Evacuation from Afghanistan in final phase after deadly Kabul airport attack

CNN  — 

The United States still plans to end its mission in Afghanistan this month, the Pentagon said Friday, as the evacuation of US citizens and allies enters its final, desperate stage after a deadly bombing at Kabul’s airport.

More than 170 people were killed and at least 200 were wounded in the suicide attack on Thursday, an official with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health told CNN, in addition to the 13 US service members who were also killed.

The State Department said they are unaware of any non-military US citizens killed or injured in the bombing.

ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, has claimed responsibility for the attack but provided no evidence to support the claim. US officials have said the group was likely behind the atrocity.

On Friday, the US conducted an airstrike against an ISIS-K planner, according to a spokesman for US Central Command.

“U.S. military forces conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner. The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties,” spokesman Capt. Bill Urban said in the statement.

Far fewer people were at the airport Friday, and a source directly familiar with the Kabul airport operations told CNN the remaining focus is to get people with special, last-minute access requests to the airport. But the source cautioned that officials were “unsure how many they can get in with so much Taliban coordination required.”

The Pentagon said Friday the US was “still planning on ending this mission at the end of the month.”

“As we get closer and we are getting closer, you’re going see us begin to make those muscle movements to pull out our troops and some of our equipment, as appropriate with any retrograde,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said at a briefing, adding they want to “preserve as much capability for as long as we can, both in terms of the security footprint” and ability to evacuate people.

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were warned by their national security team on Friday that “another terror attack in Kabul is likely,” according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

“The next few days of this mission will be the most dangerous period to date,” Psaki said in a statement on Friday.

Later on Friday, Kirby said that reports that the Taliban have taken control of the airport in Kabul are false. “They are not in charge of any of the gates. They are not in charge of any of the airport operations. That is still under US military control,” he said.

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 suicide bomb.

The Pentagon clarified there was only one explosion at the Abbey gate at Hamid Karzai International airport on Thursday, after originally saying there was a second explosion outside the Baron hotel in their initial statements.

“There was a river of blood … if you wanted to make a few steps you had to first check to see if there were any dead bodies under your feet to move,” one witness, Muhammad, told CNN.

Muhammad, who said he assisted US forces and worked with NATO in Afghanistan, was at the airport with his family Thursday trying to speak with American troops and find a flight out of the country. He did not provide his last name for security reasons.

“I covered my daughter’s eyes so she wouldn’t see the situation, because it was a very bad situation. After that, I took my family out and went on our way to go home,” he said.

Few people were gathering at Kabul airport on Friday, a journalist working with CNN reported.

People were not allowed to go to the main gate of the airport, the journalist said. Almost 500 yards before the main gate, the road was blocked by the Taliban with parked cars, they added.

The rest of the city was “calm,” with traffic at lower levels than on previous days. All the main commercial centers were either closed or their business was very slow, the journalist reported. This is unsurprising because Friday marks the start of Afghanistan’s weekend.

A different journalist working with CNN said Afghan and foreign forces were deploying flash bangs from inside the perimeter of the airport in an attempt to prevent people from gathering outside the airport on Friday morning.

Despite the numerous attempts to disperse crowds, many people were still trying to get to the airport with the hopes of being evacuated.

Relatives load the coffin of a victim of the August 26 suicide bombs into a car in Kabul on August 27, 2021.

Besides the 13 US service members who were killed, 18 others were injured in the attack, the Pentagon said.

Eleven Marines were among the troops killed and several more were wounded, Marine spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger said. The identities and units of those killed won’t be announced until after relatives are notified, he added.

The family of one Marine confirmed his death to CNN. Rylee McCollum was manning a checkpoint, the family said in a statement.

McCollum was sent to Afghanistan for the evacuation. He is survived by a pregnant wife who is due in three weeks, according to the statement.

A soldier killed in attack was a member of the 1st Special Forces Command, the command said in a statement on Twitter on Friday afternoon.

The US service members wounded in Thursday’s attack in Kabul have landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany and have been transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for treatment, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor said Friday.

Biden plans to contact the families of the US service members who were killed in Thursday’s attack, according to a senior official, who added that the White House is first working to ensure that next of kin notifications have taken place.

Race to safety

The attack came as the US and other Western countries were racing to evacuate their citizens and Afghan allies ahead of an August 31 deadline, after the Taliban retook control of the country.

Thousands of Afghans had been gathering at the airport’s gates in recent days in hopes of being evacuated. Footage posted to social media on Thursday after the explosion showed chaotic scenes of crowds trying to help the wounded amid bodies on the ground. Photos showed bloodied people being transported away from the scene in wheelbarrows.

Speaking from the White House, Biden said evacuation efforts would not be stopped by the attack, and that he had ordered US military commanders to develop plans to strike “ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities.”

“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said.

About 4,200 people were evacuated by the US military and coalition flights between 3 a.m. ET Friday to 3 p.m. ET Friday.

That brings the total number of people evacuated via US military and coalition flights to 109,200 since August 14, according to the White House.

The Pentagon announced Friday that additional military bases in the US – Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, Fort Pickett, Virginia, and Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico – will be used to help support evacuation operations from Afghanistan.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Friday there were about 500 American citizens that the department is working with to evacuate from Afghanistan. Price said officials are “communicating directly” with these citizens to facilitate departures.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said the focus is on the “extremely active threat streams against the airfield.”

He described the threats from ISIS as “imminent,” raging from rocket attacks to “vehicle-borne” suicide attacks in addition to “walk-in” suicide attackers like the assault on Thursday.

McKenzie said the US military is using attack helicopters and other manned and unmanned aircraft to defend the airport in Kabul, as well as sharing some intelligence with the Taliban for security purposes.

“They don’t get the full range of information we have. But we give them enough to act in time and space to try to prevent these attacks,” McKenzie said.

Speaking Thursday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, journalist and author Matthieu Aikins said he could hear “shooting and sirens” from the airport less than an hour after the attack.

“At that point, we went back to the emergency hospital, and they were bringing the casualties in there. There was just body after body. It was a really terrible sight,” Aikins said. “You have tens of thousands of people cramming in from every angle at the same time, this desperate pressure to get the American citizens and others out. So it was really truly a recipe for disaster.”

The evacuations

The airport evacuations are set to start winding down in the next few days, ahead of the US’ August 31 deadline for the final exit from a 20-year war in Afghanistan.

The UK’s evacuation operation will was going to end on Friday following the closure of the UK’s main processing center, the Baron Hotel, outside Kabul airport, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Friday.

Wallace told Sky News that following the decision to close the processing center at 4.30 a.m. UK time, the country will now “process” the “1,000 people approximately in the airfield now” but the operation has a “matter of hours” left.

The “sad fact,” said Wallace, is that “not every single one will get out.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson later pledged to “shift heaven and Earth” to help people who are eligible for resettlement and are stranded in Afghanistan after August 31.

“The crucial thing is the Taliban, the new Afghan government however it’s composed, has got to understand – if they want to have engagement with the West, if they want to have a relationship with us, then safe passage for those [people] is absolutely paramount,” Johnson said.

Speaking to British media, the prime minister said he felt a “great sense of regret” that they were not able to get everyone out during what he described as the “first phase” of the evacuation process.

The UK government said Friday that two British adults and the child of another British national were among those killed in Thursday’s attack.

Evacuees from Afghanistan are seen at a temporary emergency shelter at the Ramstein Air Base on August 26, 2021 in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.
A vendor selling Taliban flags stand next to the posters of Taliban leaders Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Amir Khan Muttaqi as he waits for customers along a street in Kabul on August 27.

More than 18,700 evacuees from Afghanistan have come through US air base Ramstein in Germany so far, according to the airbase’s Public Affairs Office, and a huge influx of more than 10,000 evacuees are expected to arrive over the coming hours.

Germany said on Friday all of its troops were “safely back from Kabul.” The German Defense Ministry said it would leave its “MedEvac,” a flying intensive care unit, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, for 24 hours to be able to support American forces if necessary. Germany evacuated more than 5,000 people from Afghanistan over the course of its mission, according to a tweet from the German Foreign Office.

France will see its mission to evacuate people from Afghanistan “through to the end” despite Thursday’s deadly attack on Kabul’s airport, the Élysée said in a statement.

Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey and Spain have said their evacuation missions have ended or were scheduled to end on Friday.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is trying to establish an air bridge into the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan in the coming days, with the help of Pakistan authorities, it said Friday.

The Taliban have offered Turkey the option of running Kabul airport, and said they will ensure security of the premises. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had yet to make a decision.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with US Central Command’s corrected spelling of the Nangarhar Province.

Duarte Mendonca, Ingrid Formanek, Jeremy Diamond and Betsy Klein contributed reporting.