The deadly suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul that left 13 U.S. servicemembers dead has prompted more calls on Capitol Hill to extend President Joe Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But there was no consensus on how to respond among lawmakers and the Pentagon indicated it was sticking to the deadline for now.
An additional 18 servicemembers were wounded in the attack, which took place as a suicide bomb was detonated at the airport’s Abbey Gate, followed by gunmen opening fire, said Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan.
While Thursday’s attack was the largest loss of life for the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a decade, McKenzie said it would not deter the U.S. from its mission of evacuating as many U.S. citizens and at-risk Afghan partners as it could before the Aug. 31 deadline.
“Despite this attack, we are continuing the mission,” he said, and there are 5,000 people at the airport awaiting evacuation. As of today, the operation had flown 104,000 civilians out of the airport, including about 5,000 Americans. Officials believe there are about 1,000 Americans remaining in Afghanistan right now, and the Defense Department is working with the State Department to communicate with them to coordinate their extraction, he said.
McKenzie said the military is monitoring additional possible “threat streams” against personnel at the airport, including possible rocket attacks or vehicle-borne suicide bombs.
“ISIS will not deter us from accomplishing the mission, I can assure you that,” McKenzie said.
The attacks were roundly condemned by lawmakers, but no consensus emerged on what to do next.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he had spoken directly with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III.
“I strongly condemn this act of terrorism and it must be clear to the world that the terrorists who perpetrated this will be sought and brought to justice,” he said in a statement.
Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, urged officials to prioritize making the airport secure so that the evacuation flights could continue. Warner is chairman of the Intelligence Committee and Kaine is a member of the Armed Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee.
“Our enemies have taken advantage of the chaotic nature of the withdrawal,” he said in a statement. “It is time for Congress to act quickly to save lives.”
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., urged swift passage of his bill that would require the Pentagon to certify to Congress that all U.S. citizens wanting to leave Afghanistan had been airlifted out before the U.S. could fully withdraw its troops.
“This tragedy is the direct result of the failure of this incompetent withdrawal plan, and I fear the worst is still to come,” said Gallagher, a Marine who deployed twice to Iraq, in a statement. “We need all hands on deck to prevent further loss of life. Congress must immediately reconvene and take control of this situation, which has spiraled out of control.”
Others, like Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged the Biden administration to extend the Aug. 31 deadline for withdrawal.
“Either rip up the August 31 deadline and defend evacuation routes — by expanding the perimeter around the Kabul airport or by retaking Bagram — or leave our people behind in your retreat,” Sasse said in a statement, referencing the former U.S. military airfield.
The attack came just days after two members of Congress – Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich. – made an unannounced visit to Kabul. While both congressmen had advocated extending the withdrawal deadline prior to their trip – which caught the Pentagon by surprise – after speaking with commanders and troops on the ground, they said they no longer believed that was the best course of action.