Biden pledges retaliation for ISIS-K attack that killed troops

President Biden said Thursday that U.S. forces would target the terrorists who killed 12 service members in an attack on the evacuation operation at the Kabul airport, pledging that “America will not be intimidated.”

“We will not forgive. We will not forget,” he said from the East Room of the White House. “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Biden said the Americans who died were “heroes who had been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others.” He said the attack did not halt the evacuation effort, and another 7,000 people were flown out in subsequent hours.

The Pentagon said the attack by an Islamic State affiliate involved two bombings, one at an airport gate and another at a nearby hotel that has been a staging ground for people trying to leave the country, followed by an assault by gunmen. Another 15 U.S. service members were wounded, and at least 60 Afghans were believed to be killed.

The attack was one of the deadliest on U.S. forces since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan nearly two decades ago, and it comes just days before Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw from the country.

Biden had repeatedly warned about the threat of terrorist attacks on the evacuation effort as he pushed to finish the operation as soon as possible.

Islamic State in Khorasan, also known as ISIS-K, a local offshoot of the Iraq- and Syria-based terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the affiliated Amaq news agency. The organization is hostile to both the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that took control of Kabul this month, and U.S. forces, a reflection of the chaotic environment in Afghanistan as Biden tries to finalize his administration’s withdrawal.

U.S. forces have been providing security at Kabul’s international airport and helping to facilitate the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. Roughly 100,000 people have been flown out in less than two weeks.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie of U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan, said U.S. troops remained vulnerable as they screened travelers.

“This is close-up work,” he said. “The breath of the person you are searching is upon you.”

McKenzie said U.S. forces were looking to retaliate against ISIS-K.

“We’re prepared to take action against them,” he said. “24-7, we are looking for them.”

The State Department on Thursday estimated that there were still 1,000 American citizens in the country. Only a small number indicated that they planned to stay, with the rest taking steps to leave.

In addition, there are tens of thousands of Afghan allies who risk Taliban reprisals if they are not evacuated.

The attack reshaped the White House schedule. Biden spent much of the day being briefed by national security officials, including commanders on the ground in the country. An Oval Office meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was delayed until Friday; a public health briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic was postponed; and a virtual conference with governors to talk about resettling Afghan refugees was canceled.

In addition, Vice President Kamala Harris canceled a political visit to San Francisco on Friday to help Gov. Gavin Newsom fight off a recall campaign.

Americans in Kabul have been buffeted by security warnings from the State Department. On Wednesday night, they were told to “leave immediately” from three airport gates. After the attack, another message said to “avoid traveling to the airport and avoid airport gates at this time.”

On Aug. 20, Biden said his administration has “made clear to the Taliban” that any attack or disruption of evacuation operations would “be met with a swift and forceful response.”

However, the bombings were believed to be carried out not by the Taliban, but ISIS-K, which views the Taliban as insufficiently extremist. The K stands for Khorasan, the name of an ancient province that encompassed parts of modern-day Afghanistan.

Biden has repeatedly warned about the threat of a possible attack during the evacuation.

“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” he said Tuesday.

ISIS-K has been eager to embarrass the Taliban by revealing its inability to govern and maintain security. It previously claimed responsibility for bombing a girl’s school in Kabul, killing dozens of students.

ISIS-K is only one part of a complicated and volatile environment in Afghanistan. The Taliban never completely severed its ties with Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks two decades ago.

“To this day, the Taliban will not forswear it, will not break it, will not renounce it, will not do anything to even acknowledge it,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington. “Yet many in the U.S. establishment are credulous when it comes to the Taliban counterterrorism assurances.”

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress acknowledged that a bombing was among their biggest fears with the chaotic withdrawal.

Republicans largely placed the blame on Biden’s handling on the evacuations, with some members calling for resignations even before the details of the attack were known. Democrats largely focused on the need to resume evacuations as quickly as possible.

“As we wait for more details to come in, one thing is clear: We can’t trust the Taliban with Americans’ security,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “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 Americans citizens and vulnerable Afghans desperately trying to leave the country.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said “President Biden must take decisive action to protect our troops, our citizens, and our allies without regard for an arbitrary deadline.”

He called the bombings “horrific,” and said “our enemies have taken advantage of the chaotic nature of the withdrawal.”

Former President Trump’s administration sidelined the Afghan government last year and cut a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from the country by May 1. Biden shifted the deadline to Sept. 11 — revising the target to Aug. 31 over the summer — but has been adamant about ending the U.S. military presence there.

Biden said earlier this week that he was asking the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans if more time was needed to complete evacuations.

Times staff writers Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report from Washington, and Nabih Bulos contributed from Kabul.

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