Hundreds of Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban continued to crowd Kabul’s airport Friday, even after one of the deadliest bombings in the country’s history, as the death toll from the previous day’s blast neared 200 with hundreds more wounded, keeping the city’s hospitals grimly busy all day.
The size of the crowd at the airport had dropped sharply, however, with fear paring the numbers down to hundreds from the thousands of previous days. The suicide bombing ripped right into the jostling throng Thursday afternoon, piling an adjacent sewage canal with corpses. Health officials said at least 170 civilians had been killed, and likely more.
The attack also killed 13 U.S. service members, and one of the first to be identified was Rylee McCollum, 20, a Marine who had been on his first overseas deployment, according to his father. He was one of 10 Marines, two soldiers, and one Navy medic killed in the attack, according to defense officials.
On Friday, the Pentagon changed its earlier statement that there were possibly two suicide blasts set off at the airport by ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group, instead saying it was just one. The explosion hit right near the airport’s Abbey Gate, at a security chokepoint that squeezed together an enormous crowd that U.S. troops were checking for entry.
It was not only fear that trimmed the crowd at the airport Friday, what had been a constant mass since the Taliban assumed power nearly two weeks ago. Taliban fighters with Kalashnikov rifles kept people farther away from the airport’s entrance gates, guarding checkpoints with trucks and at least one Humvee.
Flights to evacuate people already within the airport resumed soon after the bombing. But the airport itself was largely locked down Friday.
U.S. and Taliban officials have been consulting for days about security around the airport, and at times cooperating to help groups gain entrance. But the bombing brought changes in the Taliban’s methods, in particular, on Friday. At its southern and eastern gates, Taliban gunmen said that almost no one was allowed to come close, and that all entrance gates were closed. Reports about any new entries to the airport at all were sparse, and unconfirmed.
Further, State Department officials have warned people to stay away from the airport and shelter in place because of new terrorism threats.
The unit of McCollum, one of the Marines killed in the blast, had deployed from Jordan to Afghanistan to provide security and help with evacuations, his father, Jim McCollum, said in a phone interview Friday. He said his son had been guarding a checkpoint when the explosion tore through the airport’s main gate.
The U.S. government said that more than 100,000 people have been evacuated so far. And one U.S. military official said that flights to begin the final evacuation of U.S. military personnel and equipment were beginning Friday night.
Despite the risk and the obstacles at the airport, citizens continued to flock to what many see as the last chance to get out.
‘People are still risking their lives and going to the airport to leave the country,’ said a female journalist in Kabul. ‘It is the only hope.’
Another Kabul resident who had been at the airport Thursday and lost a friend in the bombing vowed to go back Friday. ‘I don’t want to be killed in this cursed country,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to live here anymore. I hate this country. I hate all these killings.’
A government worker who lives in the Macroyan neighborhood of central Kabul said he was not surprised people were still congregating at the airport’s gates.
‘It is better to get killed while trying to leave than stay here,’ he said. ‘People are trying to leave the country at any price.’
In much of Kabul, the streets were quiet and largely deserted Friday.
‘There were a lot of people in this area before the collapse, but now it is like a ghost town,’ the government worker said about central Kabul. ‘You can’t find people. Everyone is afraid to leave their house.’
On the day after the attack and nearly two weeks after they seized control of Kabul on Aug. 15, the Taliban continued to reveal little about their intentions on the shape their government would take.
Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan finance minister, spoke by phone Friday of his meetings with Taliban officials and of his daily walk to his office in downtown Kabul. He is trying to nudge the Taliban toward what he calls a more ‘inclusive’ government.
Both exercises — the walk and the nudging — are proving to be challenges. In the normally bustling and noisy Shahr-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 had hoped for.
‘It’s awfully quiet,’ he said 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 Shahr-e Naw, but not many people drinking juice.’
Zakhilwal, an economist who was sharply critical of the government of President Ashraf Ghani in the days before it fell, said the country was ‘in a very depressed economic situation.’ An acute cash shortage has led to skyrocketing prices. Few ATMs are functioning.
So far, the worst fears about the Taliban appear not to have been realized, 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.
Among the ex-Afghan officials meeting with Taliban representatives is Zakhilwal’s old boss, former President Hamid Karzai. While the former officials are hoping the Taliban will include at least some of them 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,’ Zakhilwal said.
The few government appointments made so far suggest that the Taliban are more interested in filling positions from within their ranks rather than naming ‘professionals,’ he said, noting the Taliban’s choice for acting head of the central bank: Hajji Mohammad Idris, a member of the movement. News reports have indicated that Idris has no formal financial training.
There were also further reports that the Taliban have been searching the homes of former government officials in Kabul.
‘This is the eighth time that the Taliban came to my home in Kabul, searched for me and took my private vehicle, and directly threatening my children and kids,’ Halim Fidai, a former official who served as an adviser to the president and as a governor of eastern Khost province, said in a tweet.
Ahmadullah Waseq, the deputy of the Taliban’s culture committee, rejected reports that the Taliban had conducted house-to-house searches in the capital.
With four days remaining until an Aug. 31 deadline for the United States withdrawal, a date that President Joe Biden has said he intends to keep despite domestic and international pressure for an extension, the evacuations were on pace to fall well short of providing an exit for everyone who wants to leave.
That left Afghans scrambling to find a way out of the country.
In the southwest, thousands of people have been trying to flee into Pakistan, gathering daily near the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing, the only one designated for refugees. In the west, several thousand people a day are also crossing into Iran, U.N. officials said.
Before the Taliban takeover, about 4,000 to 8,000 people would cross the border from Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, into Chaman, Pakistan, on a typical day. Since the Taliban seized Kabul, the number has jumped threefold, according to Pakistani officials and tribal leaders.
An official at the Pakistan ministry overseeing refugees said the government was allowing only Pakistani citizens, Afghans seeking medical treatment and people with proof of a right to refuge to cross.
The country’s 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.
Nearly 3 million Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan, driven out by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing civil wars.