More Than A Dozen Americans Dead After Attack At Kabul Airport : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden addressed the nation to offer condolences to the families of the U.S. military personnel and scores of Afghan civilians who died. He promised to hold the perpetrators accountable.

The evacuation mission continues ahead of Tuesday's deadline. More than a hundred thousand people have now been evacuated from Afghanistan.

This episode: congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and international correspondent Jackie Northam.

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More Than A Dozen Americans Dead After Attack At Kabul Airport

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Hey there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. It is 6:23 p.m. on Thursday, August 26. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.


FRANK MCKENZIE: It's a hard day today. As you know, two suicide bombers, assessed to have been ISIS fighters, detonated in the vicinity of the Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport and in the vicinity of the Baron Hotel, which is immediately adjacent. The attack on the Abbey Gate was followed by a number of ISIS gunmen who opened fire on civilians and military forces. At this time, we know that 12 U.S. service members have been killed in the attack, and 15 more service members have been injured.

SNELL: That was General Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, briefing reporters this afternoon about an attack outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, earlier today. We waited to tape this podcast until President Biden spoke, which happened just a little bit ago.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: These American service members who gave their lives - it'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.

SNELL: At least 12 U.S. service members were killed alongside dozens of civilians, making it the deadliest attack on U.S. service members in a decade; many more were wounded. Jackie Northam, NPR international correspondent, is in Islamabad, Pakistan, and joins us now to talk about it. Hi, Jackie.


SNELL: Thank you so much for joining us so late. Just to start with, what do we know right now about how this attack was conducted?

NORTHAM: Well, as General McKenzie was saying, you know, it happened right by the Abbey Gate, which is the main gate into the airport. And for about a week now, we've seen thousands of people trying to get into the airport there. So, again, there was this huge swell of people there. And earlier today, two suicide bombers came and detonated their explosives and, again, you know, dozens of people injured and also killed.

You know, the White House, the Pentagon, even the U.S. embassy in Kabul have been warning for days of a credible threat of an attack near this gate from the Islamist militant group ISIS-K. And, you know, Western countries told their nationals stay away, you know, over fear of a suicide bombing, which is exactly what happened. But, you know, everybody was desperate to get out. And they're going to try and do whatever they can, the Afghans. And this gave a prime opportunity to the militants to, you know, launch suicide attacks.

RASCOE: Jackie, can you tell us more about this group, ISIS-K? They're, I guess, affiliated with ISIS. Like, is there a difference for the - for people who may not know what ISIS-K is?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, they're an offshoot of ISIS, and they formed about six years ago when ISIS was moving through Syria and Iraq. And that - and they were actually formed here in Pakistan. They were aligned with the Pakistan Taliban, which is a different group than the Afghanistan Taliban. But they left the Pakistan Taliban because they did not think that they were extreme enough. They wanted a pure adherence to Islam.

Now, the K in ISIS-K stands for Khorasan, and that's a reference to the historical region here, that includes, you know, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, they are adversaries of the Taliban. They have been launching attacks in Afghanistan. They're not big in number, not at all. They're a small group. But they've managed, like a lot of extremists, to have a major impact as well. What's interesting about it, though, is that they could present a real challenge to the Taliban's rule.

And it's very interesting is that the U.S. right now, for so many years, fought the Taliban. All of a sudden, the U.S. is almost having to work with the Taliban to try to hold back any more attacks by ISIS-K. It's - you know, it's a really serious situation because Afghanistan - it's huge. There are many remote areas, open spaces. And if this extremist group can get in there and, you know, get a foothold in there, then what's to stop other groups? And it, you know, raises the specter of Afghanistan being sort of another hotbed for terrorism, which is something that the U.S. will have to deal with.

SNELL: So, Ayesha, what did we hear from President Biden?

RASCOE: He stood in the East Room as the commander in chief, but he also made sure to take time to mourn and hail these heroes that he said died today, the U.S. military service members, also to mourn the Afghans who also lost their lives. He had a moment of silence. He also talked about - because he has experienced loss himself, which we've talked about, his personal loss and loss of his late son, Beau, he talked about knowing what that grief is and the grief that these service members' families will be feeling, like a black hole in their heart and how his heart aches for them. But he also said that the U.S. is not going to let this go, and that they will - that the people who carried this out are going to pay.


BIDEN: 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. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command.

SNELL: Jackie, given that Biden was pretty clear in saying that it's too dangerous to keep troops in the region, how would he go about, you know, following through on that, following through on finding the people who conducted this attack?

NORTHAM: Well, it would be a strategic hit, I would think. You know, it wouldn't be, again, overwhelming troops going into Afghanistan. You know, there are drone strikes, and the U.S. has used drones to take out terrorists in the past. It could be something like that. President Biden did hint that they knew who did it and where they were. He just gave a hint. He didn't want to go any further than that. But there are ways of doing it. And I would think a drone strike - again, a surgical hit, but it's hard to say. You know, surely after 20 years, the U.S. has enough eyes in the skies, you know, and intelligence, even though we're leaving - even though the U.S. is leaving, still have some assets there that they can utilize for sure. You know, it was very interesting, though. He did indicate also that they knew that ISIS was out there - ISIS-K was out there and how serious it was. And so the U.S., he said, did - or he indicated - did have an idea that they were out there. And that's what really started these high alerts going on in the past couple of days.

SNELL: All right. We're going to take a quick break, and we'll talk more in a second.

And we're back. Ayesha, what has the political reaction to the attack been in the United States?

RASCOE: There has been obviously an outpouring of grief. But also there has been criticism of the Biden administration, certainly from Republicans who are accusing the Biden administration of making decisions that led to this, to these deaths, and saying that it could have been avoided. There are former military officials who are also saying - who were involved in the war in Afghanistan and who are also saying that this is surrender, that this is what happens when the U.S., quote-unquote, "surrenders." So there are definite political headwinds that come from this. And even on the Democratic side, there is concern that not everyone will be able to get out by August 31. So you have allies and Democrats who have asked the U.S. to stay longer because they are concerned that not enough people are going to get out by this August 31 deadline.

SNELL: You know, I think it's important to kind of reiterate here that the United States is continuing evacuations. More than 100,000 Americans and allies have been evacuated.


BIDEN: We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation.

SNELL: And Biden promised in response to a question from our colleague Franco Ordoñez that he will continue work to get Afghan allies out after Tuesday's deadline.


FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: What do you say to the Afghans who helped troops, who may not be able to get out by August 31? What...

BIDEN: I say...

ORDOÑEZ: ...Do you say to them?

BIDEN: ...We're going to continue to try to get you out. It matters. Look, I know of no conflict - as a student of history - no conflict where when a war was ended, one side was able to guarantee that everyone that wanted to be extracted from that country would get out.

SNELL: So, Jackie, how long can the civilian evacuations really continue before the military itself needs to begin to withdraw?

NORTHAM: Well, President Biden said that they were going to be out by August 31. And we're hearing talk that it'll actually be - the last ones will be just a little bit before that to make up for that time lag. So we're going to have to see - I mean, again, there was a lot of pushback. Why don't we keep - stay in there longer to make sure they're going to be out? But, you know, it is so dangerous. It is so utterly dangerous right now. They're talking about more, like, suicide attacks using vehicles, everything like that, that they've got to set this timeline and get as many people out as they can. There are people that don't want to leave, Americans that don't want to leave. There are aid workers and the like. But, you know, these next few days are just going to be really, really, really tense. It's been a very long week for everybody.

SNELL: Jackie, are there concerns that there could be further attacks between now and when troops are done, when they withdraw completely?

NORTHAM: There are enormous concerns still at the airport for sure. I mean, General McKenzie talked today about fears about using vehicles as bombs. That's No. 1. That's huge. They're watching that as much as they can, and they're asking the Taliban to help with that. The other thing they're really worried about is any attacks on aircraft going out now. He said with the military, they've got all sorts of devices and ways to detract, like, a missile or that kind of thing, or to help detract a missile, that type of thing. What they're worried about is the civilian aircrafts are going in there to help shuttle people out. But, you know, to answer your question, yes, there are still huge concerns out at that airport. The U.S. is staying there till the 31. But, you know, that's what I said. There - this is going to be a very long, tense few days ahead.

SNELL: All right. We're going to leave it there for now, and we will continue following this. Jackie, thank you so much for joining us.


NORTHAM: Thank you.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

SNELL: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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