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On Aug. 26, 2021, a suicide bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives and ball bearings in the packed crowd outside Kabul’s international airport. Shrapnel sliced through the air, killing 13 American service members and an estimated 160 Afghan civilians.
In the hours after the attack, officials reported that a second assailant had sprayed the crowd with automatic weapons fire, increasing the casualty toll in what was one of the deadliest attacks on American forces in the 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
As so often happens in such cases, the U.S. military’s initial account raised more questions than it answered. The Marines scrambling to evacuate civilians as Taliban forces swept into Kabul had been explicitly warned of a possible suicide attack that very day. Yet they seemed to have failed to take basic security precautions. Republicans seized on the bombing as evidence that the Biden administration had bungled its first foreign policy challenge, failing to forsee how quickly the Taliban would overwhelm the American-backed Afghan government.
The story cried out for the sort of investigative reporting we have done previously on the U.S. military, looking into subjects like the spate of fatal accidents involving the Navy’s 7th Fleet. Pursuing such stories can be challenging. They often take longer than expected and the military’s propensity for classifying the details of its missteps inevitably complicates the reporting. The relentless pace of the news cycle can mean that public attention will move on to The Next Big Thing by the time we can explain what really happened in the last one.
So it was with Abbey Gate. The fall of Kabul was followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We published our grippingly told story on the same day as Western news outlets began reporting that Russian soldiers had committed atrocities in the Kiev suburb of Bucha.
Still, I hope readers will make time to read this unforgettable investigation.
The piece we published is unusual in that it was done in collaboration with Alive in Afghanistan, a nonprofit news agency launched in the days after the fall of Kabul that employs local reporters to give greater voice to Afghans caught up in a struggle of global and regional powers.
Our partnership meant that the story of Abbey Gate was told from the perspectives of both the Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban and the ill-prepared Americans at the airport scrambling to facilitate their escape. Such reporting is unusual in war zones. Typically, correspondents are lucky if they can find and interview a handful of witnesses to a traumatic event like a suicide bombing.
In fact, the idea of taking a hard look at the bombing was initiated by editors at Alive in Afghanistan. Their Kabul-based reporters had heard multiple reports that some of the deaths outside the airport were the result of friendly fire as Western soldiers shot at what they thought were Islamic State gunmen in the crowd. Some of the medical personnel who treated casualties from Abbey Gate said they believed they saw injuries that could only have been caused by bullets.
Alive in Afghanistan pushed to find further evidence in Kabul, a tricky task in a city newly under Taliban control. Two ProPublica reporters, Josh Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien, began the painstaking work of finding and interviewing U.S. service members who were guarding the Abbey Gate checkpoint on Aug. 26.
Corroboration for the friendly fire theory proved elusive. Forensic experts differed on whether it was possible for a doctor, even one experienced in wartime injuries, to distinguish between damage caused by a ball bearing and that caused by a military-grade bullet. U.S. officials acknowledged that a small number of rounds had been fired but insisted they had been aimed over the heads of the civilians.
ProPublica and Alive in Afghanistan tracked down six doctors in three hospitals who believed they had seen bullet wounds. None were interviewed for the Pentagon report that concluded all of the deaths were due to the explosion. In an earlier story on the attack, we interviewed Dr. Hares Aref, a senior surgeon at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, who said he had operated on three civilians from Abbey Gate whose legs were wounded by bullets. “We had patients with bullet injury in this attack, it’s clear,” he said. Aref based his conclusion on what he had seen treating victims of countless Kabul bombings. “My proof is my experience.”
While the issue of whether civilians were hit by U.S. fire remains contested, our recounting of the events made clear the extent to which the forces overseeing the evacuation were put in an untenable position.
U.S. officials acknowledged that they did not launch a large-scale evacuation until days before the fall of Kabul. Units that became central to the operation had not been included in the planning process and had not specifically trained for it. And while military officials knew the airport was difficult to defend and susceptible to attack, by the time Marines arrived, it was too late to adequately fortify the airfield.
In the final hours before the attack, U.S. commanders decided to leave open unguarded pathways to Abbey Gate. It is believed the bomber took advantage of such a route to make his way to the site of the explosion.
Our interviews documented the chaos at the airport on the day of the attack. U.S. Marines acted as de facto immigration officers and were left to interpret vague policies with little guidance, struggling to decide who to let into the airport and who to leave behind. They told our reporters that communication breakdowns and a lack of food, water and shelter led to preventable civilian deaths. Afghans perished from heat exhaustion. Some were crushed to death while waiting in line.
In the end, the scene at the airport was a microcosm of America’s experience in Afghanistan. The military’s hasty planning, rooted in optimistic assumptions, proved no match for the reality of a society in collapse.
As you follow the war in the Ukraine, it’s worth taking some time with this grunts’- and civilians’-eye view of how wrong a military operation can go.