Emotional Biden vows to finish Kabul evacuation, hunt down airport attackers

US president says deadline for Afghanistan pullout remains August 31, confirms bombing and shootings that killed 60 Afghans and 12 US troops carried out by local IS affiliate

US President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 13 US service members, from the East Room of the White House, August 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden pauses as he speaks about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 13 US service members, from the East Room of the White House, August 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden vowed Thursday to complete the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan despite a deadly suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport. He also promised to avenge the deaths, declaring to the extremists responsible: “We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

Speaking with emotion from the White House, Biden said the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate was to blame for the attacks that killed 12 American service members and many more Afghan civilians. He said there was no evidence they colluded with the Taliban, who now control the country.

“We have some reason to believe we know who they are,” he said of the bombers and gunmen involved. “Not certain.”

As many as 1,000 Americans and many more Afghans are still struggling to get out of Kabul.

Biden was briefed on the attacks, which also killed dozens of Afghans — reports put the death toll at 60 or more — and came 12 days into the rushed evacuation and five days before its scheduled completion. Some Republicans argued to extend the evacuation beyond next Tuesday’s deadline.

Biden vowed to continue the evacuation of civilians from Kabul and confirmed August 31 would remain the deadline.

There remained an “opportunity for the next several days, between now and the 31st, to be able to get them out.”

“Knowing the threat, knowing that we may very well have another attack, the military has concluded that that’s what we should do. I think they are right.”

President Joe Biden speaks about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 12 U.S. service members, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Asked by a reporter if he bore any responsibility for the deaths of the US service members killed Thursday, Biden said: “I bear responsibility fundamentally for all that’s happened of late.”

As details of the attacks emerged, the White House rescheduled Biden’s first in-person meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for Friday. Bennett offered his condolences and support to Biden and the American people.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP that between 13 and 20 people were killed and 52 wounded in the twin blasts, while Kabul hospitals reported six dead and up to 90 wounded.

A health official in the pre-Taliban administration said the death toll could rise to 60, but added that he could not be named and other sources could not confirm the figure.

The US general overseeing the evacuation, Gen. Frank McKenzie, said after the attacks, “If we can find who is associated with this, we will go after them.” He said it would be a mistake for the United States to call an early end to the evacuation, despite the risks.

The administration has been widely blamed for a chaotic and deadly evacuation that began in earnest only after the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban’s takeover of the country. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated so far.

Thursday’s attacks were sure to intensify political pressure from all sides on Biden, who already was under heavy criticism for not beginning the pullout earlier. He had announced in April that he was ending the US war and would have all forces out by September.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California called for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to bring the chamber back into session to consider legislation that would prohibit the US withdrawal until all Americans are out. That’s highly unlikely, and Pelosi’s office dismissed such suggestions as “empty stunts.”

Medics and hospital staff bring an injured man on a stretcher for treatment after two blasts outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 26, 2021. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

The Taliban, a rival of the Islamic State, condemned the blasts, and said they happened in an area under US military control.

At the Pentagon, Gen. McKenzie said the military believes the attacks on the airport’s perimeter were carried out by fighters affiliated with the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan arm. He said more attempted attacks were expected.

After the suicide bomber’s attack at the airport’s Abbey Gate, a number of ISIS gunmen opened fire on civilians and military forces, he said. There also was an attack at or near the Baron Hotel near that gate, he said.

Graphic video shared on social media showed bodies lying semi-submerged in a canal adjacent to the airport, where thousands have gathered since the Taliban takeover of August 15 hoping for a flight out.

“When people heard the (first) explosion there was total panic,” a man name Milad told AFP.

“The Taliban then started firing in the air to disperse the crowd. I saw a man rushing with an injured baby in his hands.”

The US government and its allies had raised the alarm earlier in the day with a series of advisories warning their citizens to avoid the airport.

After the blasts, images posted on social media showed men ferrying wounded people to safety in wheelbarrows.

In another picture, a boy was seen clutching the arm of a man whose clothes were soaked in blood.

The attacks won’t drive the US out earlier than scheduled, McKenzie said.

“Let me be clear, while we are saddened by the loss of life, both US and Afghan, we are continuing to execute the mission,” he said. He said there were about 5,000 evacuees on the airfield Thursday awaiting flights. He said the Taliban have been “useful to work with” and are not suspected in the attacks.

“We thought this would happen sooner or later,” McKenzie said, adding that US military commanders were working with Taliban commanders to prevent further attacks.

McKenzie said that in addition to the 12 US service members killed in the attacks, at least 15 were injured.

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi)

Biden had pledged to get out of Afghanistan every American who wished to leave. As of Thursday, the State Department estimated there were as many as 1,000 Americans in Afghanistan who may want help getting out.

He concluded his remarks by presiding over a moment of silence for US service members.

“These American service members who gave their lives — it’s an overused word, but it’s totally appropriate here — were heroes,” Biden said.

In this image provided by the US Air Force, a US Air Force Airman guides evacuees aboard a U. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via AP)

Biden on Thursday had been scheduled to host Bennett, who is on his first visit to the United States since taking office. The meeting was rescheduled for Friday at 6:30 p.m. Israel time, forcing Bennett to extend his stay in the US by at least two days. Biden also canceled plans to meet virtually with a bipartisan group of governors who have said they want to help resettle Afghan refugees.

A number of US allies said they were ending their evacuation efforts in Kabul, at least in part to give the US the time it needs to wrap up its evacuation operations before getting more than 5,000 U.S. troops out by Tuesday.

Despite intense pressure to extend the Tuesday deadline, Biden has repeatedly cited the threat of terrorist attacks against civilians and US service members as a reason to keep to his plan.

The explosions detonated as the US worked to get remaining Americans out of the country. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that as many as 1,500 Americans may be awaiting evacuation.

People walk on the tarmac as they disembark from a Airbus A400M military transport aircraft at the French military air base 104 of Al Dhafra, near Abu Dhabi, on August 23, 2021, after being evacuated from Kabul as part of the operation “Apagan”. (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP)

Asked during an interview with ABC News about reports the evacuation could end on Friday, Ross Wilson, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, declined to comment. He spoke shortly before the deadly attacks.

Wilson said “there are safe ways to get to” the airport for those Americans who still want to leave. He added that “there undoubtedly will be” some at-risk Afghans who will not get out before Biden’s deadline.

The airlift continued Thursday despite warnings of vehicle-borne bomb threats near the airport. The White House said 13,400 people had been evacuated in the 24 hours that ended early Thursday morning Washington time. Those included 5,100 people aboard US military planes and 8,300 on coalition and partner aircraft. That was a substantial drop from the 19,000 airlifted by all means the day before.

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