Twelve U.S. service members have been killed in a terrorist attack on the evacuation operation at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Thursday, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie of U.S. Central Command said.
“It’s a hard day today,” McKenzie said. He said another 15 service members were wounded, and there were many casualties among Afghan civilians.
He blamed Islamic State in Khorasan, also known as ISIS-K, a local affiliate of the Iraq- and Syria-based terrorist group. McKenzie said the attack, which occurred at an airport gate and a nearby hotel that has been a staging ground for people trying to leave the country, involved two bombings and an assault by gunmen.
The death toll makes the attack one of the deadliest on U.S. forces since the beginning of the war nearly two decades ago, and it comes just days before President Joe Biden’s deadline to withdraw from the country.
Marines have been providing security at the airport and helping to facilitate the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. Nearly 100,000 people have been flown out since the Taliban took control of Kabul less than two weeks ago.
McKenzie praised the bravery of U.S. forces who were helping to process evacuees, which put them in harm’s way.
“This is close-up work,” he said. “The breath of the person you are searching is upon you.”
McKenzie said the attack would not stop the evacuation effort. “Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission,” he said. There are still an estimated 1,500 American citizens in the country, plus thousands of Afghan allies who would be at risk of Taliban reprisals if they remain behind.
He also said U.S. forces were looking to retaliate against ISIS-K.
“We’re prepared to take action against them,” he said. “24-7, we are looking for them.”
Biden spent the morning being briefed by national security officials, including commanders on the ground in the country. He has not yet commented publicly, but he had repeatedly warned about the threat of terrorist attacks on the evacuation effort as he pushed to finish the operation as soon as possible.
The attack reshaped the White House schedule on Thursday. An Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was delayed until Friday; a public health briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic was postponed; and a virtual conference with governors to talk about resettling Afghan refugees was canceled.
In addition, Vice President Kamala Harris canceled a political visit to San Francisco on Friday to help Gov. Gavin Newsom fight off a recall campaign.
Americans in Kabul have been buffeted by security warnings from the State Department. On Wednesday night, they were told to “leave immediately” from three airport gates. After the attack, another message said to “avoid traveling to the airport and avoid airport gates at this time.”
According to the White House, the U.S. has evacuated or facilitated the evacuation of nearly 100,000 people since Aug. 14, when the Taliban approached Kabul after rapidly capturing provincial capitals across the country.
On Aug. 20, Biden said his administration has “made clear to the Taliban” that any attack or disruption of evacuation operations would “be met with a swift and forceful response.”
However, it appears likely that the bombings were carried out not by the Taliban, but ISIS-K. The organization is hostile to both the U.S. and the Taliban, which it views as insufficiently extremist. The K stands for Khorasan, the name of an ancient province that encompassed parts of modern-day Afghanistan.
Biden has repeatedly warned about the threat of a possible attack by the Islamic State affiliate attack during the evacuation.
“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,” he said Tuesday.
The organization has been eager to embarrass the Taliban by revealing its inability to govern and maintain security. It previously claimed responsibility for bombing a girl’s school in Kabul, killing dozens of students.
ISIS-K is only one part of a complicated and volatile environment in Afghanistan. The Taliban never completely severed its ties with al-Qaida, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks two decades ago.
“To this day, the Taliban will not forswear it, will not break it, will not renounce it, will not do anything to even acknowledge it,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. “Yet many in the U.S. establishment are credulous when it comes to the Taliban counterterrorism assurances.”
On Capitol Hill, members of Congress acknowledged that a bombing was among their biggest fears with the chaotic withdrawal.
Republicans largely placed the blame on Biden’s handling on the evacuations, with some members calling for resignations even before the details of the attack were known. Democrats largely focused on the need to resume evacuations as quickly as possible.
“As we wait for more details to come in, one thing is clear: We can’t trust the Taliban with Americans’ security,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement. “This is a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, and the U.S. government personnel, already working under extreme circumstances, must secure the airport and complete the massive evacuation of Americans citizens and vulnerable Afghans desperately trying to leave the country.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said “President Biden must take decisive action to protect our troops, our citizens, and our allies without regard for an arbitrary deadline.”
He called the bombings “horrific,” and said “our enemies have taken advantage of the chaotic nature of the withdrawal.”
Former President Donald Trump’s administration sidelined the Afghan government last year and cut a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from the country by May 1. Biden shifted the deadline to Sept. 11 — revising the target to Aug. 31 over the summer — but has been adamant about ending the U.S. military presence there.
Biden said earlier this week that he was asking the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans if more time was needed to complete evacuations.
(Times staff writers Eli Stokols and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.)
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