President Joe Biden vowed on Thursday to complete the evacuation of American citizens and others from Afghanistan despite the day's deadly suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport.
He promised to avenge the deaths of 13 US service members killed, telling those responsible: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Speaking with emotion from the White House, Biden said the Islamic State (IS) group's Afghanistan affiliate was to blame for the attacks -- that according to Friday's latest estimates also killed at least 72 Afghans. 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," the president said, adding that he had instructed military commanders to develop plans to strike IS “assets, leadership and facilities.”
“We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place of our choosing.”
General Frank McKenzie, the US Central Command chief, said more attempted attacks were expected. He said there were about 5,000 evacuees on the airfield Thursday awaiting flights.
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 5,000 of its troops out by Tuesday.
Biden said US military commanders in Afghanistan had told him it is important to complete the evacuation mission. “And we will,” he said. “We will not be deterred by terrorists.”
As many as 1,000 Americans and many more Afghans are still struggling to get out of Kabul.
The IS affiliate in Afghanistan has carried out many attacks on civilian targets in the country in recent years. It is far more radical than the Taliban, who seized power less than two weeks ago.
In sombre, sometimes halting remarks, Biden praised US forces and asked for a moment of silence.
The Marine Corps said 10 Marines were among those killed. The US military said the 18 wounded were being evacuated from Afghanistan aboard Air Force C-17 transport planes equipped with surgical units.
It was the deadliest day for US forces in Afghanistan since August 2011, when a helicopter was shot down by an insurgent armed with a rocket-propelled grenade, killing 30 American troops and eight Afghans.
Thursday's attacks were the first time were the first US service members have been killed in Afghanistan since February 2020, the month the Trump administration struck an agreement with the Taliban.
The deal called for the militant group to halt attacks on Americans in exchange for the withdrawal of all American troops and contractors by May 2021. Biden announced in April that he was ending the US war and would have all forces out by September.
The Kabul attacks came 12 days into the rushed evacuation and five days before its scheduled completion. Some Republicans and others are arguing to extend the evacuation beyond next Tuesday's deadline.
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: Afghans, Americans and others.
Thursday’s attack was sure to intensify political pressure from all sides on Biden, who already was under heavy criticism for not beginning the pullout earlier.
The airlift continued on Thursday, though the number of evacuees fell for a second day as the terror attack and further threats kept people from the airport and as other countries began shutting down their efforts.
About 7,500 people were evacuated, a White House official said, between 3am and 3pm. The total compared to 19,000 in one 24-hour period toward the start of the week.