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Afghanistan Live Updates: Biden to Witness Return of U.S. Service Members Killed in Kabul

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — President Biden landed in Delaware on Sunday morning to join the families of the 13 members of the U.S. military who were killed in a bombing last week in Afghanistan.

The service members include 11 Marines, a Navy medic and a member of the Army. They were killed at the airport in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, by a bomber from the Islamic State Khorasan group as they attempted to help people escape the country before American troops complete their withdrawal.

The president and first lady, Jill Biden, were set to meet with the families on Sunday morning, and then, at noon, to attend the transfer of the service members’ bodies back to American soil.

The fallen service members returning Sunday to Dover are: Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City; Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass.; Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, of Sacramento, Calif.; Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, Calif.; Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha; Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Mo.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco, Calif.; Navy Hospitalman Maxton W. Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio; and Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn.

Eleven of the members’ families chose to allow their transfers to be open to media coverage.

The White House did not announce the trip in advance. It is the first time Mr. Biden has witnessed the return of service members killed in the line of duty since assuming the presidency. The men and women killed in the Kabul attack were the first American service members killed by hostile forces since March 2020. Mr. Biden witnessed a transfer as vice president in 2016.

“The 13 service members that we lost were heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our highest American ideals and while saving the lives of others,” Mr. Biden said in a written statement released on Saturday. “Their bravery and selflessness has enabled more than 117,000 people at risk to reach safety thus far.”

Taliban fighters at Kabul’s international airport on Saturday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

U.S. officials warned Americans in Afghanistan on Sunday to leave the Kabul airport area immediately because of a security threat, hours after President Biden said that another terrorist attack there was “highly likely.”

The United States Embassy in the Afghan capital said there was a “specific, credible threat” to the airport area, where a suicide bombing on Thursday killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 members of the American military. State Department officials have issued several similar warnings in recent days.

With just two days left before Mr. Biden’s Tuesday deadline to complete the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the latest warning added to a heightened sense of foreboding. It came as the military was shifting its focus from vetting and airlifting Afghan and American civilians to bringing its own personnel home.

On Sunday morning, American University of Afghanistan students and their families boarded buses bound for the airport, on what could prove to be the last day of civilian evacuations.

The American troop departures will mark the tumultuous end to a 20-year war that has left the country awash in grief and desperation, with many Afghans fearing for their lives under Taliban rule and struggling to support their families amid cash shortages and rising food prices. At least some banks had opened in Kabul on Sunday, and long lines had formed outside their doors.

Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

In his statement on Saturday, Mr. Biden said another attack at the airport was “highly likely” in the next 24 to 36 hours. He said he had directed the U.S. military to “protect our men and women on the ground.”

Fearing another attack, the Taliban pushed people away from the airport on Sunday, stringing barbed wire across the road to disperse crowds, according to Al Jazeera.

Mr. Biden also promised that the U.S. military’s retaliatory strike Friday against the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, which has claimed responsibility for the Thursday bombing, would not be the last. The drone strike, in Nangarhar Province near the Pakistan border, killed two members of the group, the Pentagon said.

Britain has withdrawn the last of its troops from Afghanistan, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted Sunday on Twitter. He praised them for working around the clock under “harrowing conditions” to airlift more than 15,000 people, including Britons and Afghans, to safety in less than two weeks. He said all remaining British diplomats and civil servants had left the country.

The attack at the airport on Thursday, which happened as U.S. troops were screening people hoping to enter, once again underscored the human toll of the war — both for Afghans, the overwhelming majority of the victims, and for the American families who lost loved ones sent to fight it.

The 13 American military personnel who were killed came from across the country, from California to Wyoming to Tennessee, and had an average age of just over 22. Eleven were Marines, one was a Navy medic and another was in the Army.

They included Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass. Her former junior R.O.T.C. instructor recalled her as an “absolute warrior” in high school, and Marine First Lt. John Coppola said in a statement that she had been “crucial to evacuating thousands of women and children.”

Also killed was Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, of Sacramento, Calif. In a post on Instagram, in which she is seen holding a child in Kabul, she wrote, “I love my job.”

About 113,500 people, most of them Afghans, have been evacuated since Aug. 14, a Pentagon official said, the day before the Taliban seized Kabul. On Saturday, about 1,400 people were still at the airport, having been screened and booked for flights, Pentagon officials said.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still thought to be trying to flee the country. Mr. Biden and other global leaders have acknowledged that many will not get out before the deadline.

Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.

Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, arriving in England on Sunday. He had stayed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to help with the evacuation process.
Credit…Pool photo by Jonathan Brady

Britain announced on Sunday that the last of its soldiers and staff, including the country’s ambassador to Afghanistan, had boarded evacuation flights out of Kabul, essentially ending its two-decade military involvement in the war.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, praising their efforts in a national address posted to Twitter, said that the troops and officials had worked around the clock “to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions” to airlift more than 15,000 people, including Britons and Afghans, to safety in less than two weeks.

The ambassador, Laurie Bristow, who had stayed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to help with the evacuation process, confirmed in a video on Sunday morning that he had landed at a military air base in Oxfordshire, northwest of London.

“We’ve had to leave Afghanistan for now, and the embassy will operate from Qatar for the time being,” he said, adding that London would put pressure on the Taliban to allow the transport to Britain of other Afghans and Britons left behind.

“We’ll do everything we can to protect the gains of the last 20 years,” Mr. Bristow added.

It was not immediately clear how many British citizens and Afghans with permission to travel to Britain were still in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, 150,000 British service members did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, 457 troops died, and thousands more were wounded, Mr. Johnson said. Two Britons and the child of a Briton were among those killed in a suicide bombing outside the gates of the international airport in Kabul on Thursday.

Critics have denounced the sudden withdrawal from the country, but Mr. Johnson said that Britain had followed the lead of the United States and that the efforts over the past two decades had saved lives.

“In the last 20 years, not a single terrorist attack has been launched from Afghan soil against the U.K. or any other Western country,” he said in a letter addressed to members of the armed forces, adding that troops had “kept Al Qaeda from our door for two decades.”

Britain would remain a presence in the region, Mr. Johnson said, adding that humanitarian assistance would double to 286 million pounds, or about $393 million. “We will use every lever we have — political, economic, diplomatic — to help the people of Afghanistan and to protect our country from harm,” he said.

Dan Bilefsky contributed reporting.

Taliban fighters in Kabul on Aug. 15, the day the militants took control of the city.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

As American troops rush to complete their withdrawal by President Biden’s Tuesday deadline, many Afghans are afraid that reprisals from the country’s new rulers will soon follow.

When Taliban fighters seized control of Kabul two weeks ago, the invading units made a beeline for two critical targets: the headquarters of the National Security Directorate and the Ministry of Communications.

Their aim — recounted by two Afghan officials who had been briefed separately on the raid — was to secure the files of intelligence officers and their informers, and to obtain the means of tracking the telephone numbers of Afghan citizens. That could be disastrous for hundreds of thousands of people who had been working to counter the Taliban threat.

So far, the Taliban’s political leadership has presented a moderate face, promising amnesty to government security forces who lay down their arms. They have even written letters of guarantee that they will not be pursued, although reserving the right to prosecute serious crimes. Spokesmen for the Taliban have also talked of forming an inclusive government.

A Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in a Twitter post in English that there was no settling of scores. Nor, he said, was there a hit list with which the Taliban were conducting door-to-door searches, as has been rumored.

“General amnesty has been granted,” he wrote, adding that “we are focusing on future.”

Yet there are growing reports of detentions, disappearances and even executions at the hands of the Taliban, in what some current and former government officials describe as a covert pursuit of the militants’ enemies. The scale of the campaign is uncertain because it is being conducted covertly. And it is unclear what level of the Taliban leadership authorized detentions or executions.

“It’s very much underground,” said one former legislator, who was in hiding elsewhere when the Taliban visited his home in the middle of the night.

The site in Kabul where gunmen killed two women judges in January. An organization is considering evacuating women by land via a long, dangerous journey to border areas.
Credit…Wakil Kohsar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Two nonprofit organizations that have been trying, with disappointing results, to help scores of prominent Afghan women and their families escape their country have been finding increasingly formidable obstacles in their paths.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, the founder and chief executive of the Washington, D.C.,-based International Civil Society Action Network, said the group has been trying to find room on charter flights for the Afghans, who include journalists, human rights activists and others. But the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport on Thursday has made those efforts much more difficult.

“In the last day or two, I am getting a lot of women telling me goodbye. Women starting to give up,” said Deeyah Khan, an International Civil Society Action Network board member and a documentary filmmaker. “The least we can do is make sure they don’t stand completely alone.”

Too Young to Wed, a nonprofit based in Peekskill, N.Y., that was founded by the photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair, has also been trying to organize charter flights to evacuate prominent Afghan women since the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

As of Saturday, Ms. Sinclair said the group had only been able to help about 60 women and their families leave the country on flights and is now considering trying to organize evacuations by land that would involve a long, dangerous journey to border areas.

“It is heartbreaking and terrifying that this generation of women leaders have to fear their lives, for simply having dreams and wanting to have a purpose in life as a woman,” Ms. Sinclair said.

The two organizations have received calls and messages from Afghan women who are unsure what to do and how to keep their family members safe.

The Taliban’s chief spokesman has said that “there will be no violence against women” under the new regime. Zabihullah Mujahid promised this week that “no prejudice against women will be allowed” and said that they could participate in society — “within the bounds of Islamic law.”

But in social media posts and interviews, many Afghan women say the Taliban have already imposed some restrictions. Some women who were employees of the former government have stopped going to work, fearing retribution.

“I am waiting for some kind of miracle to take me out of this country,” said Hossy, 24, a college student in Kabul who wanted to create an engineering company led by women engineers. “My future under the Taliban is a dead end.”

A member of the Taliban’s Badri 313 Battalion guarding a gate at the Kabul airport on Saturday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Officials from Turkey, Qatar and the Group of 7 nations planned to meet on Monday to discuss the future of Afghanistan, including the Kabul airport, according to two officials familiar with the discussions.

After the American military leaves on Tuesday, the path for Afghan evacuees will only grow more difficult as the Taliban takes full control of the airport.

France and Britain will submit a U. N. resolution proposing a safe zone in Kabul to protect people trying to leave Afghanistan, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday, according to a Reuters report.

Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said on Friday that officials were in talks with allies and the Taliban to allow nonmilitary flights to resume as quickly as possible after the U.S. military’s departure.

He would not comment on reports that Turkey and Qatar were planning to run the airport with the Taliban. Reuters reported on Friday that Turkey was hesitant to commit to controlling the airport with the Taliban because of security risks.

Mr. Price noted that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had spoken with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Saturday about Afghanistan, but a brief description of the call made no mention of the airport.

By contrast, a summary of a call on Friday between Mr. Blinken and his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, touched on the collapse of Afghanistan and “the importance of maintaining operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport after the withdrawal of coalition forces to enable humanitarian aid and essential travel.”

Flags lowered to half-staff in Washington on Saturday.
Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The Department of Defense on Saturday identified the 13 members of the U.S. military who were killed in the attack on the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday as they worked to evacuate people to safety. They hailed from across the country — from California to Wyoming to Tennessee — and had an average age of just over 22. Eleven were Marines, one was a Navy medic and another was a member of the Army.

Here is what we know about them.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Staff Sergeant Hoover was a born leader, his father Darin Hoover said, who loved the United States and was on his third tour in Afghanistan. “He led his men into that, and they followed him, but I know — I know in my heart of hearts, he was out front,” Mr. Hoover said. “And they would’ve followed him through the gates of hell if that’s what it took, and, ultimately, that’s pretty much what he did.”

Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, of Lawrence, Mass.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Sergeant Rosario should be “recognized as the hero that she was,” her family told the mayor of Lawrence. Her former junior R.O.T.C. instructor recalled her as an “absolute warrior” in high school, and Marine First Lt. John Coppola said in a statement that she had been “crucial to evacuating thousands of women and children.” The Dominican Republic’s embassy in the U.S. said that she was Dominican-American.

Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee, 23, of Sacramento, Calif.

Credit…via Gabriel Fuoco

In Sergeant Gee’s most recent post on Instagram, less than a week ago, she stands next to a long line of people waiting to file into a military plane at the Kabul airport. “Escorting evacuees onto the bird,” she wrote. In another post, in which she is holding a child in Kabul, she wrote, “I love my job.” A fellow sergeant wrote on Facebook that Sergeant Gee’s car was still in the lot at a Marine Corps base in North Carolina: “I drove it around the parking lot every once in a while to make sure it would be good for when she came home.”

Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, Calif.

Credit…Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, via Reuters

Corporal Lopez’s mother told a reporter in Southern California that her son had recently carried an Afghan toddler several miles to safety, and asked people to light a candle in his honor. Corporal Lopez’s parents both work for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in California, his father as a captain and his mother as a deputy. “Like his parents who serve our community, being a Marine to Hunter wasn’t a job; it was a calling,” the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association wrote in a statement.

Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page, 23, of Omaha.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Corporal Page grew up in Red Oak, Iowa, and in the area around Omaha, and joined the Marines after high school, his family said in a statement. He had four siblings and was a member of the Boy Scouts, played club hockey, hunted with his father and had a “soft spot in his heart for dogs,” they said. “To his younger siblings, he was their favorite jungle gym and to his friends, he was a genuinely happy guy that you could always count on,” the family said, adding that he was being mourned by his parents, stepparents, siblings, grandparents and his girlfriend.

Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Corporal Sanchez lived in a small city about an hour and a half north of Indianapolis and had graduated from Logansport High School. The mayor of Logansport said that Corporal Sanchez “still had his entire life ahead of him” and that the young man had sacrificed himself by “putting himself into harm’s way” as part of the mission in Kabul. Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana vowed “to honor him in every way” possible. “Few among us answer a call of duty so dangerous as Corporal Sanchez volunteered to do,” he said.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Lance Corporal Espinoza’s mother told a local television station that she had received a call at 2:30 a.m. informing her of her young son’s death. “I am proud of him because of what he did but as a mother, you know, it’s hard,” his mother, Elizabeth Holguin, told the station, KGNS-TV, as she teared up. The station reported that Lance Corporal Espinoza’s sister had just turned 13. The corporal was born in Laredo, Texas, his family said, and he had been stationed in Jordan for two years before being transferred to Kabul about a week ago. “He always knew” how much his parents loved him, Ms. Holguin said.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz, 20, of St. Charles, Mo.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Lance Corporal Schmitz, who lived in a suburb of St. Louis, had been stationed in Jordan on his first deployment before being transferred to Afghanistan for the evacuation mission about two weeks ago, his father, Mark Schmitz, told KMOX radio in St. Louis. “It’s something he always wanted to do and I’ve never seen a young man train as hard as he did to be the best soldier he could be,” Mr. Schmitz said, adding that the family was both devastated and furious. “Somebody just came along and took the easy way out and ended everything for him and for us — and for those others that were killed,” he said.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo.

Credit…via the McCollum Family

Lance Corporal McCollum had dreamed of becoming a Marine ever since he was 3 years old, his father, Jim, said in an interview. He, too, was recently transferred from Jordan to Afghanistan, and Mr. McCollum began checking his phone for a little green dot on a messaging app that showed that his son was online — and OK. When news came that 13 Americans had died in the attack, he again checked for the dot and sent him a message with no response. “In my heart yesterday afternoon, I knew,” Mr. McCollum said, adding that his son was “a beautiful soul.”

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Lance Corporal Merola was “one of the best kids ever,” said Cheryl Merola, his mother. He was “kind, loving” and “would give anything for anybody,” she told KCBS-TV. His grandmother told the station that Lance Corporal Merola would frequently say he wanted to come home to his family. He had been transferred to Afghanistan about a week and a half ago, and left a voice mail message with his mother saying he would not be able to talk to her for a while and that he loved her. Los Osos High School in Southern California, from which he recently graduated, held a moment of silence for him at a football game on Friday.

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui, 20, of Norco, Calif.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Lance Corporal Nikoui was a young martial arts champion whose father told Reuters that he had watched television nonstop for updates on the attack until he learned the devastating news from three Marines at his door. “He was born the same year it started, and ended his life with the end of this war,” Steve Nikoui said. He told The Daily Beast that his son loved his Marine family and wanted to “make a career out of this,” and added that he was frustrated that President Biden had sent his and others’ children into harm’s way. “They sent my son over there as a paper pusher and then had the Taliban outside providing security,” he said.

Navy Hospitalman Maxton W. Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio.

Credit…U.S. Marines, via Reuters

Mr. Soviak grew up playing football in a small northern Ohio community where his death has left a “Maxton-sized hole” in his loved ones’ lives, his sister Marilyn wrote in an Instagram post. He was a Navy medic who had graduated from high school in 2017. “Everybody looked to Max in tough situations,” said Jim Hall, his high school football coach, who described Mr. Soviak as a deeply loyal friend. “He was energetic. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was a passionate kid. He didn’t hold anything back.”

Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn.

Credit…U.S. Army, via Associated Press

Staff Sergeant Knauss was “a motivated young man who loved his country,” his grandfather Wayne Knauss told WATE-TV in Knoxville, Tenn. “He was a believer so we will see him again in heaven.” He had been in the military for five years, his grandfather said, and his stepmother told the station that he had planned to move to Washington when he returned to the United States. One of his former teachers said he had been “quiet but confident” in school and that he had written an essay that said his role models were people who stand up against power to help people. “He wrote that nine years ago as a 14-year-old boy, not knowing the man he was going to become,” Angela Hoffman, the teacher, told the station.

Jack Healy and Dave Philipps contributed reporting.


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