The United States pressed on into the final days of the chaotic airlift from Afghanistan amid tighter security and warnings of more possible attacks Friday, a day after a devastating suicide bombing at the Kabul airport killed well over 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
The U.S. said more bloodshed could come ahead of President Joe Biden's fast-approaching deadline Tuesday to end the evacuations and withdraw American forces. The next few days “will be our most dangerous period to date,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Thursday's bombing — blamed on Afghanistan’s offshoot of the Islamic State group, a lethal enemy of both the Taliban and the West — made for one of the deadliest days in the two-decade Afghan war.
Two officials said the number of Afghans killed rose to 169, one of the country's highest death tolls in a terror attack. The U.S. said it was the most lethal day for American forces in Afghanistan since 2011.
The officials who gave the Afghan death toll were not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity. The number of dead was subject to change as authorities examined the dismembered remains.
The Pentagon also said Friday that there was just one suicide bomber — at the airport gate — not two, as U.S. officials initially said.
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.
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 identify.
“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 names of the Afghan victims began emerging and included a news agency founder along with a number of impoverished Afghans who had gone to the airport in hopes of realizing a better life.
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.
The 13 U.S. service members who died included 10 Marines, a Navy sailor and an Army soldier. The military has not identified them or given a service affiliation for the last victim.
On the morning after the attack, the Taliban posted a pickup full of fighters and three captured Humvees and set up a barrier 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the airport, holding the crowds farther back from the U.S. troops at the airport gates than before.
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.
At the same time, the Pentagon 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.”
The president 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 Islamic State's Afghanistan affiliate is far more radical than the Taliban fighters who seized power less than two weeks ago in a lightning blitz across the country. The two groups are battlefield enemies.
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.
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 morning that 8,500 evacuees had been flown out aboard U.S. military aircraft in the previous 24 hours, along with about 4,000 people on coalition flights. That was about the same total as the day before the attacks.
But chances to help those hoping to join the evacuation are fading fast. More European allies and other nations were ending their airlifts Friday, in part to give the U.S. time to wrap up its own operations and get 5,000 of its troops out by Tuesday.
The Taliban have said they will allow Afghans to leave via commercial flights after the U.S. withdrawal, but it is 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 forbade girls to get an education, banned television and music and held public executions.
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