US president Joe Biden vowed to plough ahead with the evacuation of those trying to flee Afghanistan and punish the perpetrators of an attack outside Kabul’s airport that killed at least 13 US troops and dozens of Afghans.
At the end of what one aide called “maybe the worst day” of his eight-month presidency, Biden attempted to appear both a sombre mourner-in-chief and a resolute leader steeling the nation for what could be a difficult final withdrawal from the Afghan capital, which he aims to complete by Tuesday.
“We will not be deterred by terrorists, we will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation,” Biden said on Thursday. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
At least 60 Afghan civilians were killed and more than 140 were wounded, according to the Associated Press, though many local Afghans believe the true toll is higher. Isis has claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings.
The attacks were the most recent crisis to beset Biden’s strategy, which has seen the Taliban seize Kabul, a hurried redeployment of thousands of US troops and mass flight from the country in the space of two weeks.
Thursday was the deadliest day for the American military in Afghanistan in a decade and marked the first time US troops were killed in action there since February 2020.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban, which views Isis as a rival, condemned the attacks, adding that they had occurred “in an area where US forces are responsible for security”.
The attack has severely disrupted western efforts to wind up the evacuation process, as the Taliban has tightened access to the airport.
A convoy of seven buses filled with would-be evacuees has been on the road near the airfield since Thursday evening, awaiting clearance to enter, according to locals familiar with the situation.
The UK government said on Friday it had entered the “final stages” of its evacuation programme, and had closed processing facilities inside the Baron Hotel, near the site of one of the bombings. No further people will be called forward to the airport for evacuation.
“It is with deep regret that not everyone has been able to be evacuated during this process,” said Ben Wallace, defence secretary.
About 100 UK troops have departed, leaving 900 military personnel and 60 diplomats and border officials at the airport, a defence official said.
Biden said he had ordered military commanders to “develop operational plans to strike Isis-K assets, leadership and facilities”, referring to the Isis branch in central Asia. The US would “respond with force and precision” at a moment and location of Washington’s choosing, he added.
The president called the Americans who died “heroes who have been engaged in a dangerous selfless mission to save the lives of others”, before reiterating his case for ending the 20-year war.
“I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan,” Biden said, arguing that it had never been a “united country” and was made up of tribes that had never “gotten along with one another”.
The mood in Kabul was sombre on Friday morning. Banks have reopened but an acute shortage of cash has meant Afghans could only withdraw small amounts of about $125.
The Taliban has sought to portray its takeover of the country as the start of a new peaceful era. Bilal Karimi, a Taliban official, said the violence would recede once the US troop withdrawal was complete. “When the American control of the airport ends, all this misery ends and will be rooted out,” he said.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan has been a pillar of Biden’s foreign policy and remains popular with the American public. But the chaotic exit has exposed the White House to criticism from US allies and Republicans.
“Terrorists will not stop fighting the United States just because our politicians grow tired of fighting them,” said Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican. “I remain concerned that terrorists worldwide will be emboldened by our retreat, by this attack, and by the establishment of a radical Islamic terror state in Afghanistan.”
Biden’s popularity ratings have fallen sharply in the past week, with more Americans expressing disapproval than support for the job he was doing for the first time in his presidency, according to several nationwide polls.
The president’s efforts to project resolve were punctured by a testy exchange with reporters after his statement. Biden was asked by Fox News if he accepted any “responsibility” for the attack on US troops, prompting him to criticise Donald Trump, the former president, for the original withdrawal agreement with the Taliban.
“I bear responsibility for fundamentally all that’s happened of late,” he said. “But here’s the deal . . . you know, as well as I do that, the former president made a deal with the Taliban.”
US officials have noted that the airlift that began in mid-August has led to the evacuation of 104,000 people, including about 5,000 Americans. However, about 1,000 Americans remain and thousands more Afghans have been trying to leave. Biden suggested that some of them would be left behind.