A “complex attack” involving at least two explosions outside the airport in Kabul on Thursday killed 13 U.S. service members and injured at least 15 others, the Pentagon said.
The attack also killed and wounded a number of Afghan civilians. An Afghan official told Associated Press that at least 60 Afghans were killed and 143 others were injured in the attack.
“Let me be clear: While we’re saddened by the loss of life, both U.S. and Afghan [lives], we’re continuing to execute the mission,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said at a press briefing on Thursday.
McKenzie confirmed earlier reports that a suicide bomb exploded outside one of the main gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport. He said another bomb went off in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel, which is near the airport and is often frequented by Americans in Kabul.
McKenzie also confirmed that ISIS-K, an affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group in Afghanistan, is believed to be responsible for the attacks. He said U.S. officials believe it is the group’s “desire to continue those attacks, and we expect those attacks to continue.” ISIS-K is also an enemy of the Taliban.
Asked whether the U.S. would take military action against those responsible, McKenzie said, “Yes. If we can find who is associated with this, we will go after them.”
On Thursday evening, President Biden, speaking somberly from the White House, vowed to “hunt down” those who carried out the attack.
“We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said.
Biden added that officials “have some reason to believe we know who [the ISIS-K leaders] are, and we will find ways of our choosing, without large military operations, to get them.”
The Hamid Karzai airport has been the site of a massive airlift operation by the U.S. military to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans, at-risk Afghans and citizens of allied nations out of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of the country less than two weeks ago.
McKenzie told reporters that the suicide bomber likely made it past Taliban checkpoint outside the airport and was being screened by U.S. Marines for entry at the gate when the attack occurred, highlighting the threats to U.S. troops who are facilitating the airlift.
“We don’t want to let somebody on an airplane with a bomb,” McKenzie said. “Ultimately, Americans have got to be endangered to do these searches, there’s really no other way to do it.”
McKenzie said he doesn’t think there’s any reason to believe the Taliban intentionally let the attack happen.
“Clearly, if they were able to get up to the Marines at the entry point of the base, there’s a failure somewhere,” he said. Still, McKenzie said, U.S. officials have asked Taliban leaders for help providing additional security around the airport, given threats of another possible attack.
“They have a practical reason for wanting us to get out of here by Aug. 31,” McKenzie said of the Taliban, who, he said, want to reclaim control of the Kabul airfield. “As long as we kept our common purpose aligned, they’ve been useful to work with.”
Biden reiterated this point on Thursday, saying that "no one trusts" the Taliban, but that U.S. officials are counting on the group's “self-interest.”
“It’s not a matter of trust,” Biden said, “it is a matter of mutual self-interest.”
The U.S. has been racing to evacuate as many people from Afghanistan as possible before Aug. 31, when the last American troops are scheduled to withdraw from the country. Earlier this week, Biden confirmed that he intends to stick with that withdrawal deadline, despite calls to extend it. He cited the growing threat that ISIS-K poses to U.S. troops on the ground in Kabul.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport,” Biden said Tuesday. “The sooner we can finish, the better.”
As of Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that more than 4,500 American citizens and their immediate family members had been evacuated from Afghanistan, and that up to 1,500 others were still waiting to leave.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, McKenzie said that before the attack, 104,000 people had been airlifted out of the Kabul airport.
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