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Biden meets with families of service members killed in Kabul as U.S. races to exit Afghanistan

President Biden travelled to Dover, Del. on Aug. 29 to attend the dignified transfer of 13 U.S. service members killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan. (Video: The Washington Post)

DOVER, Del. — President Biden on Sunday paid his respects to the 13 Americans killed in last week's suicide bombing in Afghanistan as his military leaders tried to avert more carnage in the final days of a chaotic withdrawal from the country, carrying out a strike on a vehicle in Kabul that officials said posed a terrorist threat.

Biden flew to an Air Force base here to receive the fallen service members, whose remains were returned to the United States on Sunday morning. He first met privately with their family members, including some who have expressed anger at him, and then watched quietly as flag-draped cases transporting the bodies were carried off a plane — a somber moment during the most volatile crisis of his presidency.

Thousands of miles away, U.S. officials worked with urgency to prevent more American casualties, as they move to conclude their evacuation mission by Tuesday. Defense Department officials said the military carried out a drone strike on a vehicle in Kabul that posed an "imminent" threat to Hamid Karzai International Airport. The Thursday suicide bombing that killed 13 Americans and 170 civilians, for which the Islamic State affiliate known as ISIS-K claimed responsibility, happened at an airport entrance.

"We are confident we successfully hit the target," said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command. "Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material."

U.S. military carries out strike in Kabul

The United States was assessing the possibility of civilian casualties resulting from its attack, as witnesses and a Taliban official alleged that several members of an Afghan family had been killed in the strike. The possibility of civilian deaths was one of many variables that could create more tension in the coming days as U.S. officials warned of the possibility of more violence ahead of the Tuesday evacuation deadline Biden is trying to meet.

"We remain vigilant for potential future threats," Urban added.

Taken together, the day's developments underlined the deadly mayhem that has defined the last stage of a war that began in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. What Biden once hoped would be an orderly final withdrawal from Afghanistan has descended into tragedy, tumult and growing anger with his stewardship.

The pain it has caused was on stark display on an overcast day at Dover Air Force Base. As the remains were moved from the massive C-17 jet that brought them home into large transport vans, the sound of anguished sobbing could be heard at points from the area reserved for family members of the dead.

The process, known in the military as a "dignified transfer," has become a solemn ritual for presidents in recent years. Barack Obama attended twice. Donald Trump made four trips.

For Biden, whose life and political identity have been shaped heavily by tragedy — his wife and young daughter died in a car crash in 1972 and his eldest child, Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015 — it was the first of his presidency. Dressed in black and wearing a mask, he stood on the tarmac with first lady Jill Biden and other dignitaries and observed the transfers, bowing his head and appearing to close his eyes occasionally.

Biden's painful family history has enabled him to offer consolation to grieving Americans in a more personal way than most politicians. It showed during his visit to South Florida in July, when he recalled the decades-old car crash during a visit as he sought to comfort people whose loved ones perished in a condominium collapse.

The 13 U.S. service members killed in the Kabul airport attack

But this time, he was present for tragic circumstances he has accepted blame for setting into motion, and some family members of the dead service members remained angry with him, including the family of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, one of the 13 Americans who died last week.

One of McCollum's sisters, Roice, said she and her sister and her father joined McCollum's wife, Jiennah McCollum, on the trip. But when it came time to meet with the president, they left the room, because she said they did not want to speak with the man they held responsible for McCollum's death.

Only Jiennah, who is expecting the couple's child next month, stayed. But she left disappointed, Roice said. The president brought up his son, Beau, according to her account, describing his son's military service and subsequent death from cancer. It struck the family as scripted and shallow, a conversation that lasted only a couple of minutes in "total disregard to the loss of our Marine," Roice said.

"You can't f--- up as bad as he did and say you're sorry," Roice said of the president. "This did not need to happen, and every life is on his hands."

The White House declined to comment on the private conversations Biden had with families.

At home in Clearwater, Fla., Paula Knauss stared at the service taking place about ​​1,022 miles away and said that watching it from the television "opened a floodgate" of different emotions about her son, Ryan Knauss.

There was heartbreak over losing him. There was pride for "a hero who saved the lives of over 2,000 Afghans." But there was also disappointment over what Knauss deemed a lack of leadership and protection for the service members in Afghanistan.

"You can't have a hasty withdrawal after 20 years of war," she said. "Because it's beyond me. It disgraces the name of all those who have fought in the past and who are now on ground, foreign ground fighting right now, my son's [82nd] Airborne is still there, and they deserve to be protected."

Knauss said her son's wife, Alena, and her mother had attended the transfer in Delaware.

Other families declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

As Biden sought to provide solace, his officials were dealing with a swirl of crises as he took off from Washington early Sunday, including Hurricane Ida, a powerful storm that was hitting Louisiana.

In Afghanistan, U.S. officials were checking the extent of the damage in the drone attack. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the strike was carried out with a Hellfire missile a little more than a mile from the airport, which is in a densely packed urban area. A secondary explosion damaged a building, raising the possibility of civilian casualties.

The official said the military assessed that two militants were in the vehicle when it exploded. It is unclear whether the car itself was rigged to be a bomb, or if a suicide vest or vests inside detonated, causing the secondary explosion.

After the strike, a Taliban spokesman said that a "rocket" had struck a home on the outskirts of the Kabul airport. The spokesman, Bilal Karimi, said it was unclear whether any casualties had resulted from the attack, in the Khawaja Bughra neighborhood, northwest of the airport.

Urban said the military is aware of reports of civilian casualties.

"We know that there were substantial and powerful subsequent explosions resulting from the destruction of the vehicle, indicating a large amount of explosive material inside that may have caused additional casualties," Urban said. "It is unclear what may have happened, and we are investigating further."

He added that the U.S. military is "deeply saddened by any potential loss of innocent life."

A resident of the neighborhood where the strike occurred, and a Taliban official who said he visited the site of the airstrike, said in interviews that eight or nine civilians had been killed, including children. Photographs of the scene showed two burned-out cars next to a white, two-story house with many of the dwelling's windows blown out.

The resident said in a telephone interview that the dead were all members of one family: three men, a woman and five children. One child had been seriously injured in the strike and later died, he said. Another child's body was found under a car, said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of his safety.

In evacuation mission’s 11th hour, hope dims for Afghans seeking escape

Urban said the U.S. strike on the vehicle was carried out by "over-the-horizon" aircraft, indicating something flown from outside the country. Aircraft with and without crew have been flying armed security missions over Kabul throughout the evacuation effort.

The U.S. security strategy ahead of the withdrawal deadline has been complicated by the swift collapse of the Afghan government, which was ousted by the Taliban. The result has been a tenuous situation in which the Taliban has been responsible for securing an outer perimeter of the airport during U.S. evacuations.

Democrats and Republicans have been critical of Biden's strategy, and there are prominent officials in both parties voicing growing alarm about the Taliban. "These are barbarians who certainly are not motivated by what others may think of them," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

Speaking on the same program, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States possesses "substantial leverage" over the Taliban to ensure the safe exit of Americans. He said the United States is down to a "population of 300 or fewer Americans who are still on the ground" and who officials are trying to get out of the country.

New details also emerged Sunday on the service members who were killed in Thursday's attack. The Marines of Ghost Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, decided to stay on duty for an extra hour on Thursday to see if they could find more American citizens and green-card holders to pull to safety, said their commanding officer, Capt. Geoff Ball.

Ball, in a lengthy Facebook post, said the Marines were working with British paratroopers and U.S. soldiers to pull families out of a drainage canal when the suicide bomber detonated on the other side of the water.

They made it out of Afghanistan. But their path ahead is uncertain.

The canal has been the sight of packed crowds for days, as desperate potential evacuees have waded into brackish water to get the attention of U.S. troops on the other side, show their passports and paperwork, and bypass bottlenecks of people who have not been able to enter the airport.

“Nine of my Marines and Sailors gave their lives so that others may live, and almost 20 other members of my company were wounded by their side,” Ball wrote. “Up until that moment, I did not believe I could ever be more proud of their efforts, by the way they handled surging crowds and chaos all week, but they proved me wrong.”

In addition to the 11 Marines, a Navy hospital corpsman and an Army staff sergeant, more than 150 Afghans died in the attack, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

Lamothe reported from Washington, Fahim from Istanbul, Haq Nawaz Khan from Peshawar and Ezzatullah Mehrdad from Doha, Qatar. Meagan Flynn and Maria Paul contributed to this report.