President Joe Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” over the deaths of 12 U.S. service members and serious injuries of 15 others at the Kabul airport on Thursday, and vowed to attack the terrorists who carried out the bombing.
“I’ve ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities,” he said in a White House address Thursday afternoon. “We will respond with force and precision at our time at the place we choose in a moment of our choosing.
“These ISIS terrorists will not win.”
But Biden, who has received significant criticism in recent days for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the tumultuous evacuation effort in recent weeks, said the attack will not change plans to end the American mission in Afghanistan next week.
“These American service members who gave their lives ... they were heroes, heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous selfless mission: to save the lives of others,” he said in a White House address Thursday afternoon.
“We can and we must complete this mission … We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation.”
Earlier in the day, officials from ISIS-K — the Islamic State in Khorasan Province — claimed credit for the attack, which killed as many as 90 civilians and injured more than 150 others, according to reports from local Afghan agencies.
State Department officials had warned on Wednesday that the Kabul airport could be the site of a terrorist attack. Thousands of Americans and Afghan nationals seeking to flee the Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan have been crowded around the facility for the last two weeks, trying to get on a flight before the evacuation mission ends Aug. 31.
Pentagon officials said an ISIS-K bomber got past Taliban checkpoints and detonated an explosion just outside the airport’s gates. U.S. military personnel were working just outside the gates, talking to would-be evacuees.
Following the attack, Biden said that the military will “get whatever they need in additional force” to deal with the terrorist threat.
But he also said that military commanders told him they support plans to complete the evacuation mission in the next few days and withdraw all U.S. forces from the country, in keeping with demands from Taliban leaders.
Biden dismissed a suggestion that all U.S. troops should be withdrawn immediately, given the threat to American military forces.
“There are additional groups of individuals who have contacted us, from women’s groups to [non-governmental organizations] and others who have expressly indicated they want to get out,” he said. “That still presents the opportunity for the next several days to be able to get them out.
“And our military, to the extent that we can do that, knowing that we may very well have another attack, our military has concluded that’s what we should do.”
Before Thursday’s attack, a large number of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill had urged Biden to extend the deadline past Aug. 31 for the evacuation mission, saying that too many vulnerable individuals would be left behind if the airlift efforts ended too early.
More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since late July, nearly all of them in the last 12 days. But advocacy groups say thousands more refugees need to be given a chance to leave before U.S. forces depart the country.
State Department officials estimated about 1,000 American citizens remain in country, many of them trying to find a safe way out.
The 11 Marines and one Navy corpsman are the first U.S. service members killed in action in Afghanistan since Feb. 2020.
Biden called the losses crushing, both personally and for the country, but said they did not change his resolve to end the long-running U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
“I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan,” he said. “Our interest in going was to prevent al Qaida from re-emerging, to get [Osama] bin Laden and prevent [the Sept. 11 attacks] from happening again.
“It was time to end the 20-year war there.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.