KABUL — Two explosions killed dozens of people, including at least 12 U.S. troops, ripping through the crowds outside Afghanistan’s main airport on Thursday, just hours after Western governments had warned of an imminent Islamic State attack and told their people to stay away from the airport.
The attack, by at least two suicide bombers, struck at the only avenue of escape for the thousands of foreign nationals and tens — or hundreds — of thousands of their Afghan allies who are trying to flee the country following the Taliban takeover and ahead of the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, set for next Tuesday.
Afghan health officials gave varying estimates of the toll at the international airport in Kabul, the capital — from at least 30 dead to more than 60, and from 120 wounded to 140 — while a Taliban spokesman cited at least 13 civilians killed and 60 wounded.
For American forces, the attacks were a gruesome coda to almost 20 years of warfare in Afghanistan — one of their heaviest losses, just days before they are set to leave the country. In addition to 13 service members killed, 15 were wounded, the Pentagon said.
“We’re outraged as well as heartbroken,” President Biden said in an address from the White House.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this,” he said to the attackers. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command.”
Bystanders hoping to find survivors picked their way among torn and bloodied bodies that littered the ground outside one of the airport’s main gates, or waded into a drainage canal where other bodies bobbed in the water.
“I saw bodies of women, children and men scattered all around after the blast,” said one Afghan witness, who requested anonymity because he feared for his safety. He said he and other civilians, along with Taliban fighters, fled after the first explosion, because there were rumors that the Islamic State “had sent four suicide bombers,” and he feared more detonations.
The bombings hint at a new round of violence that may lie in store for a people and a country that have suffered more than 40 years of warfare, as the Taliban militants’ new regime is being challenged by still more extreme groups like the Islamic State Khorasan, the terrorist branch known as ISIS-K.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of its loyalists in Afghanistan.
Intelligence has revealed other “very, very real” terrorist threats to the airport, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, told a press briefing, including plans for rocket attacks and a vehicle bombing.
But President Biden and other U.S. officials insisted that the carnage and continued danger would not halt the American-led airlift that, after a belated and rocky start, has ferried more than 100,000 people out of Afghanistan in the last two weeks. Many of those were Afghans who had worked with NATO forces and their families, and who feared Taliban reprisals and hoped to start new lives in other parts of the world.
“We will not be dissuaded from the task at hand,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement. “To do anything less — especially now — would dishonor the purpose and sacrifice these men and women have rendered our country and the people of Afghanistan.”
A few hours after the explosions, “we are continuing to bring people onto the airport,” General McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla. “The plan is designed to operate under stress.”
Mr. Biden has said repeatedly that he wanted to end the long U.S. involvement in Afghanistan precisely to avoid such American casualties. Some NATO allies and humanitarian groups have called on him to delay the final military withdrawal, but the president said the attacks on Thursday reinforce “why I’ve been so determined to limit the duration of this mission.”
“These American service members who gave their lives,” Mr. Biden said, were “heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others.”
Most of the bombing victims were Afghan civilians, including families with small children, who had thronged the airport hoping to get precious space on one of the departing military transports. One blast detonated at the Abbey Gate on the southeast perimeter of the airport, and the other near the Baron Hotel a few hundred feet away.
Mohammad Shah, an Afghan witness, said he had gone to the airport to accompany a friend who had flown in from France recently to get married and was ready to leave. He said he waited at a distance while the friend tried to make his way through the crowd to the airport gate, went looking for him, to no avail, and then heard the first explosion.
“I recognized him from his sandals,” Mr. Shah said of his friend’s body, which he said he took to the man’s parents. “The canal was full of bodies, dozens of bodies were on the ground, the situation was very very bad in the area.”
At the Emergency Hospital, under the glare of floodlights and the eyes of an anxious crowd, ambulance after ambulance arrived bringing injured people from the airport, some of them children. Zargoona, a journalist and former government worker, wept as she described how she had received a call from a taxi driver informing her that her wounded husband was inside.
“I begged him not to go, but he went this morning with his government I.D. card to try to show the foreigners,” she said. “We have four children, what will happen to us now?”
At Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, a doctor said there were 27 dead and 57 wounded transported from the airport — and no space left in the morgue.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
General McKenzie said it appeared that a suicide bomber, most likely wearing a concealed explosives vest, had made it through the checkpoints outside the airport, many of them run by Taliban soldiers, who are supposed to detect such attackers. He said he had no reason to believe that the Taliban, who are eager for the Americans to leave as quickly as possible, knowingly let the bomber through.
The chief Taliban spokesman, however, made a point of saying that the attack took place in an area where American forces controlled security.
The explosion hit at the airport gate, where U.S. troops screen people who are trying to get in. Gunfire followed, but it was not clear who was shooting. The general said American forces will work with the Taliban to keep crowds farther back from the airport gates, and to close some roads to thwart vehicle attacks.
“This is close-up war — the breath of the person you are searching is upon you,” General McKenzie said, adding, “I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the heroism” of the service members doing that perilous work.
“If we can find who’s associated with this, we will go after them,” he said.
Mr. Biden vowed, “we will respond with force and precision at our time” against the Islamic State leaders who ordered the attack. He added, “We have some reason to believe we know who they are.”
U.S. Marines at Abbey Gate had been working tirelessly for days, well aware that their time to help Afghans and U.S. citizens flee the country was running short as the Aug. 31 withdrawal date drew near.
The State Department had identified about 6,000 Americans who were in Afghanistan on Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban began entering Kabul and the U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country. On Wednesday, the department said that figure was down to 1,500 and it was trying frantically to reach them all, telling them to get to the airport or sending helicopters to extract them.
But then the intelligence on an impending attack prompted the United States and NATO allies to tell people overnight not to approach the airport. Even so, by Thursday afternoon, the State Department said, about 500 more Americans had left the country, and hundreds more were awaiting evacuation, while some U.S. citizens had signaled that they do not intend to leave.
Early Friday morning, alarmed Kabul residents reported another series of explosions near the airport, setting off fears of another bombing attack. Taliban officials and Afghan journalists soon reported otherwise: It was the Americans, they said, destroying their own equipment as they prepared to leave Afghanistan.
Matthieu Aikins and Jim Huylebroek reported from Kabul, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt from Washington and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Sharif Hassan, Fahim Abed, Najim Rahim, Fatima Faizi, Michael Shear and Lara Jakes.