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Joe Biden vowed to plough ahead with the evacuation of those trying to flee Afghanistan and punish the perpetrators of an attack outside Kabul’s airport that killed at least 13 US troops and scores of Afghans.
At the end of what one aide called “maybe the worst day” of his eight month-old presidency, the US president attempted to appear both a sombre mourner-in-chief and a resolute leader steeling the nation for what could be a difficult final withdrawal from the Afghan capital, which he aims to complete by Tuesday.
“We will not be deterred by terrorists, we will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation,” Biden said in remarks at the White House on Thursday afternoon. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Despite Biden’s continued defence of his withdrawal decision, the deaths of the American forces was only the most recent catastrophe to beset his strategy, which has seen the Taliban seize Kabul, a hurried redeployment of thousands of US troops, and mass flight from the country — all in less than two weeks.
In the end, Thursday marked the deadliest day for the American military in Afghanistan in a decade, and was the first time US troops were killed in action there since February 2020.
Biden said he had ordered military commanders to “develop operational plans to strike Isis-K assets, leadership and facilities”, using the term for the Isis branch in central Asia. The US would “respond with force and precision” at a moment and place of Washington’s choosing, he added.
He called the American dead “heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous selfless mission to save the lives of others”, before reiterating his case for ending the 20-year war that had started in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
“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, arguing that it had never been a “united country” and was made of tribes that had “never ever gotten along with one another”. “Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20 year war.”
Ending the US-led “forever war” in Afghanistan has been a pillar of Biden’s foreign policy, and remains popular with the war-weary American public. But the chaotic exit has exposed the White House to criticism from US allies around the world, and opened up a new avenue for political attacks from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Terrorists will not stop fighting the United States just because our politicians grow tired of fighting them,” Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said on Thursday. “I remain concerned that terrorists worldwide will be emboldened by our retreat, by this attack, and by the establishment of a radical Islamic terror state in Afghanistan.”
Biden’s popularity ratings have fallen sharply in the past week, with more Americans expressing disapproval than support for the job he is doing for the first time in his presidency, according to several nationwide polls.
The president’s efforts to project resolve were punctured by a testy exchange during questioning by reporters after his statement. He was asked by a Fox News reporter if he accepted any “responsibility” for the attack on US troops, prompting him to criticise former president Donald Trump for the original withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.
“I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that’s happened of late,” he said. “But here’s the deal . . . you know, as well as I do that, the former president made a deal with the Taliban.”
Despite pressure from important US allies to delay the withdrawal to allow more time for evacuations, Biden has stuck to the August 31 deadline, and showed no inclination to change its mission even after today’s attacks.
US officials have noted that the airlift that began in mid-August has so far led to the evacuation of 104,000 people, including about 5,000 Americans. However, about 1,000 Americans remain in Afghanistan and thousands more Afghans have been trying to leave — and Biden suggested some people would be left behind.
“I know no conflict . . . where, when a war was ending, one side was able to guarantee that everyone who wanted to be extracted from that country would get out,” Biden said.