President Biden vowed to “hunt down” the terrorists who struck a major blow against America on Thursday after suicide bombers and gunmen killed at least 13 U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans at the Kabul airport, with military leaders warning more attacks are likely during the final days before the president’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw.
On the deadliest day in a decade for Americans in Afghanistan, terrorists with the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, ISIS-K, carried out what Pentagon officials described as a highly coordinated, complex attack that struck at the heart of the U.S.-led evacuation mission in Kabul. Another 18 U.S. troops were wounded in the assault, as were more than a hundred Afghans.
Several children also reportedly were killed in the gruesome attack.
Biden administration officials for days had warned that ISIS-K and other extremist outfits were targeting the Kabul airport, which over the past two weeks has been the epicenter of a frantic, multinational effort to fly out tens of thousands of people who are desperate to flee extremist Taliban rule following the rapid collapse of the Afghan government.
The State Department said Thursday that as many as 1,000 U.S. citizens are still in Afghanistan. It’s not clear whether they can all be rescued by Aug. 31, especially in light of how dangerous the Kabul airport has become and the strong belief among U.S. military and intelligence officials that more attacks are imminent.
But Mr. Biden stressed that all those Americans will be saved and that ISIS-K leaders will be brought to justice, offering dual promises at a pivotal moment in his presidency.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” the president said during a hastily arranged press conference at the White House on Thursday evening.
“We can and we must complete this mission. And we will,” he said. “We will not be deterred by terrorists.”
Hours earlier at the Pentagon, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said he believes that the roughly 5,000 American troops on the ground at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport are sufficient to secure the facility and continue evacuations. More than 100,000 people have been flown out over the last several weeks, including about 5,000 Americans.
“Let me be clear: While we are saddened by the loss of life, both U.S. and Afghan, we are continuing to execute the mission,” Gen. McKenzie said, though he added serious risks remain in the coming days.
“The threat from ISIS is extremely real,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “We believe it is their desire to continue those attacks and we expect those attacks to continue.”
Thursday’s attacks were clearly well-planned, with the specific targets carefully chosen to both maximize the loss of life and to inflict as much disruption as possible on the U.S. evacuation effort.
Military officials said a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt at the Abbey Gate of the Kabul airport, one of the busiest sections of a facility that is jam-packed with an estimated 10,000 people looking to escape Afghanistan.
Shortly after the blast, ISIS-K gunmen opened fire, military officials said, touching off a firefight that led to even more bloodshed at the scene.
Shortly afterwards at the nearby Baron Hotel, another ISIS-K suicide bomber detonated an explosive device. There were inconclusive reports as of Tuesday night on how many were killed and injured at that location.
It seems highly likely that the hotel was targeted because of the role it has played in the U.S. evacuation. Last week, the hotel was the scene of a dramatic rescue of 169 Americans who had been unable to make it past large crowds and Taliban-controlled checkpoints outside the Kabul airport. Military commanders sent a flight of three U.S. CH-47 helicopters to pick the Americans up from the hotel up and fly them to safety inside the airport.
Thursday’s attacks have quickly fueled new questions about both the safety of Americans at the airport and the continued reliance on the Taliban for security outside the facility’s perimeter.
Taliban insurgents have blocked off roads and are running checkpoints all around the airport, but they failed to stop the ISIS-K bombers and gunmen on Thursday.
Mr. Biden said Thursday evening that he had been given “no evidence” of “collusion between the Taliban and ISIS in carrying out what happened today.”
Gen. McKenzie offered a similar assessment earlier Thursday at the Pentagon, saying he also had not seen any evidence to indicate that the Taliban allowed the attack to happen.
As for security at the airport going forward, military officials said they’ve built as safe a system as possible but that the U.S. troops operating the facility cannot entirely escape danger.
While the U.S. partly relies on the Taliban for an initial security search of people flooding streets around the airport, Gen. McKenzie said a more in-depth search by American troops is the only way to ensure that a bomb doesn’t find its way on to an aircraft.
“The breath of the person you’re searching is on you. We still have to touch the clothes of the person coming through,” he said. “At the interface points, the gates, there’s no substitute for conducting a search of the person.”
Military officials said they’re preparing for more bombings, potential rocket attacks, and car bombs at the airport.
At Mr. Biden‘s order, Pentagon officials on Thursday evening also began drawing up plans to strike back against ISIS-K targets in Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere across the region.
“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and the moment of our choosing,” the president said in his remarks Thursday evening.
Mr. Biden also honored the U.S. service members “who gave their lives” on Thursday, describing them as “heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others.”
The casualties marked the deadliest day in Afghanistan for American forces since 31 U.S. military personnel were killed when a Chinook helicopter they were flying in was shoot down on Aug. 5, 2011.
Despite Mr. Biden‘s threat on Thursday evening, the White House has come under increasing fire from Republicans who say that by sticking with his self-imposed Aug. 31 deadline, the president is allowing the Taliban to dictate the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Several argued on Thursday that leaving the country on the immediate heels of a major terrorist attack will fuel a narrative that the president has allowed his America to appear weak on the world stage.
“Joe Biden has now overseen the deadliest day for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in over a decade, and the crisis grows worse by the hour,” Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, said in a statement. “We must reject the falsehood peddled by a feckless president that this was the only option for withdrawal. This is the product of Joe Biden’s catastrophic failure of leadership. It is now painfully clear he has neither the will nor the capacity to lead. He must resign.”
Some specialists say that regardless of whether the Taliban was complicit in Thursday’s attack, the group is elated to see the U.S. leaving amid chaos, confusion and bloodshed.
“The No. 1 thing the Taliban wants is the United States to leave and leave by the deadline — and humiliate us on the way out,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading Washington think tank.
The president and top administration officials, meanwhile, have fired back that there will never be a perfect time to leave Afghanistan and that blame for the chaotic exit mostly lies at the feet of the Afghan government and security forces, which collapsed within days amid a Taliban offensive.
Mr. Biden said that Thursday’s attack represented exactly why he wants to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan. “This is why from the outset I’ve repeatedly said this mission was extraordinarily dangerous and why I’ve been so determined to limit the duration of this mission,” the president said.
The administration‘s top priority now, officials said, is to continue evacuating as many Americans and Afghan allies as possible before Aug. 31.
A State Department official said late Thursday that about 1,000 Americans are believed to still be seeking evacuation from Afghanistan. But officials said another 500 people claiming to be Americans have recently contacted the department seeking evacuation, though it’s unclear whether all of those individuals are in fact U.S. citizens.