Less than a day after a pair of suicide bombings outside the Kabul airport killed 13 American troops and scores of Afghans, desperate crowds on Friday sought once again to leave. Flights had also resumed, according to The Associated Press.
The crowds numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands of previous days, with watchful Taliban forces keeping them far away from the airport’s entrance gates. An estimated hundreds of thousands remain desperate for escape from the imminent Taliban rule of Afghanistan.
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. A local official said that at least 73 civilians had been killed in the attacks, in addition to the U.S. troops, though estimates of the total dead and wounded have varied as different hospitals and officials issued their counts.
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.
Thousands of people have been crossing into Pakistan through a major southwestern border crossing since the Taliban took over Kabul two weeks ago. While the evacuations from Kabul’s airport have drawn global attention, large numbers of people trying to flee Afghanistan have been gathering daily near Spin Boldak-Chaman, the only designated — and open — border crossing for refugees.
About 4,000 to 8,000 people cross the border there each day in typical times. Since the Taliban seized Kabul, the number of Afghans entering Pakistan has jumped threefold, according to Pakistani officials and tribal leaders.
An official at a ministry overseeing the flow of refugees said that the Pakistan government was currently allowing only Pakistani citizens, Afghans seeking medical treatment and people with proof of a right to refuge. No official statistics about how many people recently entered Pakistan are available.
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.
One resident of Parwan Province, north of Kabul, said he had traveled with his family through Spin Boldak. They arrived at the Pakistani port city of Karachi on Monday, said the man, surnamed Ali.
“The uncertainty and unemployment in Afghanistan have been forcing us to leave the country,” he said.
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.
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.”
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.