What We Know About The Kabul Attack And The U.S. Response
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Biden administration is trying to find its way forward one day after a suicide bomber targeted the U.S. military and Afghan civilians outside the Kabul airport. The attack killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 169 Afghans. With the August 31 deadline quickly approaching, the Biden administration is still trying to evacuate thousands amid warnings that more attacks are possible. At the same time, the president is also fielding criticism for a chaotic exit. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe and Quil Lawrence have been tracking developments throughout this day. They join us now.
Welcome to you both.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Thank you.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hello.
CORNISH: Quil, I'm going to start with you. What more did the Pentagon have to say today about the attack?
LAWRENCE: They just corrected a few details, saying actually that it was probably only one suicide bomber, not two - that it was just confusion that reported two explosions there and there were gunmen involved. They confirmed the service branches of those who were killed on the American side as 11 Marines, one U.S. Army soldier and one Navy corpsman. And they tell some details about expanding the number of bases that are going to receive Afghans who, once they are screened, are going to arrive in the U.S. and how they'll be taken care of.
CORNISH: Ayesha, at the White House, I understand President Biden had more to say about the attack today. What did you hear?
RASCOE: President Biden had a detailed briefing about the attack. He gets briefed every day on the status in Afghanistan. Today he again expressed sympathy and sorrow for the loss of life. But he said that the mission will continue. The White House said that Biden was told this morning by advisers that another attack is likely. They are taking what they called maximum force protection measures to protect the troops. But the next few days will be the most dangerous because the military is starting its own withdrawal of people and equipment, even as they continue to evacuate people.
CORNISH: Quil, does that square with what's going on in Afghanistan in terms of evacuations, I mean, given what we're hearing about the security situation?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, we've heard these assurances from the president, from the commander of Central Command, from the Pentagon today that this is an ongoing operation. They're continuing to get people out. Everything we could see on the ground points to an almost frozen process in terms of getting people into the airport. They might be able to evacuate people who are already inside, but we're seeing buses stalled outside and stopped by Taliban checkpoints.
I have seen communications between and been told of communications between former generals and ambassadors, very high-level people who are pushing especially for these SIV visa holders, Afghans who helped the Americans, to have them get through. And they are having no luck. It appears that the Taliban are cracking down on the security perimeter they're holding and not letting Afghans through. It just brings home that the U.S. is really no longer in charge of Afghanistan after 20 years.
CORNISH: Staying with Afghanistan for a second, obviously, we've talked a lot about the 13 U.S. service members who were killed in the attack. Are you hearing any more about Afghan victims?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. Communications are really hard with Afghanistan right now, and details are hard to come by. The figures of the dead on the Afghan side, of all of those people crowded outside the airport are being reported as high as 169 dead. One casualty that I was able to confirm was a well-known young journalist named Ali Reza Ahmadi. I spoke with a friend of his, Haseena Shirzad (ph), who said he was a gifted journalist, not from a wealthy family, a self-made man, very easy to talk to as a friend. And they were part of this post-Taliban generation where men and women could be classmates at university.
HASEENA SHIRZAD: I felt proud of him. As a friend and as a classmate, he was one of those students that would challenge the teacher. Usually when you're in these classes and teachers are quite strict, you give up on asking hard questions. But Ali - although he used to sit at the back of the class, he would just ask the question he wanted to ask.
LAWRENCE: And she said that, you know, maybe the only option for someone like that who couldn't help himself from challenging authority was to leave now that the Taliban are in power. And she told a story as well that she herself was injured in a blast five years ago. And all of her friends, including Ali Reza, thought she was dead. And they wrote eulogies, and it became this sort of running joke. And now she says she just keeps on hoping it's the same thing, that it's not true about her friend, Ali Reza. But it does appear that he and his younger brother died in the blast.
CORNISH: Ayesha, with these stories, there also comes a lot of criticism for this White House and for this president about the nature and approach and the execution of this withdrawal. Is the White House responding to it?
RASCOE: They've mostly been brushing it aside, saying that they're focused on the mission at hand. But today at the briefing, Press Secretary Jen Psaki directly pushed back. She was asked about this comment from a Pennsylvania Democrat, Susan Wild, who said the evacuation process had been, quote, "egregiously mishandled." Here's how Psaki responded.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEN PSAKI: It is easy to throw stones or be a critic from the outside. It is harder to be in the arena and make difficult decisions. And the decisions that a commander-in-chief has to make include among difficult options, right?
RASCOE: The White House has really tried to cast this as a choice between increasing forces to fight the Taliban or pulling out, and it hasn't really given any space to criticism about the way they pulled out. But there's going to be a lot of scrutiny of how this has gone, especially now that the U.S. service members have died. And it's something that the White House and the administration are going to have to answer for as Congress ramps up its inquiries about this withdrawal.
CORNISH: In the short time we have left, what are they saying about what happens next in Afghanistan?
RASCOE: They're saying that they want to still work to get people out, Americans who are not ready to leave and the thousands of Afghans who helped U.S. troops, even after August 31. But it's really unclear how that process is going to work moving forward. There really is not - they don't have answers, clear answers for that yet.
CORNISH: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe and our veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence, thank you both.
RASCOE: Thank you.
LAWRENCE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.