WASHINGTON – Explosions and gunfire by a terrorist group killed a dozen American troops and left a scene of blood and mayhem Thursday at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where U.S. and allied forces were scrambling to evacuate people from Afghanistan.
Eleven Marines and a Navy medic were killed in the Afghanistan attacks, according to the Pentagon, making it one of America deadliest days in the war.
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, said 15 more U.S. service members have been injured and a “number of Afghan civilians” were also killed or injured.
“While we’re saddened by the loss of life, both U.S. and Afghan, we’re continuing to execute the mission,” McKenzie said. “We continue to focus on the protection of our forces in the evacuations, as the evacuation continues.”
He said about 1,000 American citizens remain in Afghanistan.
But McKenzie warned that the dangers will likely continue.
The threat from ISIS-K is “extremely real,” and officials have been telegraphing warnings of attacks for several days, McKenzie told reporters.
He said threat streams are “imminent” and range from rocket attacks to vehicle-borne suicide attacks. U.S. officials are working with the Taliban, who are providing outer security outside the airport compound, to monitor possible attacks.
“We believe that is their desire to continue those attacks and we expect those attacks to continue, and we’re doing everything we can to be prepared for those attacks,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie also said the U.S. is prepared to take action over the deaths of U.S. service members, but officials are still working to determine who’s behind the attack.
“If we can find who’s associated with this, we will go after them,” he said. “We’ve been clear all along that we’re going to retain the right to operate against ISIS in Afghanistan, and we are working very hard right now to determine attribution.”
“ISIS will not deter us from our mission, I can assure you of that,” he said. “We thought this would happen sooner or later. It’s tragic that it happened today.”
He said the U.S. was still gathering information on the number of Afghan casualties and would continue to investigate the size of the explosives detonated. Graphic photos and video published after the attacks showed people fleeing the scene and large numbers of Afghans injured. Images from reporters inside the airport showed a large dust cloud shrouding part of the airport as people scattered from the explosion.
“It’s a very heavy heart that I do this conversation with you today,” McKenzie told reporters.
U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, had warned for days about threats from ISIS-K, an offshoot of the Islamic State terror group. A senior U.S. intelligence official said the signs pointed to ISIS-K as the culprit for the strike. The group, an enemy of the Taliban, has carried out a wave of attacks targeting civilians.
The bombings came just five days before the Aug. 31 deadline that Biden set for withdrawing U.S. troops and ending America’s nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Biden has faced harsh criticism over his strategy for winding down the war, which started in 2001 with a U.S. invasion after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The U.S. and its NATO allies spent billions of dollars to build up Afghan forces, only to see the country’s Western-backed government fall on Aug. 15 to the Taliban, the Islamic militant group that now controls nearly the entire country.
The collapse of Kabul, the capital, touched off chaotic, gut-wrenching scenes at the airport as civilians tried to flee the country. The U.S. official said evacuation flights have continued to take off from Kabul airport in the waning days of the airlift.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued an alert late on Wednesday telling U.S. citizens who are at the airport’s three gates to leave immediately. Those who aren’t there should avoid traveling to the airport, the embassy said.
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Biden huddled with his national security team at the White House. Those briefing the president included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and commanders on the ground, the White House said.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is traveling from Southeast Asia, virtually met with Biden and the national security team in the Situation Room meeting earlier Thursday.
But at least some countries are bringing their evacuation missions to an end.
German defense minister Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said the last of the German military aircraft and troops arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on Thursday evening. She said that, in all, Germany evacuated 5,347 people from at least 45 nations, including more than 4,000 Afghans.
Germany hadn’t publicly specified ahead of time when exactly its flights would end but other European nations also have been wrapping up their evacuation efforts ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Contributing: The Associated Press; Courtney Subramanian of USA TODAY.