Speaking to the American people in the wake of a devastating terror attack at the Kabul airport that left scores dead on Thursday — including numerous U.S. troops — President Biden promised the U.S. would strike back against those responsible.
“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 in a somber White House address.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, said earlier in the day that one of the explosions was caused by at least one suicide bomber presumed to be working with the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, and that more attacks were likely. Biden also said ISIS-K was behind the attack.
A pair of explosions near Hamid Karzai International Airport killed a number of people Thursday afternoon in what the U.S. described as a “complex attack.” The Pentagon said 13 U.S. service members died in the attack and an additional 15 were injured, along with numerous Afghan nationals, in the single deadliest day for American forces in the country since 2011.
An Afghan official told the Associated Press that 60 Afghans were killed and 143 were wounded in the airport blast.
Biden said that he and first lady Jill Biden are “outraged, as well as heartbroken” at the news. He alluded to military parents who might be “feeling you're being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest,” and spoke of his late son, Beau Biden, who served tours in Iraq and Kosovo as an Army officer.
Biden emphasized that while the U.S. is assessing how and when to respond, the ongoing evacuation mission in Kabul would continue, and that remaining American citizens would be removed from the country, along with Afghans who had assisted U.S. forces.
“I’ve also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS key assets, leadership and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time at a place we choose in a moment of our choosing,” the president said. Biden added that the military would be given “whatever they need.”
Before taking questions from reporters, Biden asked for a “moment of silence” for the fallen American personnel. In response to a question about whether he bore responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan, Biden said yes, while also noting that former President Donald Trump had negotiated the original withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.
“But here’s the deal: You know, I wish you — you know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban” Biden said.
McKenzie and other U.S. officials have warned that further attacks in Afghanistan are likely.
“We believe it is their desire to continue those attacks and we expect those attacks to continue and we’re doing everything we can to be prepared for those attacks,” McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that the U.S. had enough forces on the ground to counter enemy militants.
In public remarks and interviews since the rapid fall of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government, Biden warned against the threat of ISIS-K, a group U.S. intelligence agencies say is a sworn enemy of the Taliban.
“These troops and innocent civilians at the airport face the risk of attack from ISIS-K,” Biden said last Sunday.
The Kabul airport has been the epicenter of the rushed effort by U.S. forces to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans, Afghans and third-country nationals. Worried that any Americans and Afghans who aided U.S. forces left behind would be at risk of persecution by the new Taliban government, some current and former officials have called on the White House to extend its self-imposed deadline of Aug. 31 for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Biden has also been criticized for his prediction last month that the Taliban would not rapidly retake the country as U.S. forces left.
Congressional Republicans and a number of leading Senate Democrats have described the withdrawal as chaotic and haphazard.
“This is a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, and the U.S. government personnel, already working under extreme circumstances, must secure the airport and complete the massive evacuation of American citizens and vulnerable Afghans desperately trying to leave the country,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement Thursday.
The White House, meanwhile, has defended its efforts to evacuate the country.
“This is now on track to be the largest airlift in U.S. history,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a briefing Wednesday when presented with criticism of the late August deadline. “So no, I would not say this is anything but a success.”
As of Thursday morning, the U.S. said it had facilitated the evacuation of approximately 95,700 people since Aug. 14, including about 13,400 taken out of the country overnight. At least 1,000 Americans are thought to still be in the country, according to McKenzie.
Biden spent much of Thursday in the White House Situation Room with Cabinet members including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, according to the White House. Vice President Kamala Harris joined those meetings virtually during her flight from Vietnam to Guam. Harris is set to return to Washington, D.C., on Thursday, canceling the last leg of her overseas trip to campaign for embattled California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The White House either canceled or delayed several of Biden’s public events scheduled for Thursday, including a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
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