President Joe Biden responds to a question from a reporter at the White House in Washington on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, about the situation in Afghanistan, after explosions caused casualties and rattled the area outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.W
Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times
ASHINGTON — It was exactly what President Joe Biden feared most.His decision to end America’s longest war was driven, he had said repeatedly, by his determination not to sacrifice even one more member of the military on behalf of an effort he had long believed was no longer in the interests of the United States.
But Thursday morning, the withdrawal he set in motion claimed the lives of 13 U.S. troops, along with scores of Afghan civilians — the first American casualties in Afghanistan in 18 months and the deadliest day there for the U.S. military since 2011.
In searing remarks from the East Room of the White House Thursday evening, Biden pledged to “hunt down” the terrorists who claimed credit for the bombings at the Kabul airport but said the frantic, dangerous evacuation of U.S. citizens and allies from Afghanistan would continue for several more days.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive,” Biden said, using language that had grim echoes of warnings President George W. Bush made after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Biden delivered his remarks hours after the Pentagon confirmed suicide bombers had inflicted the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan
in a decade. He expressed “heartache” for what he described as “a tough day,” and said he had asked his commanders to target ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks.
“We will respond with force of precision at our time — at a place that we choose and the moment of our choosing,” he said.
Biden hailed the sacrifice of the soldiers, 12 of whom were Marines, who lost their lives, and the 18 other American service members who were injured in the blasts, even as the military worked to carry out his decision to fully withdraw from Afghanistan.
He pledged that the U.S. would uphold its “sacred obligation” to the families of the fallen in Afghanistan
, calling those who died in the attacks “heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others.”
Biden said that as president, he bears responsibility “for all that’s happened,” but he again denied that his decision to withdraw forces by the end of the summer led inevitably to the chaotic scenes of evacuation at the airport, or to the deaths at the hands of the terrorists.
“I had only one alternative: for thousands of more troops back into Afghanistan,” he said. “I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan.”
Acting against the advice of his generals and overruling some of his top foreign policy advisers, Biden announced in April his decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from the country. The president has said that he did not want to call the parents of another Marine, soldier or airman killed in action in Afghanistan.
But the rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban
caught the administration off guard and set in motion a chaotic evacuation in which almost 6,000 American troops tried to secure the Kabul airport against the Taliban and terror groups. Earlier this week, Biden rejected calls from lawmakers, activists and other world leaders to extend the American presence at the airport past Aug. 31, citing the potential for terrorist attacks.
Since Aug. 14, just before the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the administration says it has evacuated more than 100,000 people, ferrying them to safety. But the administration concedes that there are still more Americans and Afghan allies that want to leave the country.
On Thursday, Biden said he still intended to meet his Aug. 31 deadline for a full withdrawal from the country. But he also said he would not accelerate the departure because of the bombings. He said his top military officials had told him they had the resources to continue the evacuations even in the face of ongoing threats while also protecting the airport from what they expected would be more attacks in the days ahead.
And he said continuing the evacuation would prove to the rest of the world that “what America says matters.”
“They made it clear that we can and we must complete this mission and we will, and that’s what I’ve ordered them to do,” Biden said of his military advisers. “We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation.”
Biden said that the U.S. would continue to try to help Americans
and others escape Afghanistan after the military leaves the country, in part by seeking to cooperate with the Taliban in bringing them out. He said that — for now — the Taliban appeared to be interested in cooperating with the U.S. and other Western nations.
, Biden said, are eager for economic and other help, such as a desire to keep operating the Kabul airport, as they try to once again rule the country in the months ahead. That gives the U.S. leverage over the Taliban that could help in finding and evacuating Americans and other personnel, he said.
“There’s a lot of reasons why they have reached out, not just to us, but to others as to why it would be continued in their interests to get more of the personnel we want to get out,” he said.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the head of the U.S. Central Command, said the military would pursue those responsible for the attack. And Biden later suggested that he would not let the attack pass without a response, though he gave no timeline for action.
Biden on Thursday asked for a moment of silence to remember those who died.
“Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition,” he said, “of sacrifice, of volunteering to go into harm’s way, to risk everything, not for glory, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people that we love.”
Pentagon officials described the bombing at the airport as a “complex attack” that included at least two explosions and gunfire by ISIS-K fighters at Americans and civilians.
Biden received word of the worsening situation Thursday morning as he met with top national security
advisers for a regularly scheduled update on how the evacuation was going, officials said.
The news — punctuated online by gruesome videos of dead bodies outside the walls around the airport — continued throughout the day amid unconfirmed reports of other explosions near the airport and a steadily rising toll of injured and dead, many of them Afghan civilians who had been desperately waiting for a chance to evacuate.
Throughout the morning, Biden huddled with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other top aides for updates about the explosions and what they might mean for the last days of the frantic evacuation effort underway in Afghanistan
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©2019 New York Times News Service