Evacuation flights from Afghanistan resumed with new urgency on Friday, a day after two suicide bombings targeted the thousands of desperate people fleeing the Taliban takeover and killed more than 100. The U.S. says further attempted attacks are expected ahead of the Tuesday deadline for foreign troops to leave, ending America’s longest war.
As the call to prayer echoed through Kabul with the whine of departing planes, the anxious crowd outside the airport was as large as ever. In one location, dozens of Taliban members with heavy weapons about 500 meters from the airport were preventing anyone from venturing forward.
Thursday’s bombings near Kabul’s international airport killed at least 95 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops, Afghan and U.S. officials said, in the deadliest day for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since August 2011. An official said Friday that the true toll could be higher because other people may have taken bodies away from the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In an emotional speech, President Joe Biden blamed the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, far more radical than the Taliban militants who seized power less than two weeks ago.
“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, he has cited the threat of terrorist attacks as a reason to keep to his plan.
The Taliban, back in control of Afghanistan two decades after they were ousted in a U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks, insist on the deadline. The Trump administration in February 2020 struck an agreement with the Taliban that called for it to halt attacks on Americans in exchange for the removal of all U.S. troops and contractors by May; Biden announced in April he would have them out by September.
While the U.S. on Thursday said more than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul, 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, on Thursday said about 5,000 people were awaiting flights on the airfield.
Yet more were arriving. Thursday’s attacks led Jamshad, who gave just his one name, to come early Friday 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, he said: “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.”
“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.
The scenes at the airport, with people standing knee-deep in sewage and families thrusting documents and even young children toward U.S. troops behind razor wire, have horrified many around the world as far-flung efforts continue to help people escape.
But those chances are fading fast for many. Some U.S. allies have said they are ending evacuation efforts, in part to give the U.S. time to wrap up its evacuation work 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, and they will be the last. British troops will leave over the next few days.
The Spanish government said it has ended its evacuation operation. And the French European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, said on French radio Europe 1 that France will end its evacuation operation “soon” but may seek to extend it until after Friday night.
Untold thousands of Afghans, especially ones who had worked with the U.S. and other Western countries, are now in hiding from the Taliban, fearing retaliation despite the group’s offer of full amnesty. The militant group has claimed it has become more moderate since its harsh rule from 1996 to 2001, when it largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music and held public executions.
But 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 had worked with Western forces.
No one knows how effective the Taliban will be at combating the Sunni extremists of IS, who have links to the group’s more well-known affiliate in Syria and Iraq and have carried out a series of brutal attacks in Afghanistan, mainly targeting its Shiite Muslim minority.