U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to “hunt down” those who carried out the deadly suicide bombings that took place at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday and “make them pay” in a speech at the White House.
The attacks killed 13 American service members and wounded 18 others. The troops were part of Operation Allies Refuge, the mission to evacuate from Kabul Americans, allies and Afghan partners who helped the U.S. during its 20-year war there. The blasts also killed at least 60 Afghans and wounded several dozen more, according to press reports.
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as any who wishes America harm, know this: we will not forgive,” Biden said. “We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
The president blamed the attacks on the Islamic State affiliate that has taken refuge in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State-Khorason, or ISIS-K, saying that he and his top commanders may have some idea which specific members of the group are responsible.
“With regard to finding, tracking down the ISIS leaders who ordered this: We have some reason to believe we know they are – not certain,” he said. “And we find ways of our choosing without large military operations to get them.”
Biden said he ordered his commanders “to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership, and facilities,” and that they would respond “with force and precision at our time and at the place we chose and a moment of our choosing.”
When asked by a reporter whether those strikes would be limited to Afghanistan, Biden said “wherever they [the planners] are.”
The president did not divulge many details for how he would carry out those attacks, but he did note that the U.S. had “over-the-horizon” capabilities to keep terrorists all over the world “from coming after us.” In the past, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, said those capabilities could include long-range precision fires (i.e. missiles), or strikes by manned aircraft or by special operations teams. But if the targets are still in Afghanistan, it will be more difficult to locate them from above, he noted.
In the meantime, the president said that the attacks will not derail his main mission in Afghanistan, which is to evacuate as many Afghans and Americans as possible before August 31. In the past few days, Biden has come under fire for sticking to that deadline, especially after two members of Congress visited the country and determined that “no matter what we do, we won’t get everyone out on time, even by September 11.”
Still, the president defended his commitment, and pointed to Thursday’s attack as a reason why he needs to stick with it. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from the country over the past 11 days, he said, with 7,000 in just the past 12 hours.
“This is why, from the outset, I repeatedly said this mission is extraordinarily dangerous, and why I’ve been so determined to limit the duration of this mission,” said Biden, who anticipates there will be more attacks before Aug. 31.
“We will not be deterred by terrorists … we will continue the evacuation,” he said. “We will rescue the Americans, we will get our Afghan allies out.”
However, even after Aug. 31, Biden said there would be ways to evacuate any Americans left behind. There are not many left, he said, but some are staying because they have dual citizenship in Afghanistan and have family in the country. But the U.S. may be able to arrange evacuation for those who want to leave at a later date through negotiations with the Taliban.
“They’re not good guys, the Taliban,” Biden said. “But they have a keen interest … they very much would like to figure out how to keep the airport open. They don’t have the capacity to do it. They very much are trying to figure out whether or not they can maintain what is a portion of an economy that has become, not robust, but fundamentally different than it had been.”
Before that though, the president vowed to get as many people out as possible by the end of the month. He said it would be the way to honor the 13 service members who died Thursday.
“We just have to remain steadfast … steadfast,” he said. “We will complete our mission, and we will continue after the troops have withdrawn to find means by which we can find any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan. We will find them and we will get them out.”
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