U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to retaliate against the Islamic State extremist group after suicide bombings outside Kabul’s airport killed at least 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops, with many more wounded, just days before an August 31 deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan.
“We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said in televised comments from the White House on August 26.
Biden said U.S. forces would target Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), the extremist group’s Afghanistan and Pakistan affiliate which claimed credit for the attack, at a time and place of its choosing. ISIS-K is a rival of the Taliban.
"I've also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership, and facilities," he said.
The United States has been coordinating evacuations with the Taliban since the militants captured Kabul earlier this month.
The terrorist attacks will not deter the United States from its mission to evacuate thousands of American citizens, allies, and at-risk Afghans from Afghanistan, Biden said.
"We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation," Biden said, adding that more than 100,000 people had been taken out of the country in the past 12 days.
Biden reaffirmed an August 31 deadline for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan, saying there was enough time in the next several days to wrap up evacuations. About 1,000 U.S. citizens are estimated to still be in the country.
He described the U.S. military members who died as “heroes who’ve been in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others.”
“They are part of an airlift and evacuation effort unlike any seen in history,” Biden said.
The administration has been widely blamed for a chaotic evacuation after the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban's takeover of the country. But the president has repeatedly defended the decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war.
The U.S. death toll from the attacks made it the deadliest single incident for American forces in Afghanistan in a decade and one of the deadliest of the entire 20-year war.
Earlier, General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said the 12 service members were killed and 15 others were wounded after two suicide bombs struck near the Abbey Gate at Kabul’s airport, where crowds of Afghans have gathered in recent days hoping to get on a flight out of the country. Gunmen also opened fire on civilians and military forces. There also was an attack at or near the Baron Hotel near that gate.
The Pentagon later increased the death toll to 13 U.S. troops, a number that may still rise.
McKenzie said U.S. forces were coordinating security with the Taliban and planned to continue evacuations despite the threat of further attacks, including possible rockets or vehicle-borne bombs targeting the airport.
ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying in a statement that one of its suicide bombers had targeted "translators and collaborators with the American army."
Videos posted online showed dozens of bodies strewn in and around a canal on the edge of the airport.
“Half of the people were thrown into the water and others [were knocked] to the ground. We carried the wounded here [to the hospital] on stretchers. My clothes are completely covered in blood,” said one witnesses who did not want to be identified.
The United States and its allies on August 25 had urged civilians to stay away from the airport because of intelligence suggesting ISIS-K was planning an attack.
Several Western allies have already finished their airlift operations ahead of the U.S. withdrawal on August 31, including Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.
The British Defense Ministry announced early on August 27 that British forces have entered the final stages of evacuating people from Kabul's airport and that processing facilities have closed.
The effort would now focus on evacuating British nationals and others who have already been cleared to leave and are already at the airport, the ministry said.
No further people would be called forward to the airport for evacuation, it said.
"It is with deep regret that not everyone has been able to be evacuated during this process," Defense Minister Ben Wallace said in a statement.