Afghanistan, Biden and the Taliban: Live Updates

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Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The reported toll of the bombing outside Kabul’s airport rose sharply on Friday, with local health officials saying that as many as 170 people were killed and at least 200 were wounded. Yet less than a day after the attack, crowds on Friday sought once again to reach the airport, their desperation to flee the Taliban blending with grief at the enormous scale of the violence.

Health officials’ estimate of the number of bombing victims, which did not include the 13 U.S. service members killed and 15 wounded, was supported by interviews with hospital officials. The officials, who requested anonymity because the Taliban had told them not to speak with the media, said some of the dead civilians were Afghan Americans, with U.S. citizenship.

The revised estimates made Thursday’s attack one of the deadliest in the nearly two decades since the U.S.-led invasion.

At the airport and in the streets, the U.S. military and the Taliban tried to exert what authority they could. Militants with Kalashnikov rifles kept crowds farther away from the airport’s entrance gates, guarding checkpoints with trucks and at least one Humvee parked in the roads. The American military resumed evacuation flights, and the White House said early Friday that 12,500 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan in the previous 24 hours, despite the attacks.

The waiting crowds, many standing by buses with bags at their sides, numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands of previous days. An estimated hundreds of thousands remain in the country who are desperate for escape from the Taliban rule of Afghanistan, but very few appeared to be getting to the airport gates on Friday.

The airport itself appeared to be largely, if not entirely, locked down. At the airport’s southern and eastern gates, Taliban guards told a reporter that no one was allowed to go near the airport and that all entrance gates were closed. About 5,400 people remained inside waiting evacuation, the Pentagon said Friday.

The grisly scenes on Thursday, when children were among those killed in the crowds, illustrated the intense danger for those braving the high-risk journey to the airport.

On Friday, the U.S. military revised its account of what happened at the airport a day earlier, with Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Joint Staff saying, “we do not believe that there was a second explosion at or near the Baron Hotel, that it was one suicide bomber.” But many witnesses reported hearing two blasts.

With four days remaining until an Aug. 31 deadline for the United States withdrawal, a date that President Biden has said he intends to keep despite domestic and international pressure to extend the evacuation operations, Afghans are scrambling to find a way out of the country.

The task is becoming increasingly difficult.

Mr. Biden vowed retribution against ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks on behalf of its loyalists in Afghanistan. But there was little information on how the attacks would affect the immediate rescue operations, which had picked up speed in recent days but were still on pace to fall well short of providing an exit for everyone who wants to leave.

A man who identified himself as Mohammad, from Khost, said that he had hoped to fly out on Friday but that he felt “stuck.” He was unable to get into the airport, and said the Taliban had been looking for former soldiers and media workers.

“I don’t feel safe here anymore,” he said.

The violence at the airport has officials in Pakistan fearing that more people will try to cross into their country, despite an insistence that it will not accept more refugees.

Each day in typical times, about 4,000 to 8,000 people cross the border near Spin Boldak-Chaman, the only designated — and open — border crossing for refugees. Since the Taliban seized Kabul, the number of Afghans entering Pakistan has jumped threefold, according to Pakistani officials and tribal leaders.

The growing number of refugees may compel the Pakistan government to take further action. Officials have said repeatedly that they will not allow new refugees to enter Pakistan’s cities. The government instead plans to establish refugee camps near the border inside Afghanistan.

General Taylor said some 111,000 people — American citizens, Afghan allies and foreign nationals — have been evacuated from the country since Kabul fell to the Taliban this month.

The coffin of Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer David R. Carter was carried to a waiting car at Buckley Air Force Base in Denver in August 2011. He was among the 30 servicemen who died when a Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.
Credit…Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post, via Associated Press

Just three months after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. military endured its biggest single-day loss of life during its two-decade war in Afghanistan. On Aug. 6, 2011, insurgents shot down a transport helicopter, killing 30 Americans and eight Afghans.

The Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the attack, had found an elite target: U.S. officials said that 22 of the dead were Navy Seal commandos, including members of Seal Team 6. Other commandos from that team had conducted the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed Bin Laden in May of that year.

The helicopter, on a night-raid mission in the Tangi Valley of Wardak Province, to the west of Kabul, was most likely brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade, an official said then. It was the second helicopter to be shot down by insurgents within two weeks.

The deadly attack, which came during a surge of violence that accompanied the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, showed how deeply entrenched the insurgency remained even far from its main strongholds in southern Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistani border in the east.

The Tangi Valley traverses the border between Wardak and Logar Province, an area where security worsened over the years and brought the insurgency closer to the capital, Kabul. It was one of several inaccessible areas that became havens for insurgents.

President Barack Obama offered his condolences at the time to the families of the Americans and Afghans who died in the attack. “Their death is a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifice made by the men and women of our military and their families,” he said.

President Biden echoed Mr. Obama’s words after an attack by Islamic State Khorasan killed 13 U.S. service members.

“The lives we lost today were lives given in the service of liberty, the service of security and the service of others,” Mr. Biden said.

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‘We Will Hunt You Down,’ Biden Vows After Kabul Explosions

President Biden condemned a terrorist attack near the Kabul airport that killed scores of people, including at least 13 American service members, pledging to retaliate against the attackers and continue evacuations.

To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. These American service members who gave their lives — that’s an overused word, but it’s totally appropriate here — were heroes. Heroes who’ve been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others. They’re a part of an airlift and evacuation effort, unlike any seen in history. We will not be deterred by terrorists. We’ll not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation. I’ve also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and the moment of our choosing. Here’s what you need to know: These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans in there. We will get our Afghan allies out, and our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated.

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President Biden condemned a terrorist attack near the Kabul airport that killed scores of people, including at least 13 American service members, pledging to retaliate against the attackers and continue evacuations.CreditCredit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war was driven, he had said repeatedly, by his determination not to sacrifice even one more member of the military on behalf of an effort that he had long believed was no longer in the interests of the United States.

But on Thursday, the withdrawal from Afghanistan claimed the lives of 13 U.S. troops, along with scores of Afghan civilians — the first American casualties there in 18 months and the deadliest day there for the U.S. military since 2011.

In searing remarks from the East Room of the White House, Mr. Biden pledged to “hunt down” the terrorists who claimed credit for the bombing.

“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive,” Mr. Biden said, using language that had grim echoes of warnings President George W. Bush made after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

America’s tumultuous exit from Afghanistan has dragged down Mr. Biden’s approval ratings, and the bombing on Thursday will surely open him up to political criticism. But it is unclear what the damage will be to his presidency in the long term, as he exits a war that most Americans want out of as well.

A lemonade seller in a market in Kabul last week.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan finance minister, continues to walk to his office in downtown Kabul every day, even as he is meeting with Taliban officials, trying to nudge them toward what he calls a more “inclusive” government.

Both exercises are proving to be challenges. On his daily walk in the normally bustling and noisy Shar-e Naw neighborhood, once alive with street vendors and jostling pedestrians, there is now an unsettling silence. And so far his encounters with the Taliban have not yielded the results he is hoping for.

“It’s awfully quiet,” he said in a phone interview from Kabul on Friday. “It’s really calm. You don’t see many women out there. Not even close to the usual number. And the market looks depressed. You don’t see people shopping. There are the juice sellers in Shar-e Naw, but not many people drinking juice.”

“We’re in a very depressed economic situation,” said Dr. Zakhilwal, an economist who was sharply critical of the government of President Ashraf Ghani in the days before it fell.

So far, the worst fears about the Taliban appear not to have been realized, Dr. Zakhilwal said. “By and large, their treatment of the population is not as bad as expected,” he said. “They are not very visible. You don’t see a heavy presence of them in the city.”

But “the mental security is not there,” he said.

Along with other Afghan officials from previous governments, he has been meeting with Taliban representatives. One of the officials is his old boss, former President Hamid Karzai. All are hoping the Taliban will include former officials in their government. The signs so far are not encouraging.

“Now that they have taken the whole thing, there might be temptations within them not to go for the type of inclusive government that would be the result of a political settlement,” Dr. Zakhilwal said.

A few appointments so far suggest that the Taliban are more interested in appointing from within their ranks than naming “professionals,” he said, noting the Taliban’s choice for acting head of the central bank: Haji Mohammad Idris, a member of the movement. News reports have indicated that Mr. Idris has no formal financial training.

“They haven’t shown inclusivity in these temporary appointments,” Dr. Zakhilwal said.

A C-17 military transport plane taking off from the international airport in Kabul.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Afghan parents of a baby born on a C-17 aircraft evacuating passengers to Germany named their daughter after the aircraft’s call sign, a senior U.S. general said this week.

“They named the little girl Reach, and they did so because the call sign of the C-17 aircraft that flew them from Qatar to Ramstein was Reach,” Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command, said in a Pentagon news conference on Wednesday.

The Afghan mother, who has not been named, went into labor and began experiencing complications on a flight leaving a base in Qatar for Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany on Saturday, the U.S. Air Force said on Twitter.

In response, the C-17 — identified as Reach 828 in radio transmission — descended in altitude to increase air pressure inside the aircraft, “which helped stabilize and save the mother’s life,” the Air Force said.

After the plane landed, medics boarded and helped deliver the baby in the cargo bay. A group of women had protected the mother’s privacy with their shawls, Capt. Erin Brymer, a nurse who helped deliver the child, told CNN.

By the time they reached her, the woman had been “past the point of no return,” she said. “That baby was going to be delivered before we could possibly transfer her to another facility.”

Pictures released by the U.S. Air Force showed the woman being transported, shortly after her daughter’s birth, from the aircraft to a nearby medical facility.

General Wolters said the baby was one of three — all in good condition — born to women who boarded evacuation flights out of Afghanistan. Two others were delivered at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a military hospital in southern Germany.

“It’s my dream to watch that young child, called Reach, grow up and be a U.S. citizen and fly United States Air Force fighters in our air force,” General Wolters told reporters.

People arriving at a Kabul hospital for treatment on Thursday after the attack near the airport.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan hardly assures that all militants in the country are under their control.

To the contrary, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan — known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K — is a bitter, albeit much smaller, rival that has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year against civilians, officials and the Taliban themselves.

In recent months as U.S. forces have been departing, about 8,000 to 10,000 jihadi fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region in western China have poured into Afghanistan, a United Nations report concluded in June.

Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, which are closely linked, but others are allied with ISIS-K, presenting a major challenge to the stability and security that the Taliban promise to provide.

While terrorism experts doubt that ISIS fighters in Afghanistan have the capacity to mount large-scale attacks against the West, many say that the Islamic State is now more dangerous, in more parts of the world, than Al Qaeda.

Created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban fighters, ISIS-K has vastly increased the pace of its attacks this year, the U.N. report said.

The group’s ranks had fallen to about 1,500 to 2,000 fighters — about half that of its peak in 2016 before U.S. airstrikes and Afghan commando raids took a toll, killing many of its leaders.

But since June 2020, the group has been led by an ambitious commander, Shahab al-Muhajir, who is trying to recruit disaffected Taliban fighters and other militants. ISIS-K “remains active and dangerous,” the U.N. report said.

The Islamic State in Afghanistan has mostly been antagonistic toward the Taliban. At times the two groups have fought for turf, particularly in eastern Afghanistan, and ISIS recently denounced the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Some analysts say that fighters from Taliban networks have even defected to join ISIS in Afghanistan, adding more experienced fighters to its ranks.

In general, Al Qaeda did not maintain the same operational control over its affiliates as the Islamic State did, which may have given the latter an advantage, said Hassan Hassan, the co-author of a book about the Islamic State and the editor in chief of Newlines Magazine.

For Al Qaeda, “it’s like opening a Domino’s franchise and you send someone out for quality control,” he said. The Islamic State, on the other hand, would “take it one step further and appoint a manager from the original organization.”

Displaced Afghan families receiving food distributed by the World Food Program in Kandahar last year.
Credit…M Sadiq/EPA, via Shutterstock

Humanitarian organizations, which provide vital aid for millions in Afghanistan, are finding alternative routes to ensure the continued delivery of supplies to a country in crisis.

Desperate to keep channels into the country open, some have looked to alternatives to Kabul’s airport, where the deadly attack on Thursday and ongoing evacuations have hampered deliveries.

The World Health Organization is working with Pakistan to enable an airlift of medical supplies to the northern Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif. The hope is to bypass the security and logistics challenges that have prevented deliveries to Kabul’s airport.

Most of Afghanistan’s 2,200 health facilities are functioning, said Richard Brennan, the W.H.O.’s regional emergencies director. But stocks of trauma kits to treat wounded people and of other medical supplies have dwindled to a few days’ supply.

“Kabul airport is not an option for bringing in humanitarian supplies at this stage,” he told reporters by video link from Cairo on Friday. “So we are likely to use Mazar-i-Sharif airport, with our first flight going in the next few days.”

Afghanistan’s Civil Aviation Authority is not functioning, but Pakistan International Airlines is working with colleagues in Mazar-i-Sharif to ensure that cargo aircraft can land. The W.H.O. expected to bring in 20 to 30 tons of supplies on each flight, he noted.

Another challenge has arisen, however. In the hours after the terrorist attack outside Kabul’s airport, insurance costs for bringing a plane into Afghanistan have “skyrocketed to prices we have never seen before,” Mr. Brennan said, although he said he expected that problem to be resolved and aircraft dispatched in the next two to three days.

The World Food Program also expects to start an emergency airlift of food supplies to Afghanistan in the coming days, Mr. Brennan said. It warned this week that it could run out of supplies by September as it copes with the new reality of need on the ground.

“Humanitarian catastrophe awaits the people of Afghanistan this winter unless the global community makes their lives a priority,” Anthea Webb, the organization’s regional deputy director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

At this time of year, the program is typically positioning food stocks in warehouses across Afghanistan so that they can later be distributed when winter snows make some roads impassable.

Now, Ms. Webb said, limited funding and increased need mean that some supplies could run out.

Buying Taliban flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Just days after the Taliban took Kabul, their flag was flying high above a central mosque in Pakistan’s capital. It was an in-your-face gesture intended to spite the defeated Americans — and a sign of the real victors in the 20-year Afghan war.

Pakistan was ostensibly America’s partner in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But it was a relationship rived by duplicity and divided interests from its very start after 9/11. Pakistan’s intelligence service nurtured and protected Taliban assets inside Pakistan through the course of the war.

Already Pakistan, along with Russia and China, is helping fill the space the Americans have vacated. The embassies of the three nations have remained open since the Taliban seized Kabul.

But Robert L. Grenier, a former C.I.A. station chief in Pakistan, said that Pakistan should be careful what it wished for.

“If the Afghan Taliban become leaders of a pariah state, which is likely, Pakistan will find itself tethered to them,” he said.

A Taliban-run state on its border will no doubt embolden Taliban and other Islamist militants in Pakistan itself. And aside from maintaining the stability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the Americans now have less incentive to deal with Pakistan.

So the question for Pakistan is: What will it do with the broken country that is its prize?

A group of migrants from Afghanistan near Bialystok, Poland, close to the border with Belarus.
Credit…Wojtek Radwanski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BRUSSELS — About 37 Afghan asylum seekers who left their country before the Taliban takeover this month have been stuck at the border between Belarus and Poland for two weeks without easy access to food, water or toilets, highlighting the European Union’s struggle with migration.

With Poland’s governing Law and Justice party advertising its toughness on migrants, the government has sent troops to the area while building a variety of border fences. Belarus, which initially granted the asylum seekers visas, won’t let them return from the border.

Various opposition politicians in Poland, some of whom have visited the migrants, have criticized the inhumanity of the government’s position while trying to avoid appearing to favor a policy of open borders.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday called on Poland to abide by its international obligations.

But as European Union member states worry about a new flow of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, they are accusing Belarus, which is not a member, of weaponizing migrants to destabilize the bloc by encouraging them to cross the border.

Critics of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus say he has done the same thing on the borders of Lithuania and Latvia, apparently to retaliate against the European Union for its increasingly harsh sanctions against him and his government over fraudulent elections and a fierce crackdown on the opposition.

Belarus has denied that it is using migrants as a weapon against the European Union.

Sayed, right, was reunited with his wife, Kebria, and 6-month-old son, Mustafa, after they were released from the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Va., following their evacuation from Afghanistan.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Hours after the deadly explosion outside the Kabul airport on Thursday, people were gathered at another airport back in the United States, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their loved ones from Afghanistan.

Many expressed grief over the attack, which killed at least 13 U.S. service members and scores more, and wondered what would happen to their relatives trapped in Afghanistan.

Baryalai, 31, drove six hours from Brooklyn to Northern Virginia to help a friend pick up his wife and three children at Dulles International Airport. The two men arrived at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday and were still waiting for the family to be released from the processing center at 2 p.m.

Baryalai said he was “heartbroken” over the bombing and worried about his mother and brother, who are stuck in Afghanistan.

“They are home. I cannot send them to the airport because it’s so bad,” he said. “I cannot take the risk.”

Joe, a 35-year-old hospitality worker who lives in Prince William County, Va., arrived at Dulles on Wednesday morning to pick up his wife and two daughters, who were returning from a visiting to Afghanistan for a wedding that was scheduled for Aug. 15, the day the Taliban took control of Kabul.

He was still waiting on Thursday evening after spending the night sitting in a cafe and wandering around the airport. Although they had landed the day before at 4:30 p.m., they were not able to get off the tarmac until 8 a.m. on Thursday.

Joe said that the attack was devastating but that he was not surprised it had occurred.

“The writing was on the wall,” he said. “They’ve pretty much been announcing it, that threats have been active and present.”

Holding a bouquet of roses and two balloons, Joe said that he was relieved to get his wife and children out before the attack, but that he was worried about his wife’s two sisters, who had not yet decided whether to risk their lives trying to get into the airport.

“They still haven’t left the house,” he said. “They’re ready to leave, but they can’t.”

Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, who retired from the military in 2008, and his wife, Jan, at a displaced persons camp in Kabul in March 2010.
Credit…Mahboob Shah

Since the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, a retired Air Force officer, and his wife, Jan, have spent nearly every waking moment submitting reams of paperwork to various government agencies to help about 500 Afghans trying to evacuate the country.

So far, only one family they have helped has made it out.

“Nothing is working,” Ms. Bradley said on Thursday. “It’s a broken system, and it’s heartbreaking.”

The couple’s frustrations reflect the broader challenges facing those who once helped Americans and those who are now in turn trying to help those people. With President Biden’s Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline fast approaching, many Afghans are desperate to get out.

In 2008 the Bradleys founded the Lamia Afghan Foundation, a nonprofit group, to help people in Afghanistan. Necessity has turned it into an impromptu refugee resettlement organization.

General Bradley served in the Air Force for more than four decades before he started the foundation, which he said had built seven schools for girls and distributed 3.5 million pounds of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. The foundation is named for a young woman whom General Bradley met near Bagram Air Base while he was still in the service.

“I think she’s under threat because her name’s on our foundation,” General Bradley said.

Lamia’s family is still in Afghanistan and is one of many that the Bradleys are trying to help.

That is never easy on the best of days, and Thursday was not the best of days, especially in Kabul.

In the morning, General Bradley got a phone call from a young Afghan American woman in Virginia whose family had been working with the foundation. She told him her brother had gone to the Kabul airport with his wife and three children that day to try to secure a flight out of the country, even though they had not yet been approved for one.

The Bradleys had submitted paperwork to the Defense Department to request a noncombatant evacuation for the family. They also provided the young Afghan man with copies of General Bradley’s redacted passport and driver’s license, as well as a letter on his military letterhead to present to guards at the airport.

On Thursday, the whole family was standing near the Abbey Gate, a main entry to the international airport, when an explosion tore through the crowd. Dozens were killed and many more wounded in the terrorist attack.

The young woman, who declined to be interviewed, initially thought that most of her brother’s family had been killed, the Bradleys said.

But over the course of the day, and with the couple’s help, she learned that her brother and his wife had initially survived the blast. By Thursday night in the United States, however, the wife had died in the hospital and the family had not found their two younger children.

“We don’t know anything on their status: whether they are hurt, killed or someone took them away to help them,” General Bradley said.

General Bradley said he hoped that his charity could resume something close to normal operations once conditions on the ground calm down. And he said he would keep up his efforts to get people out, hopeless as it often feels.

He also said he understood the United States’ rationale for leaving Afghanistan, but took issue with the way the Biden administration has carried it out.

“I don’t know why it wasn’t started earlier,” General Bradley said of the evacuation. “That’s the baffling thing to me, and I’d love to have an answer someday on that.”

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