WASHINGTON – That was exactly what President Biden feared most.
His decision to end America’s longest war was driven by his determination not to sacrifice a single military man in an effort that he had long believed was no longer in the interests of the United States.
But on Thursday morning, the withdrawal he initiated claimed the lives of 13 US soldiers and numerous Afghan civilians – the first American casualties in Afghanistan in 18 months and the deadliest day for the US military since 2011.
In burning remarks from the East Room of the White House Thursday evening, Mr Biden promised to “hunt down” the terrorists who blamed the Kabul airport bombings but said the hectic, dangerous evacuation of US citizens and allies from Afghanistan would continue for a few more days.
“Those who carried out this attack, as well as those who want to harm America, know we will not forgive,” Biden said in a language that echoed the warnings of President George W. Bush following the terrorist attacks on Nov. September 2001. “We will not forget. We’ll hunt you down and make you pay. “
America’s stormy exit from Afghanistan has dragged Mr Biden’s approval ratings down, and Thursday’s bombings are sure to open him up to political criticism. However, it was unclear what would hurt his presidency in the long term, as he is leaving a war that most Americans will get out of.
Prior to the attacks, the president’s advisors said privately that they did not believe in any long-term political harm to Mr Biden, especially since the military successfully evacuated more than 100,000 people in less than two weeks. But the deaths of American soldiers – and numerous Afghans – could upset these calculations.
The president’s Republican critics picked up the bombings and vowed to hold him accountable for the consequences of his troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It was the direct result of terribly misguided decisions by President Biden. It requires a painful accountability, “said New York MP John Katko, the Republican chief on the Homeland Security Committee. “Our Commander-in-Chief was missing and failed to get to this crucial moment in our history.”
In the hours following the attacks, few Democratic MPs jumped to defend Mr Biden. Instead, most expressed grief over the loss of life in Kabul.
“I’m upset about the despicable terrorist attacks at Hamid Karzai Airport,” said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island. “Today’s loss of life is tragic.”
Mr Biden held his comments on the bombings hours after the Pentagon confirmed that suicide bombers had carried out the deadliest attack on US forces in Afghanistan in a decade. Expressing “heartbreak” over a “tough day,” he said he had asked his commanders to target ISIS-K, the Afghan branch of Islamic State, which admitted responsibility for the attacks.
“We will respond with force and precision at the place of our choice and at the moment of our choice,” he said.
Mr Biden saluted the sacrifice of the soldiers, 12 of whom were Marines, who lost their lives and the 18 other American soldiers who were injured in the explosions while the military worked to implement its decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan.
He promised that the United States would honor its “sacred obligation” to the families of the fallen in Afghanistan, calling those who died in the attacks “heroes engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to do this To save the lives of others ”.
Mr Biden said that as president he was responsible for “everything that happened” but he again denied that his decision to withdraw troops by the end of the summer inevitably led to the chaotic evacuation scenes at the airport or the deaths in the hands of the terrorists.
“I only had one alternative: send thousands more troops back to Afghanistan,” he said. “I never thought we should sacrifice American life to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan.”
But that is unlikely to please his critics, including some members of his own party who disapproved of the way Mr Biden ended the war.
Aug. 26, 2021, 9:44 a.m. ET
As news of the attacks spread on Thursday morning, Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called the situation in Kabul “a full blown humanitarian crisis”. He said the Biden government must complete the evacuation as planned.
Going against the advice of his generals and overriding some of his senior foreign policy advisers, Mr Biden announced in April his decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops from the country. The president said he did not want to call the parents of any other marine, soldier or airman who was killed in Afghanistan.
But the rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban surprised the administration and set in motion a chaotic evacuation in which almost 6,000 American soldiers tried to secure the Kabul airport against the Taliban and terrorist groups. Earlier this week, Mr Biden declined calls by lawmakers, activists and other world leaders to extend the American presence at the airport beyond August 31, citing the potential for terrorist attacks.
Since August 14, shortly before the Taliban took control of Kabul, the government has reportedly evacuated more than 100,000 people and brought them to safety. But government officials admit that there are more Americans and Afghan allies who want to leave the country.
On Thursday, Mr Biden said he still intends to meet his August 31 deadline for a full withdrawal. But he also said he would not speed up the departure because of the bombings. He said his senior military officials told him they had the resources to continue evacuations despite ongoing threats while protecting the airport from the further attacks expected in the coming days.
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 must complete this mission and we will, and I have commanded them to do so,” Mr Biden said of his military advisers. “We don’t let terrorists scare us off. We won’t let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation. “
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Map 1 of 5
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who for years have been on the run, in hiding, in prison and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they say they are.
What is happening to the women of Afghanistan? When the Taliban was last in power, they banned women and girls from most jobs or from going to school. Afghan women have gained a lot since the Taliban was overthrown, but now they fear that they are losing ground. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are indications that they have begun to reintroduce the old order in at least some areas.
Mr Biden said the United States would continue to try to help Americans and others flee Afghanistan after the military left, in part by trying to work with the Taliban to get them out. He said the Taliban are interested in working with the United States and other Western nations, at least for the time being.
The Taliban, Biden said, are eager for economic and other aid as they seek to rule the country again in the coming months. This gives the United States leverage over the Taliban that could help find and evacuate Americans and other personnel, he said.
“There are many reasons why they turned to not only us but others as well, why it would go on in their interest to get more staff that we want to get out,” he said.
In defending the way his government is handling the withdrawal of armed forces from Afghanistan last week, Mr Biden vowed that “any attack on our armed forces or any disruption to our airport operations will be met with a swift and forceful response . ”
On Thursday it was unclear whether a military response of any kind was already in the works. But military officials said US forces on the ground had the ability to strike back while also securing the airport.
General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., chief of US Central Command, said the military will pursue those responsible for the attack. And Mr Biden later suggested that he would not let the attack go unresponsive even though he did not give a schedule of action.
Mr Biden asked for a minute’s silence on Thursday to remember the deceased.
“Each of these women and men in our armed forces are the heirs of this tradition,” he said, “of sacrifice, of voluntary willingness to be in danger, to risk everything, not for fame, not for profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love. “
Pentagon officials described the airport bombing as a “complex attack” that involved at least two explosions and shots by ISIS-K fighters at Americans and civilians.
Mr Biden received news of the deteriorating situation on Thursday morning as he met with senior national security advisers to provide regular updates on the evacuation status, officials said.
The bad news – punctuated online by gruesome video of bodies outside the walls around the airport – continued all day amid unconfirmed reports of other explosions near the airport and a steadily increasing number of injuries and deaths, including many Afghan civilians who have favourited desperately for a chance to evacuate.
All morning, Mr. Biden huddled with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top aides for news of the explosions and what happened they could mean the final days of the hectic evacuation efforts in Afghanistan.
After the attacks became known, the president’s schedule was quickly turned inside out.
Less than 15 minutes before Mr Biden was due to meet with Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new Prime Minister, the White House announced that the meeting had been postponed. It was later postponed to Friday. And a meeting between Mr Biden and some of the nation’s governors has been canceled. The daily briefing from White House press secretary Jen Psaki was postponed until Mr Biden made his remarks on Thursday evening.