Joe Biden’s national security team has warned that US troops remain under threat of another terrorist attack, just 24 hours after a devastating suicide bomb at Kabul airport killed 13 US service members and more than 90 Afghans.
As US troops braced themselves for a possible further attack, the president was facing mounting criticism. Recriminations following the deadliest day for the US military in a decade came not only from familiar Republican antagonists but also from prominent members of Biden’s own party.
US forces are racing against the clock to meet Tuesday’s deadline to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan and bring to an end almost 20 years of the so-called “forever war”. But security risks continue to cause alarm.
In a briefing on Friday the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, painted a grim picture of the challenge in the final hours of US presence in Afghanistan. She said the national security team had advised Biden that “another terror attack at Kabul airport is likely”.
She added: “The threat is ongoing and it is active. Our troops are still in danger … This is the most dangerous part of the mission.”
Her warning echoed an earlier statement from the Pentagon warning of “specific, credible threats” of further attacks. Discussions were ongoing with Taliban leaders who control the area surrounding the airport in an effort to block off roads and fend off any attacks involving vehicles.
The Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, denied reports that the Taliban had taken over some of the airport.
“I saw that report too,” Kirby said. “It’s false. They’re not in charge of any of the gates. They are not in charge of any of the airport operations. That is still under US military control.”
Afghan health officials reportedly said on Friday as many as 170 Afghans were killed in the attack on Thursday and at least 200 wounded. Asked by Fox News if Biden intended to kill the Islamic State-affiliated terrorists who perpetrated the attack or bring them to trial, Psaki replied: “I think he made clear yesterday that he does not want them to live on the Earth any more.”
The president is sticking to his plan to be out of the war-ravaged country by the end of August. He has vowed to evacuate as many Americans and support personnel as possible, as well as hunt down the perpetrators of the suicide bombing and make them “pay”.
But Biden is being buffeted by a groundswell of condemnation about the dark turn that has befallen the US mission in its final days.
Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and CIA director under Barack Obama, told CNN it was “Joe Biden’s worst nightmare to lose 13 [US service members] as a result of what’s happened here – this has got to be the worst day in his administration”.
Panetta predicted that the US would have to go back into Afghanistan to take out the Islamic State, which claimed the suicide bombing. “I understand that we’re trying to get our troops out of there, but the bottom line is we can leave a battlefield but we can’t leave the war on terrorism.”
During a White House meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, on Friday, Biden called the deaths of 13 service members “tragic”. He said of the US marines and Navy Seals present in Kabul, “the mission they perform is dangerous and has now come with significant loss of personnel. But it’s a worthy mission.”
Biden did not respond to Panetta’s warning that the US might be sucked back into Afghanistan to pursue the orchestrators of the bombing. The White House has pointed to the US military’s “over-the-horizon capacity” – meaning its ability to hit targets from bases outside Afghanistan – though no detail has been given of how the administration plans to go after the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), without troops on the ground.
Despite the ongoing security risks, evacuation flights from Kabul continued at a frantic pace. Maj GenHank Taylor, joint staff deputy director for regional operations, said on Friday that between US and coalition forces there had been 89 flights out in 24 hours, carrying 12,500 people. They included more than 300 American citizens, which brings the total of US nationals thought to be still in the country to about 700.
Approximately 111,000 people have been evacuated since July in what the White House is describing as probably the largest airlift in US history.
With the US war in Afghanistan entering its last hours, Biden is engaged in a high-stakes gamble. Getting out of America’s longest war continues to be overwhelmingly popular. A new Morning Consult/ Politico poll suggested the American people want out even were withdrawal to lead to a resurgence of terrorism groups in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the harrowing images beamed back to TV screens over the past few days have sharply hit Biden’s approval rating, which has plummeted from above 50% to 41%. The impact of the death of 13 service members – the largest toll on a single day since 2011 – has yet to be reflected in opinion surveys.
Republicans sought to capitalize on the president’s distress. Donald Trump appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show hours after the bombing to decry his successor’s handling of the crisis as “the dumbest move anybody’s ever made, perhaps in the history of our country”.
Trump was not asked to explain how he would have done things differently, given that he was responsible for the withdrawal deal after more than a year of talks with the Taliban.
Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, also questioned Biden’s handling of the evacuation, saying there would be a “day of reckoning”. Asked if he agreed with those Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation, he replied: “Look, I’m extremely frustrated with this president. If you want to be president of the free world, you have to have the faith, the trust and the confidence of the American public. President Biden lost that yesterday.”
The Pentagon has said that a third of Americans in Afghanistan have given no indication they want to leave, which potentially shrinks the number of US citizens still waiting to about 400.
In the White House briefing, Psaki said diplomatic engagement with the Taliban would continue after 31 August in order to ensure the safe departure of American citizens and their Afghan partners who are unable to leave before the deadline. She said such links were a “necessity” given the reality of Taliban control, though she stressed “we don’t trust the Taliban – this is not about trust”.
The Pentagon said it had been attempting to expand the perimeter fence around Kabul airport to increase protections for the 5,000 US troops still based there. Military commanders have been seeking to persuade the Taliban to block off key roads in order to reduce the risk of vehicles packed with explosives approaching the gates.
“There are more than 5,000 US service members in harm’s way, saving as many people as they can,” Taylor said. “We have seen first-hand how dangerous that mission is, but Isis will not deter us.”