Pentagon to revisit Kabul airport bombing with new witness interviews

Facing renewed scrutiny, U.S. military officials said Friday that they will interview nearly 20 service members wounded two years ago in a catastrophic bombing as the Biden administration raced to leave Afghanistan, firsthand witnesses who investigators never consulted but whose public accounts have cast doubt on the Pentagon’s determination that the attack was “not preventable.”

Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, who oversees U.S. Central Command, ordered the additional interviews “to ensure we do our due diligence” with information that came to light after the military closed its investigation of the incident, Michael Lawhorn, a Central Command spokesman, said in a statement. By itself, the move does not formally reopen the investigation, completed in November 2021, but the general could determine that doing so is necessary once the additional interviews are complete.

Kurilla, the statement says, wants to ensure that “relevant voices are fully heard and that we take those accounts and examine them seriously and thoroughly so the facts are laid bare.”

His decision follows complaints from congressional Republicans and the families of those killed, who have demanded deeper scrutiny of the precautions taken by U.S. commanders and other government officials after they warned publicly that the Islamic State’s local affiliate was plotting an attack.

An estimated 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops died in the bombing, which occurred the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2021, as thousands of civilians, desperate to escape the incoming Taliban regime, amassed outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport in a frantic bid to board one of the evacuation flights. Three days later, a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in a botched operation that senior U.S. officials initially called a “righteous” attack on a suspected ISIS suicide bomber preparing to hit the airport again.

Those twin calamities in Afghanistan remain a low point in the Biden presidency, and House Republicans have spent much of the past year interrogating the actions by key members of his administration before, during and after a decision was reached to follow through with the complete withdrawal of American personnel. The president and his top advisers, convinced the war was unwinnable and that withdrawing was the right decision, have cast blame on his predecessor, Donald Trump, who negotiated the deal with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan by spring 2021.

Central Command, in Lawhorn’s statement, singled out the account of Tyler Vargas-Andrews, a Marine sergeant who lost an arm and a leg in the attack on the airport’s Abbey Gate. Vargas-Andrews first told The Washington Post, in an interview published in August 2022, that he believed he had the bomber in his gunsights before the explosion but that commanders rejected his request to fire on the suspect.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people died,” because of the decision to stand down, he told The Post last year. “That’s a hard thing to deal with. You know, that’s something that, honestly, eats at me every single day.”

Through tears, Vargas-Andrews repeated those claims under oath during an emotional congressional hearing this past March. Last month, the families of several service members killed in the attack appeared on Capitol Hill to call for more transparency and accountability.

Vargas-Andrews and other U.S. troops present during the airport attack also dispute the U.S. military’s conclusion that, despite some service members’ assertions, there was no evidence that gunmen opened fire on them after the blast. Officials concluded that personnel who recalled gunfire may have been disoriented by the explosion, angering survivors.

Vargas-Andrews, a former sniper, said both in his 2022 interview with The Post and in his testimony months later to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he was told by superiors that too many civilians were nearby when he spotted the suspected bomber. The Post could not determine if the man he identified was in fact the bomber, or whether an attempt by U.S. forces to kill him could have triggered the explosion or some other form of carnage.

The top commander at Central Command during the evacuation, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, told The Post last year that no request to engage a suspected suicide bomber reached his level or surfaced during the military’s investigation. More than 130 people were interviewed as part of the inquiry.

In his congressional testimony in March, Vargas-Andrews called the withdrawal “a catastrophe,” telling lawmakers that, to date, there had been “an inexcusable lack of accountability” for the extreme loss of life. Having determined the attack was unpreventable, U.S. officials never took punitive action against anyone in a position of authority when the operation occurred.

Lawhorn said Vargas-Andrews’s appearance on Capitol Hill compelled Kurilla in June to task a subordinate, Lt. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, with reviewing public testimony to determine whether it contained new information not considered in the 2021 investigation.

Frank completed his review last month. He found that Vargas-Andrews and other wounded service members were not interviewed because they required “immediate medical evacuation in the aftermath of the attack,” Lawhorn said. The interviews will begin in coming days, with Kurilla requesting another update from Frank within 90 days.

Matthew Langston, a former Marine corporal who participated in the evacuation, said in a statement that the decision to revisit the bombing is “purely reactionary,” and attributed it to pressure from the families who lost loved ones in the attack.

“All we’ve heard are lies,” he said. “They aren’t concerned with our feelings, or what we want. They simply don’t want to hear our voices anymore.”

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, connected the development with their investigative efforts. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that “We will seek answers and accountability for this debacle.”

The U.S. personnel killed in the bombing were: Marine Lance Cpl. David Espinoza, 20; Marine Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23; Marine Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, 31; Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23; Marine Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22; Marine Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20; Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20; Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, 20; Marine Cpl. Daegan William-Tyeler Page, 23; Marine Sgt. Johanny Rosario, 25; Marine Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22; Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20; and Navy Hospital Corpsman Max Soviak, 22.

The attack’s suspected mastermind was killed by the Taliban earlier this year, U.S. officials disclosed in April.

Late last month, the families of those killed spoke during an event on Capitol Hill convened by Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Tex.), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. Many became emotional as they expressed frustration with what they characterized as a dearth of information about what happened and whether the bombing might have been prevented.

Hoover’s father, Darin, read from notecards, slowly and with a measure of outrage. He said he had “talked a couple of times with some special operators that were in theater” at the time and that they “tell the story a little differently” than the military’s official account.

Referencing the uneasy agreement struck by U.S. officials with the Taliban to provide security on the approach to the airport, Hoover questioned why, despite 20 years of distrust and bloodshed, anyone thought that was a good idea. Then, citing the errant drone strike three days later, he asked why no one ordered an attack on the airport plotters if the United States had intelligence warning of the bombing.

“Our snipers can’t do anything about it when they see him?” Hoover asked lawmakers, exasperated. “Are we more worried about pissing off the Taliban? Why is that a bad thing?”

Nikoui’s father, Steve, also alluded to Vargas-Andrews’s earlier accounts. The Marine, he said, had watched the suspected bomber since “early in the morning,” and “continuously asked for engagement authority” to shoot him.

Pentagon to revisit Kabul airport bombing with new witness interviews