US presses on with evacuations despite fears of more attacks

Taliban Takeover

Smoke rises from a deadly explosion outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Two suicide bombers and gunmen have targeted crowds massing near the Kabul airport, in the waning days of a massive airlift that has drawn thousands of people seeking to flee the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

KABUL, Afghanistan (NewsNation Now) — 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 next week’s end to America’s longest war.

The U.S. warned that more attacks could come ahead of President Joe Biden’s fast-approaching deadline to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by Tuesday.

As the call to prayer echoed through Kabul along with the roar of departing planes, the anxious crowds outside the city’s airport appeared as large as ever. They are acutely aware that the window is closing to board a flight before the airlift ends and Western troops withdraw.

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.

Two officials said the Afghan death toll in Thursday’s bombing rose to 169, while the U.S. said it was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan since August 2011. Biden blamed the attack on Afghanistan’s offshoot of the Islamic State group, which is a lethal enemy of both the Taliban and the West.

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 169 may have died. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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 fighters 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 — as the Taliban have repeatedly insisted he must.

Biden vowed to complete the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan and promised to avenge the deaths of the U.S. service members killed in the attack, declaring to the extremists responsible: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

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 more than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul, but thousands more are struggling to leave in one of history’s largest airlifts. The White House said Friday morning that 8,500 evacuees were flown out aboard U.S. military aircraft in the previous 24 hours, along with about 4,000 people on coalition flights. That is about the same total as the day before the attacks.

More people hoping to flee arrived Friday at the airport, though in one area Taliban fighters set up a cordon about 500 meters away.

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. 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 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 United Nations refugee agency said a half-million people or more could flee in a “worse-case scenario” in the coming months.

In the wake of the attacks, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S. Central Command chief overseeing the evacuation, warned that more were possible, and American commanders were working with the Taliban to prevent them. Sweden’s foreign minister also said there was a threat, 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 join the evacuation are fading fast. Many American allies have already ended their 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.

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.

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.

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 traveling from distant provinces.

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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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