Kabul airport suicide attack: US vows revenge

  • In an emotional speech, Biden said the evacuations will be completed, and declared to the extremists responsible for the bombings: “We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
US President Joe Biden listens to a question from a member of the media as he delivers remarks about Afghanistan, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
US President Joe Biden listens to a question from a member of the media as he delivers remarks about Afghanistan, from the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC.
Published on Aug 28, 2021 04:12 AM IST
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Agencies | , Kabul, Washington

The US pressed on with a monumental evacuation process from Afghanistan on Friday amid fears of more bloodshed a day after the suicide attack at Kabul airport killed well over 100 Afghans and 13 US service members, and President Joe Biden vowed to hunt down those responsible for the terror strike.

In an emotional speech, Biden said the evacuations will be completed, and declared to the extremists responsible for the bombings: “We will not forgive, we will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

He said the Islamic State (IS) group’s Afghanistan affiliate was to blame for the Thursday attacks and that there was no evidence that they colluded with the Taliban, who now control the country. The group, IS-Khorasan (IS-K) – an enemy of both the US and the Taliban – too claimed responsibility for the attack. It said in a statement that one of its suicide bombers had targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army” near the Kabul airport.

Two officials said on the condition of anonymity that the Afghan death toll in Thursday’s bombing was higher than first anticipated – at least 169 -- while the US said it was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan since August 2011. The 13 US service members who died included 10 Marines, a Navy sailor and an Army soldier. The military has not identified them or given a service affiliation for the last victim.

The attack underlined the realpolitik facing Western powers in Afghanistan: engaging with the Taliban, who they have long sought to fend off, may be their only chance to prevent the country sliding into a breeding ground for extremist militancy.

At the White House on Thursday, Biden – already facing strong criticism at home and abroad over the chaos surrounding troop withdrawal that led to the Taliban’s lightning advance to Kabul -- asked for a moment of silence to honour the service members. He bowed his head, and ordered US flags to half-staff across the country.

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

As for the bombers and gunmen involved, he said, “We have some reason to believe we know who they are.” He said he had instructed military commanders to develop plans to strike IS “assets, leadership and facilities”.

The US warned that more attacks could come ahead of President Biden’s fast-approaching deadline to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by Tuesday. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said: “We certainly are prepared and expect future attempts” at terror attacks as the evacuation winds down.

The Pentagon also said that there was one suicide bomber instead of two previously thought.

As the call to prayer echoed on Friday through Kabul along with the roar of departing planes, the anxious crowds thronging the airport in hope of escaping Taliban rule appeared as large as ever despite the bombing. Afghans, American citizens and other foreigners were all acutely aware the window is closing to board a flight before the airlift ends and Western troops withdraw.

The attacks led a witness, Jamshad, to head there in the morning with his wife and three small children, clutching an invitation to a Western country he didn’t want to name. “After the explosion I decided I would try because I am afraid now there will be more attacks, and I think now I have to leave,” said Jamshad, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

The names of the Afghan victims began emerging and included a news agency founder along with a number of impoverished Afghans who had gone to the airport in hopes of realising a better life.

By the morning after the attack, the Taliban posted a pickup full of fighters and three captured Humvees and set up a barrier 500 metres from the airport, holding the crowds farther back from the US troops at the airport gates.

General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said in the hours after the bombings that the US would adjust security outside the gates as needed, including possibly asking the Taliban to change the location of their checkpoints.

McKenzie said American forces have to stand close to would-be evacuees to make sure they are not carrying any weapons that could cause even greater loss of life aboard a plane.

“Somebody has actually got to watch someone else in the eyes and decide that they’re ready to come in” the airport gates, McKenzie said.

The Taliban have wrested back control of Afghanistan two decades after they were ousted in a US-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks. Their return to power has terrified many Afghans, who fear they will reimpose the kind of repressive rule they did when they were last in control. Thousands have rushed to flee the country ahead of the American withdrawal as a result.

The US said more than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul, but thousands more are struggling to leave in one of history’s largest airlifts.

Outside the airport, Afghans acknowledged that going to the airport was risky — but said they had few choices. “Believe me, I think that an explosion will happen any second or minute, God is my witness, but we have lots of challenges in our lives, that is why we take the risk to come here and we overcome fear,” said Ahmadullah Herawi.

Many others will try to escape over land borders. The UN refugee agency said a half-million people or more could flee in a worst-case scenario in the coming months.

But chances to help those hoping to join the evacuation are fading fast. More European allies and other nations were ending their airlifts Friday, in part to give the US time to wrap up its own operations and get 5,000 of its troops out by Tuesday.

The Indian ministry of external affairs said on Friday that India’s priority will be to evacuate Indian citizens from the country and the Afghan nationals “who stood by us”.

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