President Joe Biden spent Thursday hunkered down with his national security team as he weighed one of the most difficult questions of his presidency: How to respond to the most deadly attack on American troops in Afghanistan in a decade.
When he entered the East Room of the White House at a little after 5pm his mind was made up. He announced he would push on with plans to bring home all U.S. troops by the end of the month while hunting down the ISIS offshoot behind the killing of 13 service personnel.
‘We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,’ he said in emotional remarks.
His commanders had already been asked to draw up plans to strike at ISIS-K, he said, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.
But counterterrorism experts said the mission faced an obvious problem.
‘When the president said we’re going to hunt them down and make them pay my initial reaction was: Spot on,’ said Nathan Sales, the former ambassador at large for counterterrorism under Trump.
‘And my second reaction was: With which assets?
‘Because the fact of the matter is, you can’t effectively take terrorists off the battlefield in Afghanistan, unless you have intelligence collection capabilities and soldiers on the ground who are prepared to go out and accomplish the mission.’
It means Biden will have to decide what assets must be moved into the region or whether he must strike immediately, while he still has special forces at Kabul airport.
‘We’re probably going to have to go back in to Afghanistan’ to get the culprits, former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta told CNN.
Biden promised to hunt down ISIS-K, the group believed to be behind the attacks, but will have to do so with few intelligence assets left within Afghanistan
Two suicide bombings killed at least 60 people around Kabul airport on Thursday, as Afghans crowded around its gates seeking flights to safety
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks in Kabul that killed at least 6o people around the airport in Kabul on Thursday
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.
It said it targeted ‘translators and collaborators with the American army.’
At least two explosions ripped through crowds around the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport killing dozens of Afghans desperate to leave the country since the Taliban seized power almost two weeks ago.
The American death toll was the highest for a single incident in a decade.
The result was the blackest day in Biden’s presidency so far, and triggered immediate demands for air strikes and for U.S. troops to stay longer.
Extending would likely bring blowback, said Richard Hoagland, a former deputy U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and ambassador in southern and central Asia.
He said: ‘If Biden extends the date what does the Taliban do?
‘And apparently this attack was by ISIS-Khorasan and that means that ISIS is in Afghanistan.
‘To say that the Taliban will not allow them to stay: That’s just wishful thinking.’
Part of the terms of a deal made by the Taliban and Washington last year, required the militants to break ties with Al Qaeda and ensure Afghanistan could not be used to plot attacks against the U.S.
Biden has justified the withdrawal of U.S. troops by saying Al Qaeda – the original target after the 9/11 attacks – no longer posed a threat.
But U.S. intelligence officials suspect ISIS-K, whose fortunes waned in recent years, may have used Afghanistan’s instability to rebuild.
A propaganda photo released by ISIS-K in Afghanistan shows well-equipped fighters who have claimed responsibility for hundreds of attacks against Afghan and foreign targets
The group is hostile to the Taliban, which cleared it out of its strongholds in Nangahar and Kunar provinces last year, but analysts said it would take any opportunity to attack foreigners and embarrass the new rulers of Afghanistan.
Some counts suggest the group carried out roughly 100 attacks against civilian targets and another 250 involving US, Afghan or Pakistani security services since they were founded in 2015.
They grew rapidly as a string of local commanders ditched their allegiance to the Taliban in favor of a group that was conquering territory in the Middle East, ensuring they could enjoy prestige and financial support.
The fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since then and the relative strength of the Taliban saw them fragment, now operating in small cells.
‘I haven’t heard of them having the capacity to launch an attack like this,’ said a former intelligence official after the Kabul attacks.
‘It makes you wonder if they had support.’
By Thursday afternoon, the Pentagon said it had apache attack helicopters, MQ Reaper drones, AC 130 gunships in the air over Afghanistan.
But without a functioning embassy and its CIA teams, and without allies of the Afghan armed forces stationed all around the country, the U.S. will lack intelligence streams to direct its air power.
The blasts sent shockwaves around the world, buffeting Washington, where an already embattled spent the day Biden deciding his response.
‘Biden has us in a no win situation,’ said Mike Waltz, a former Green Beret turned Republican U.S. Representative.’
‘We either keep the air bridge open and continue to get hit by terrorists attacks or leave Americans behind.
‘We must go on offense against the perpetrators of this attack and let our Special Forces get Americans stuck behind terrorist lines.’
Speaking before the president unveiled his answer, Lisa Curtis, for senior director for South and Central Asia on President Trump’s National Security Council, said he would have been under pressure to speed up the withdrawal.
‘We had growing indications that there were potential attacks being planned by ISIS-K so I don’t think this has come as a surprise.
‘This is why Biden has been so firm in sticking to the August 31 deadline.’
In this frame grab from video, people attend to a wounded man near the site of a deadly explosion outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
Smoke rises over Kabul after two suicide attacks on Thursday, just as the U.S. was planning to wind up evacuation efforts from the city
Biden kept his options open this week. In an address on Tuesday, he said every day spent in the country increased the risks.
He referenced the danger of ISIS-K.
‘The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops,’ he said.
But he added that completion by August 31, ‘depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport for those who were transport- — we’re transporting out and no disruptions to our operations.
‘In addition, I’ve asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timetable should that become necessary.’
Sales, the former ambassador at large for counterterrorism under Trump, said the attack meant the Taliban had let down their side of the deal. That meant Biden was entitled to rip up his side.
‘Evacuations should continue as long as it takes to extract every American who’s in the country, and every Afghan, who is eligible to come to the United States because they provided support to our armed forces or served alongside our armed forces,’ he said.
To do it safely, he urged the administration to retake Bagram air base, which was vacated last month, and which would offer a more secure evacuation hub.
He also said air strikes were the right response.
‘You don’t get to kill American sailors and Marines with impunity,’ he said.
‘The people who are responsible for this need to be found. And they need to be taken off the battlefield, not just to avenge our fallen, but because if they committed one attack, they’re going to commit others.’
Afghanistan’s chilling new face of terror: ‘ISIS-K’ slaughter patients in their hospital beds, bomb girls schools… and see the Taliban as far too liberal
by Guy Adams
Dressed in white coats and carrying stethoscopes, three young men walked unchallenged into Kabul’s 400-bed Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital and made their way to the upper floors.
Then, outside the building, situated opposite the heavily fortified US Embassy, there was a loud bang.
The noise, from the detonating suicide vest of a comrade, acted as a signal for the trio to pull a selection of hand grenades and AK-47 assault rifles from beneath their medical clothing, before opening fire.
By the time the chaos had died down, several hours later, more than 30 doctors and patients had been killed and roughly 50 more wounded.
Further casualties included the three attackers, who were shot by Afghan special forces, plus the original suicide bomber, and a fifth member of the terror gang who had detonated a car bomb inside the hospital complex.
A former Pakistani Taliban commander called Hafiz Saeed Khan (middle) led ISIS-K until he was killed by a drone strike in 2016
Their brazen and pitiless attack, which unfolded in broad daylight one afternoon in March 2017, was carried out in the name of ISIS-K, a local branch of the notorious global terror network.
Founded in 2015, its followers aim to establish an Islamic caliphate across Khorasan (hence the initial ‘K’) – a historic region covering Pakistan and Afghanistan along with parts of Central Asia.
The terror group is now such a threat that fear of an attack by Isis-K is being used to justify the US’s refusal to delay its withdrawal from Kabul Airport after the August 31 deadline set by Joe Biden.
In a statement released on Tuesday night, the US President claimed: ‘Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians.’
The White House seems to believe ISIS-K (who regard the Taliban as dangerous liberals) is about to organise a wave of attacks in an effort to destabilise its efforts to form a government.
If so, then any foreign troops, including soldiers from Britain’s 16 Air Assault Brigade currently guarding Kabul airport, would represent very high-profile targets indeed.
The organisation has already carried out roughly 100 attacks against civilian targets and another 250 involving US, Afghan or Pakistani security services, most of them chronicled via macabre mobile phone videos then gleefully broadcast via the internet.
One particularly vile film, circulated in June 2017, celebrated the work of a group of child recruits to ISIS-K known as the ‘cubs of the caliphates’.
Founded in 2015, its followers aim to establish an Islamic caliphate across Khorasan (hence the initial ‘K’) – a historic region covering Pakistan and Afghanistan along with parts of Central Asia
The film showed two of them – both dressed in black and seemingly under 12 years of age – forcing terrified captives to kneel on the ground.
They proceeded to pull back the heads of the men (who were apparently accused of spying), rant at the camera and execute them via a single shot to the skull.
More recently, in May this year, ISIS-K killed at least 68 Afghans and injured another 165 when they detonated three car bombs outside the Syed Al-Shahda school for girls in Kabul.
The vast majority of the victims were young pupils the Islamist group regard as legitimate targets for the sin of being educated while being female.
The attack, which came after a period in which Western air strikes had killed thousands of the terror network’s supporters and at least three of its leaders, served as a bloody reminder of its ongoing ability to bring carnage to the streets of Afghanistan.
ISIS-K published this photo in an effort to project unity and strength just days before hundreds of fighters admitted defeat and surrendered
The very fact that a US President is admitting that his policy is being governed by a perceived threat from ISIS-K represents a major coup for a hitherto fairly low-profile organisation.
It first made headlines in January 2016, when the Pentagon announced that the group had been designated as a Foreign Terrorist organisation.
This made assisting them a criminal offence and allowed US troops on the ground to actively pursue members (under previous terms of engagement they usually had to wait until the group attacked them before responding).
The organisation’s chosen first Emir, or leader, was a former Pakistani Taliban commander called Hafiz Saeed Khan.