentagon confirmed the American casualties Thursday afternoon, but gave no specific number.
They appeared to be the first American service members killed in Afghanistan since two were shot dead and six were wounded while on an operation in February 2020.
Initial estimates of the total dead and wounded differed, and were rising quickly as different hospitals and officials reported in.
One Afghan health official said at least 30 people were confirmed dead and at least 120 wounded. Another health official said at least 40 were dead and 120 wounded. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Taliban told them not to brief the press, they said.
The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, condemned the attack, and said that at least 13 civilians had been killed and 60 wounded.
In one part of one hospital alone, a New York Times journalist saw dozens of severely wounded or killed people.
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There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts. But the night before, a senior U.S. official warned of a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport by an affiliate of the Islamic State, the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, and Western governments began urging people to leave the area.
Even with such a specific warning, military officials said, it would be very difficult to pick out a suicide bomber with a concealed explosive vest in a huge throng of people, like that at the airport.
Since the Taliban takeover earlier this month, thousands of Afghan civilians and foreign citizens have gathered at the gates of the airport, which has a military and civilian side, desperate to be airlifted out of the country. At times, the area has descended into chaos as people scrambled toward evacuation flights.
Two U.S. military officials said evacuation flights were continuing, though it was not clear whether any gates at the airport were open.
“We can confirm that the explosion at the Abbey Gate was the result of a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties,” John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a post on Twitter. “We can also confirm at least one other explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, a short distance from Abbey Gate.”
The Abbey Gate is a main entryway to the international airport. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and avoid airport gates, and urged Americans who were at the Abbey Gate, East Gate or North Gate entrances to leave immediately.
U.S. military officials at the airport said that an attack, given the speed and confusion surrounding the entire evacuation, was never a matter of if, but when. The U.S. Marines guarding Abbey Gate had been briefed on the potential of a suicide bomber striking near their position, but continued processing those trying to gain entry.
One Afghan, Barat, who had traveled to the airport with his cousin to show documents to foreign soldiers, said he was about 30 feet away from one of the blasts.
“The crowd was packed and people were pushing,” he said. “I tripped — and that’s when the explosion happened. I think four or five soldiers were hit.”
“We fell to the ground and the foreign soldiers started shooting,” Barat said. “There were bodies everywhere, people were running.”
Fahim, a shopkeeper from Kunduz Province, came to Kabul two weeks ago in an attempt to leave the country, and was outside the airport when he witnessed what he described as “two big explosions” nearby. “People were fleeing and the Taliban forced us to leave the area,” he said.
“Americans were firing to disperse people,” Fahim said.
Elsewhere in the city, sporadic gunfire and alarms could be heard from the airport.
Eric Schmitt, Megan Specia, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Jim Huylebroek, Matthieu Aikins, Victor J. Blue, Fatima Faizi, Najim Rahim and Sharif Hassan contributed reporting.
For more than a week, the roadways outside the Kabul airport had been a scene of desperation and chaos, but in a single instant Thursday, unspeakably bad somehow found a way to become even worse.
At least two blasts tore through crowds of people trying to flee Afghanistan, killing dozens and wounding well over a hundred others, including U.S. service members.
The explosions happened at Abbey Gate, one of Hamid Karzai International Airport’s main entries and the Baron Hotel, which boasts of “the most secured lodging arrangement in Kabul” on its website.
After the explosion at Abbey Gate, sounds of gunfire and sirens could be heard.
Taliban fighters, wearing a medley of uniforms, brandished lengths of pipe and cables in an attempt to clear the crowds that had gathered earlier to try to enter the airport.
“There was an explosion against the Americans, a bunch of people were killed, civilians and military,” said one Taliban fighter at the gate, who declined to give his name. “The situation is out of control. There’s a lot of dead people on the ground there.”
The Taliban condemned the attack, and U.S. officials said they did believe the organization was not behind it, given its desire to maintain an orderly evacuation. Officials this week warned about potential attacks by a Taliban rival, the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
A number of U.S. service members were among the dead, and others were being treated for wounds, the Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a statement. They appeared to be the first American service members killed in Afghanistan since February 2020.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones and teammates” of those killed, Mr. Kirby said.
Estimates of the number of casualties varied. But video posted on Twitter after the explosions appeared to show bloodied bodies piled on a sidewalk and floating in a canal near the entrance to the airport.
At one emergency hospital, ambulance after ambulance could be seen arriving under the glare of floodlights and the eyes of an anxious crowd, some of them children.
A journalist and former government worker wept as she described how she had received a call from a taxi driver, informing her that her husband was among the wounded.
“I begged him not to go, but he went this morning with his government I.D. card to try to show the foreigners,” she said. “We have four children. What will happen to us now?”
Seth Eden, a former U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who worked for years in Afghanistan, said he had been helping an Afghan friend, a former deputy minister, try to get out of the country. His friend was told to go to the Abbey Gate to get into the airport.
But when the former minister arrived with his family on Thursday, the gate was closed.
Mr. Eden got on the phone with the Marines guarding it, who had been warned of a possible attack, and persuaded them to let his friend in. Two minutes after the former minister and his family were let through, a bomb went off.
“It is a really, really bad situation right now,” said Mr. Eden, who has worked over the last two weeks to get some 100 former colleagues and family members through the American bureaucracy and on the airport.
President Biden huddled with his national security team at the White House on Thursday, getting updates about the explosions near the Kabul airport and what they might mean for the last days of the frantic evacuation effort underway in Afghanistan.
White House officials said Mr. Biden was being briefed by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, and other top aides.
Mr. Biden had already been scheduled to receive an update on the evacuation. But after word came of the attack, and reports of American casualties, the president’s schedule was upended.
Less than 15 minutes before Mr. Biden was set to meet with Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister of Israel, the White House announced that the meeting had been delayed, probably until later in the afternoon. And a meeting between Mr. Biden and some of the nation’s governors was canceled.
The daily briefing by Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was delayed.
White House officials said there would be additional changes announced to the president’s schedule, perhaps an indication that Mr. Biden was preparing to address the nation.
The changes in the schedule underscored the anxiety in the administration. American officials had warned late Wednesday of an imminent attack at the Kabul airport.
On Thursday morning, one came.
Pentagon officials described it as a “complex attack” that included at least two explosions. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the blasts caused “a number of U.S. and civilian casualties.”
Mr. Biden had said earlier this week that he intended to evacuate all Americans, including the troops securing the airport, by Aug. 31. Officials said at the time that Mr. Biden’s decision was based in large part on concerns about terrorist attacks that might threaten Americans and their Afghan allies.
Now, Mr. Biden faces an urgent decision about whether to try and pull the American troops out even more quickly.
Officials said the situation was still in flux.
The United States has been battling the Taliban and their militant partners in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, for 20 years.
But the biggest immediate threat to both the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation at the Kabul airport before an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline is a common rival that is lesser known: Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, after blasts tore through the crowds outside the airport in Kabul, many wondered if ISIS-K was behind them.
The immediate answer: It’s too soon to know with any certainty.
But officials say one thing appears clear: For all the years of bloodshed the Taliban caused in Afghanistan, they were not responsible for this new attack.
The Taliban, officials said, want to maintain an orderly evacuation at the airport, at least until the end of the month. Thursday’s explosions signaled that Afghanistan’s new leaders might not be up to the task.
Some officials also believe ISIS is the most likely culprit because of warnings over the past week that the group might try to set off a bomb near the airport.
These warnings, coupled with new demands by the Taliban for the United States to leave by Aug. 31, probably influenced President Biden’s decision on Tuesday to stick to that deadline. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden said.
Created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year.
The threats lay bare a complicated dynamic between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and their bitter rival, ISIS-K, in what analysts say portends a bloody struggle involving thousands of foreign fighters on both sides.
A United Nations report in June concluded that 8,000 to 10,000 fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region in western China have poured into Afghanistan in recent months. Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the report said, but others are allied with ISIS-K.
“Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of the terrorists, of the radicals and of the extremists,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a former Afghan security official. “People all over the world, radicals and extremists, are chanting, celebrating the Taliban victory. This is paving the way for other extremists to come to Afghanistan.”
Adam Nossiter and Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.
Several nations announced on Thursday that they were halting their evacuations from the Kabul airport, as governments around the world gave dire warnings about threats to the crowds gathered there in an attempt to flee Afghanistan.
By nightfall, at least two explosions struck the area: one at the Abbey Gate and another by the nearby Baron Hotel. A Pentagon spokesman said the blasts were “a complex attack that resulted in a number of US & civilian casualties.”
Even before the blasts, world leaders were deciding they could no longer assist the evacuations. Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands all said that they would no longer be able to facilitate airlifts from Hamid Karzai International Airport, which has both civilian and military sections.
“We stayed in Afghanistan as long as we could,” Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s acting chief of the defense staff, told a news conference on Thursday. “We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone who was so desperate to leave. That we could not is truly heartbreaking.”
General Eyre said Canada had airlifted about 3,700 people out of Afghanistan on a combination of military flights and planes of allied nations. The exact number of Canadians, permanent residents and others assisted by the Canadian military was not immediately clear, nor was the number of people left behind.
After warnings of suicide attacks in the vicinity of the airport, Belgium decided to end its evacuation flights from Kabul on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Thursday morning.
“On Wednesday, during the day, the situation quickly got worse,” Mr. De Croo said. “We learned that there was a threat of suicide-bomb attacks in the vicinity of the airport and in the crowds. We also saw that access to the airport gates became more difficult and even impossible as a result.”
Defense officials from the Netherlands and Denmark made similar calculations. Before the explosions on Thursday, Britain urged people trying to flee Afghanistan to head for international land borders, like those with Pakistan or Iran, and to avoid the Kabul airport.
“We couldn’t do anything but change the travel advice last night to advise people against moving to Kabul airport and if they are at the airport to move away to a place of safety,” James Heappey, the armed forces minister, said in an interview with LBC Radio.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr. Heappey said that Britain had evacuated just fewer than 2,000 people in the previous 24 hours but said that perhaps a further 1,000 of those it wants to extract remained inside the country.
Evacuations had continued through the increasing alarm about security. White House officials said early on Thursday that 13,400 people had been evacuated from the Kabul airport in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total since the Taliban retook the city to 95,700.
The Pentagon vowed that the U.S. civilian airlift would continue, with a spokesman, John F. Kirby, saying, “we will continue to evacuate as many people as we can until the end of the mission.”
The Pentagon flew out 13,400 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in the past 24 hours, military officials said on Thursday, a sharp decline from the past few days largely because receiving bases in the Middle East are again filling up. Of that 24-hour total, coalition flights carried out 8,300 passengers — about the same as in recent days.
But the number of U.S. military flights on Thursday dropped to 17, carrying 5,100 people, from 42 military flights carrying 11,200 people the previous day, a military official said. Military officials blamed the decline largely on bottlenecks at bases like Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where officials are taking up to 12 hours to check arriving Afghans against American counterterrorism watch lists.
The massive civilian airlift will continue until the Aug. 31 deadline set by President Biden to withdraw U.S. forces, John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said on Wednesday, but the mission was complicated even further by at least two blasts outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Thursday, just hours after Western governments had warned of a security threat there.
About 5,400 American troops are now at the airport after 400 troops not essential to the evacuation left the country in recent days, Mr. Kirby said.
Over the past few days, the military and its foreign partners had been flying out around 20,000 people a day as the military operation raced to fly out as many Americans and Afghan allies as possible before the Aug. 31 deadline.
Thursday’s 13,400 new evacuations brought the total since the Taliban retook the city to 95,700 people.
Turkey’s troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, where they have run Kabul’s international airport for the last six years, abandoning a plan to remain after the U.S. withdrawal.
“We aim to complete the transfer of soldiers in the shortest possible time,” Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, said in a statement on Thursday. He thanked Pakistan and Tajikistan for their cooperation in the evacuation of troops.
The Turkish Defense Ministry announced on Twitter on Wednesday the return of the first troops to Turkish soil that same day, adding that the whole operation would take just 36 hours.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had offered to keep Turkish troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul’s main airport with both a civilian and military sections, after the departure of American troops by the Aug. 31 deadline, in order to support the Afghan government and maintain access by air for Western embassy personnel and international aid organizations.
The Taliban had repeatedly demanded that Turkey, a member of the NATO mission in Afghanistan for the last 20 years, should leave. But Mr. Erdogan had continued to hold discussions with Taliban representatives and regional countries, in particular Pakistan, which has close ties with the Taliban, to explore the possibility for a continued Turkish presence.
When the Taliban seized control of the capital earlier this month and the United States and NATO partners accelerated their departures from the country, Turkey increased its force of some 600 personnel to 3,000 to assist with the evacuations.
But in the face of chaos at the airport during the last 10 days, worsening security concerns and the unyielding stance of the Taliban — as well as a growing chorus of opposition at home arguing that Turkey should not bear the risk of securing the airport on its own — Mr. Erdogan decided to withdraw troops.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for the president and national security adviser, said that Turkey was still offering the Taliban government technical assistance to run the airport.
“After our soldiers withdraw, we can keep the duty of managing the airport,” he said in an interview on the Turkish news channel NTV. “There is a dimension of logistical capacity of running an airport. Negotiations on that are ongoing,” he said.
The Turkish help would be a professional service which the Taliban lacked, he added.
Vice President Kamala Harris said on Thursday that the United States would work with its allies to protect women and children in Afghanistan, as the Taliban takeover forced her to confront troubling historical parallels and diverted attention from her original mission on a five-day trip to Southeast Asia.
“There’s no question that any of us who are paying attention are concerned about that issue in Afghanistan,” said Ms. Harris, referring to the protection of women and children in that country.
The vice president made her comments in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, on the final day of her trip to Southeast Asia, a key part of the Biden administration’s strategy to forge partnerships in the region and refocus American foreign policy on competing with China’s rising influence.
Ms. Harris has faced the steep challenge of reassuring partners in Asia, and across the world, that the United States can still be a credible ally amid the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan and the United States’ hurried evacuations.
With the Biden administration racing to meet an Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan, the situation in Kabul, has cast a shadow over a trip meant to focus on public health, supply chain issues and economic partnerships.
Almost two dozen students and their parents from San Diego County in California are trapped in Afghanistan after they visited the country this summer, the authorities said.
The 20 students and 14 parents are stuck in Afghanistan and have requested government assistance to fly home, according to a statement from the Cajon Valley Union School District and a tweet from Representative Darrell Issa, who represents the district where the students are from. The children range in age from preschool to high school, said David Miyashiro, the district superintendent.
The students and parents, who make up five families, went to Afghanistan to visit their extended families, the school district said. But they soon realized they wouldn’t make it back for the first day of school on Aug. 17; two days earlier, the Taliban had stunned the world by capturing Kabul at alarming speed.
It became nearly impossible to secure a flight out of the country, and the families could not reach the airport even though they had plane tickets, Cajon Valley School Board President Tamara Otero told the Los Angeles Times.
The families were not among the hordes of people desperately trying to board a plane out of the Kabul airport, Dr. Miyashiro said in an interview on Wednesday night.
“Most of them are hiding and sheltering in place until somebody contacts them to help them get out,” he said.
One of the families asked on Aug. 16 that the school “hold their children’s spots in their classrooms while they were stranded,” the school district said.
However, one family secured passage out of Afghanistan. Four students and two parents, along with one infant, returned home this week after stopping in another country, Dr. Miyashiro said.
Mr. Issa said Wednesday on Twitter that he was “working diligently” to bring the stranded families home.
“I won’t stop until we have answers and action,” he said.
Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesman for Mr. Issa, said in a statement that the congressman is trying to obtain immigration paperwork for his constituents who are stuck in Afghanistan.
“We are in consistent contact with official channels including the State Department and the Pentagon,” the statement said.
The United Nations leadership faced growing anger from staff unions on Wednesday over what some called its failure to protect Afghan co-workers and their families, who remain stuck in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban even as the majority of the organization’s non-Afghan staff have been relocated to other countries.
Many of the Afghan employees, their foreign colleagues say, are in hiding or are reluctant to keep working, fearful of reprisals by triumphant Taliban militants who may perceive them as apostates, traitors and agents of foreign interference.
That fear has persisted even though the Taliban’s hierarchy has indicated that the U.N. should be permitted to work in the country unimpeded during and after the forces of the United States and NATO withdraw, a pullout that is officially scheduled for completion in less than a week.
An internal U.N. document reported by Reuters on Wednesday said Taliban operatives had detained and beaten some Afghan employees of the United Nations. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, did not confirm or deny the report but said it was “critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect U.N. premises and for the safety of U.N. staff.”
Mr. Guterres has repeatedly said the U.N. fully supports the Afghan staff, who are said to number between 3,000 and 3,400, and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure their safety. Mr. Dujarric said about 10 percent of those Afghan workers are women, who are especially at risk of facing Taliban repression.
The secretary general reiterated his assurances during a private virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday with staff members, said Mr. Dujarric, who told reporters that Mr. Guterres “understands the staff’s deep anxiety about what the future holds.”
But rank-and-file staff members of the United Nations have grown increasingly skeptical of Mr. Guterres’s pronouncements. A resolution passed on Tuesday by the U.N. staff union in New York urged Mr. Guterres to take steps that would enable Afghan staff members to avoid “unacceptable residual risks by using evacuation from Afghanistan as soon as possible.”
U.N. officials have said they are powerless to issue visas to Afghan personnel without cooperation from other countries willing to host them. U.N. officials also have said the organization remains committed to providing services in Afghanistan, where roughly half the population needs humanitarian aid. Such services, including food and health care, are impossible to conduct without local staff.
The town hall was held a few days after a second batch of non-Afghan U.N. staff had been airlifted from Kabul. Many of the roughly 350 non-Afghan U.N. personnel who had been in the country, including Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, are now working remotely from Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The unequal treatment of non-Afghan and Afghan personnel working for the U.N. has become an increasingly bitter sore point between management and staff at the global organization. An online petition started this past weekend by staff union members calling on Mr. Guterres to do more to help Afghan employees and their families had, as of Wednesday, garnered nearly 6,000 signatures.
An earlier version of this item misidentified the U.N. staff union organization that passed a resolution urging the U.N. secretary general to help Afghan employees evacuate Afghanistan. It was the U.N. staff union in New York, not the coordinating committee of the association of staff unions.
TOKYO — The first time Abbas Karimi jumped into a pool, the water brought fresh relief from the heat of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
For Mr. Karimi, 24, who was born without arms, it conferred a sense of freedom and protection. And it was swimming that would later propel Mr. Karimi — one of six athletes competing for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo — to flee Afghanistan when he was 16.
After winning a national championship in his homeland, he yearned to train for international competition without the daily fears of war and terrorism.
“I needed to be somewhere I could be safe and keep training and be a Paralympic champion,” he said in an interview on Zoom this month.
On Tuesday night, eight years after leaving Afghanistan, Mr. Karimi led the parade of nations into the stadium at the Paralympics’ opening ceremony as one of two flag bearers for the refugee team.
He is one of millions who fled the violence in Afghanistan long before the current crisis. And because the chaos surrounding the Taliban takeover and the U.S. withdrawal prevented Afghanistan’s Paralympic delegation from flying to Tokyo, he may be the only Afghan athlete to compete at the Games.
The resettlement of Afghan allies in the U.S. is exposing an internal divide between the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant wing and conservatives who want to help the refugees.
Many Republican leaders have accused President Biden of abandoning the Afghan interpreters and guides who helped the United States during two decades of war, leaving thousands of people in limbo in a country now controlled by the Taliban.
But others — including former President Trump and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader — have criticized Mr. Biden for opening the United States up to what they characterized as dangerous foreigners.
“We’ll have terrorists coming across the border,” Mr. McCarthy said last week on a call with a bipartisan group of House members, according to two people who were on the call, where he railed against the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal.
The debate is pitting traditional conservatives, who are more inclined to defend those who have sacrificed for America, against the anti-immigrant wing of the party. And it is a fresh test of Mr. Trump’s power to make Republican leaders fall in line behind him.
For now, the faction of Republicans that supports welcoming Afghan refugees to the United States is larger than the one warning of any potential dangers that could accompany their resettlement, according to a poll.