US marine recalls harrowing suicide bombing at Kabul airport during Afghanistan withdrawal
Advisory: The article and video include distressing details of injury and trauma.
The first witness to give evidence into a US investigation into alleged leadership failures during the withdrawal from Afghanistan says he saw a suicide bomber hours before an attack on Kabul airport in 2021, but was denied permission to shoot.
Marine Sergeant Tyler Vargas-Andrews said the bomber was a known extremist, who had been spotted hours before the attack, but his commander couldn't make a decision – with the resulting blast killing 170 Afghans and 13 US service personnel.
Sgt Vargas-Andrews was "catastrophically wounded", losing an arm and a leg in the blast, which happened as thousands of Afghans queued outside the wire, trying to flee Kabul as the Taliban swept into Kabul.
Addressing Congress, 25-year-old Sgt Vargas-Andrews choked back tears during his statement, saying it was his "perspective and account", not that of the US Department of Defense.
The marine said after practising small-scale evacuation operations in Saudi Arabia, in case the team was needed in Afghanistan, they headed to Kabul.
"The next seven days were surreal. Nothing prepared us for the ground experience we were about to encounter," he said.
He also described the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a "catastrophe" with "an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence".
The evacuation of Kabul, codenamed Operation Pitting by the British, saw more than 15,000 people evacuated by Armed Forces personnel together with colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the UK Border Force deployed to Afghanistan.
The effort was one of the biggest evacuations of civilians since the Second World War, with around 100 flights.
Between the start of the operation and the final flight on 28 August 2021, more than 15,000 people on 100 flights, from at least 38 different nations, were flown out of Kabul as part of an overall evacuation of more than 122,000 people by the US, UK, and their coalition partners.
Sgt Vargas-Andrews explained that tens of thousands of people descended on Abbey Gate, one of the entrances into Hamid Karzai International Airport, with people suffering from "extreme malnutrition, dehydration, heat casualties and infants were dying".
"Afghans were brutalised and tortured by the Taliban [and] flocked to us, pleading for help," he said.
"Some Afghans turned away… tried to kill themselves on the razor wire in front of us that we used as a deterrent.
"They thought this was merciful compared to the Taliban torture that they faced.
"Countless Afghans were murdered by the Taliban 155 yards in front of our position day and night. With only shipping containers between us, the Taliban would routinely murder people on our observation at their checkpoint.
"We communicated the atrocities to our chain of command and intel assets but nothing came of it."
Sgt Vargas-Andrews said the Taliban strengthened their position and grew in numbers and, on 22 August, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded down the canal in a "test-run" by either ISIS or the Taliban.
He said this was reported to the chain of command, and received word "days later to be on the lookout for two vehicle-born IEDs".
On 26 August, intelligence personnel confirmed the suicide bomber was "nearing Abbey Gate", but Sgt Vargas-Andrews was told the suspect could not be apprehended sooner because "the asset could not be compromised".
This was despite a full description of his appearance and travelling companion being passed on to the sergeant.
Throughout the entirety of the 26 August, Sgt Vargas Andrews said the suspect was tracked and spotted by himself and others.
"The individual was consistently and nervously looking up at our position through the crowd," he said.
Sgt Vargas-Andrews said they passed on communication that an attack was imminent – "this was as serious as it could get" – but they were told to not engage.
After Psychological Operations personnel confirmed the suspect matched the suicide bombers' description, Sgt Vargas-Andrews asked for permission "to shoot".
But the battalion commander told him "I don't know".
"Myself and my team leader asked very harshly, 'Well who does? Because this is your responsibility, sir'."
"He again replied he did not know but would find out. We received no update and never got our answer."
He went on: "Eventually the individual disappeared and, to this day, we believe he was the suicide bomber.
"We made everyone on the ground aware, operations were halted but then started again.
"Plain and simple, we were ignored," Sgt Vargas-Andrews said.
"Our expertise was disregarded, no-one was held accountable for our safety."
The marine then told Congress that a staff sergeant, also a "friend and mentor, came to get me from the tower to go find an Afghan interpreter from the crowd".
At this point, Sgt Vargas-Andrews becomes visibly upset and chokes up, before wiping tears away and continuing with his account.
After finding the interpreter and his brother, they said all of their five family members were still in the canal.
Sgt Vargas-Andrews waited for the family members to appear, before "a flash and a massive wave of pressure".
"I'm thrown 12ft onto the ground, but instantly knew what had happened," he said.
"I opened my eyes to marines dead or unconscious lying around me.
"A crowd of hundreds immediately vanished in front of me, and my body was catastrophically wounded with a hundred to 150 ball bearings now in it.
"Almost immediately we started taking fire from the neighbourhood and I saw how injured I was, with my right arm completely shredded and unusable.
"I saw my lower abdomen soaked in blood.
"I crawled backwards seven feet, roughly seven feet, because I thought I was still in harm's way.
"My body was overwhelmed from the trauma of the blast, my abdomen had been ripped open, every inch of my exposed body, except for my face, took ball bearings and shrapnel."
"I tried to get up but could not. Laying there for a few minutes I started to lose consciousness when I heard… my team leader screaming my name as he ran to me.
"His voice calling to me kept me awake."
Sgt Vargas-Andrews said he was then dragged to safety and treated, with tourniquets wrapped round his wounds to stop the bleeding, remaining awake for most of it "screaming, moaning and cursing".
He said "no-one wanted" his report after the blast, with even NCIS and the FBI not wanting to interview him.
"Our military members and veterans deserve our best because that is what we give to America," he said.
"The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion, and there was an inexcusable lack of accountability and negligence.
"The 11 marines, one sailor and one soldier that were murdered that day have not been answered for."