US forces in Afghanistan (Photo; AP)

US forces brace for more attacks, move toward pullout from Kabul

Earlier in the day, hundreds of Afghans picked their way through the carnage left behind by the previous day’s deadly suicide bombing and gun attack outside the airport, in a last-ditch effort to flee Taliban rule. The death toll from the terrorist attack, one of the deadliest of the war, rose to nearly 200 Afghans, according to a senior health official. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed, and at least 15 were injured.

The Biden administration appeared poised to stick with its Tuesday deadline to pull the last of the nation’s forces out of Afghanistan and end the 20-year war there.

As crowds queued up in the street outside the airport in the early morning Friday, dozens of Afghan men waded through open sewers lining the street to get closer to the gates.

“There was still blood and pieces of flesh and torn-off clothes on the ground,” said a 29-year-old man who lives near Kabul airport. “People stepped on it trying to get to the airport.”

The crowd was smaller than on Thursday, with many apparently wary in the wake of the attack. Later Friday, rumors spread of another explosion, sending people running away from the airport in all directions, leaving only Taliban fighters guarding the gates, according to a shopkeeper in the area. Taliban militants have since prevented would-be evacuees from getting near the airport, several witnesses said.

The U.S. vowed to retaliate against Islamic State’s local offshoot, known as ISIS-K, which has claimed responsibility for the attack.

“I think he made clear yesterday that he does not want them to live on the Earth anymore,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of President Biden’s desire for retribution.

The next four days will be critical to U.S. military operations at the Kabul airport, where more than 5,000 troops and about 5,400 evacuees and others remain. U.S. military officials have said the U.S. will continue to evacuate Americans and Afghans at risk until the last day they are there, but hinted that the window is closing rapidly and the military is beginning to pack up its own people and gear.

“As we get closer…you’re going to see us begin to make those muscle movements to pull out our troops and some of our equipment,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday.

With just days to the deadline, military and White House officials said there remains a threat from Islamic State, as the military continues to allow access to the airport, even on a limited basis, and the troop departures leave fewer to maintain security. Mr. Biden’s national security advisers told him on Friday that another attack was likely.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it at all,” a senior State Department official said. “Given the situation at the airport, given the events of the last 24 hours, it’s very, very challenging to get people in and get people out.”

Military commanders at the airport have spoken with the Taliban and taken extra precautions to mitigate the exposure to another attack, but Pentagon officials declined to provide details. The Thursday attack was claimed by Islamic State, but the lone suicide bomber got through multiple Taliban checkpoints. Pentagon officials declined to blame the Taliban for the security breach, however.

Thursday’s bloodshed prompted Republicans and some Democrats to ratchet up their criticism of the administration’s withdrawal plan. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said Friday that Mr. Biden had lost the faith of the American people. “There will be a day of reckoning,” he said.

The president isn’t seeking the resignations of any members of his national security team, Ms. Psaki said in response to questions from reporters, and he retains confidence in Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The U.S. pressed on with its evacuation efforts following the attack, flying out more than 12,000 people in the 24-hour period ending early Friday morning, according to the White House. Since the airlift operation began on Aug. 14, a total of over 111,000 people have been evacuated, Pentagon officials said.

The U.S. was giving priority to getting the remaining Americans in Afghanistan out of the country, officials said. The State Department on Friday said it was in contact with about 500 Americans seeking assistance to evacuate.

“Lives are still the priority, and the lives of our troops and of course, the lives of evacuees and trying to continue to get as many out as possible,” Mr. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said.

On Friday night in Kabul, U.S. officials began informing partners that with limited exceptions, no more people trying to escape Taliban rule would be allowed into Hamid Karzai International Airport, according to people briefed on the plans. Defense officials delivered a clear message: The next time the airport opens it will be under new management, these people said.

The U.S. military and its allies were expected to continue evacuating those already inside the airport, but none outside, they said. The decision strands countless Afghans and an unknown number of foreigners who want to get out of the country.

Disorganized and lacking technical capacity, the Taliban have sought civilian assistance from Turkey to operate Kabul’s airport following the U.S. withdrawal, and on Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara was considering the request.

The Taliban, which has been manning checkpoints around the airport, criticized Washington for lax security that it said opened the way for the bombing. The Taliban have for years fought Islamic State as the two Islamist militant groups battled for supremacy in Afghanistan.

“The incident did not happen in an area controlled by the Islamic Emirate,” as the Taliban refer to themselves, said Habib Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission. “That area is controlled by the Americans. We blame the Americans for it.”

Mr. Samangani said Taliban intelligence officials were investigating the attack, but that the probe was still at a preliminary stage. The Pentagon on Friday said the attack comprised a single suicide bombing at the airport’s Abbey Gate, followed by gunfire. On Thursday, military officials had said a second explosion had taken place near a hotel nearby.

“We’re asking very detailed questions about the fight,” Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor, the Pentagon’s deputy director of the joint staff for regional operations, told reporters. “That will continue to be collected.”

The Pentagon said specific, credible threats remained against the Kabul airlift. Mr. Kirby said thousands of Islamic State fighters had been released from prison since the Afghan government fell, and the Taliban took over the country’s jails.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials and activists Friday stepped up efforts to get as many Westerners and Afghans out of the country as they could. In recent days, access to the airport had been impeded by Taliban checkpoints and bureaucracy at the airport, leaving several evacuation flights to take off with significant numbers of empty seats.

Americans held tense negotiations with Taliban leaders to get approval to bring busloads of Afghans to the airport for flights to places such as Ukraine and Albania.

But the dangers at the airport also pushed Western organizers to turn toward other escape routes. More people trying to flee Taliban rule turned to the roads to Pakistan, which was preparing to accept a new surge of Afghan refugees.

While all Western nations have closed down their embassies and airlifted staff out of the country, Russia, which has backed the Taliban as a guarantor of stability for Afghanistan, has so far appeared determined to keep its embassy in Kabul running but has evacuated several hundred citizens.

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