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Biden vows retaliation for Kabul bombings that killed U.S. troops and Afghans

The president said U.S. forces would target the terrorists responsible for an attack on the evacuation operation: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

President Joe Biden, confronted with a wave of bloodshed days before U.S. forces were expected to finish withdrawing from Afghanistan, pledged that he would retaliate against the terrorists who killed 13 American service members in Thursday’s attack on the evacuation operation at Kabul’s airport.

“We will not forgive. We will not forget,” he said from 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 would not halt the evacuation, and an additional 7,000 people were flown out in subsequent hours — a slower pace than previous days, but a sign of U.S. determination to continue the operation despite the danger.

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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. An additional 18 U.S. service members were wounded, and dozens of Afghans were believed to be killed.

The attack was one of the deadliest on U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan began nearly two decades ago. Biden had repeatedly warned about terrorist threats against the evacuation effort as he pushed to finish the operation as soon as possible.

Now his promise of retribution will require a difficult balancing act. Biden said he would authorize additional resources if necessary to strike back against an elusive foe even as he remains committed to ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

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. forces remained vulnerable as they screened travelers.

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

The State Department on Thursday estimated that 1,000 American citizens were still 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. Biden acknowledged that the U.S. would not be able to help everyone who wants to leave.

“Getting every single person out can’t be guaranteed,” he said.

The attack plunged the White House into crisis mode Thursday. Biden spent much of the day being briefed by national security officials, including commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. 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 Friday, 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 girls’ school in Kabul, killing dozens of students.

The situation has created an unusual, cooperative arrangement between U.S. forces and the Taliban, who never completely severed ties with Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

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McKenzie, the Marine general, said the two sides were in frequent communication about security at the airport, and the Taliban have conducted preliminary screenings of evacuees before they’re searched again by U.S. forces once they reach the gate. He even believed that the Taliban had helped thwart potential terrorist attacks.

Biden said there was no sign that the Taliban had enabled Thursday’s bombings.

“No one trusts them,” he said. “We are just counting on their self-interest.”

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 of 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.

“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,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

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.”

The Trump’s administration sidelined the Afghan government last year and cut a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces 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 this week that he was asking the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans if more time was needed to complete evacuations. But as he ended his remarks Thursday, he said there were no second thoughts about leaving Afghanistan.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war,” he said.

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

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.