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Biden Vows To Strike Back After Attack Kills 13 U.S. Service Members In Kabul

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden promises the U.S. will continue evacuations out of Afghanistan despite the dangers. This comes after the deadly attacks outside the Kabul airport yesterday that killed dozens of Afghan civilians and at least 13 American service members. The president vowed retribution in remarks at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.

FADEL: So let's talk through what these attacks mean for the U.S. evacuation efforts and national security with NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Franco, let's start with you because you were in the room when President Biden spoke. He was emotional when speaking about the U.S. service members and Afghans killed. What was it like in that room?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, Leila, it was very somber. And you know, his first words were how it had been a tough day. He called the lost service members heroes who died trying to save the lives of others. But at the same time, he was also very direct, stating that those who did this attack, as you heard him say in that opening clip, will be hunted down and be made to pay. It was really a striking contrast between empathy for the lost lives and, as he put it, outrage against those who are responsible.

FADEL: So, Franco, these are the first American military fatalities in a year and a half and the greatest loss of life for military in many years, about a decade. How is it changing President Biden's approach to Afghanistan?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it really doesn't appear that it is changing his approach. Despite the loss of life, Biden says the withdrawal will continue. Here's a little bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Biden has accepted some responsibility for what happened, but he also directed some blame on his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who he said made this agreement with the Taliban during his administration. But again, Biden emphasized that the mission will not change, and he said that the tragedy is all the more reason why the United States needs to get out of another country's civil war, that it was not worth sacrificing any more American lives to try and establish a democratic government in Afghanistan.

FADEL: Yeah, so many lives lost, Afghan and American, over 20 years trying to do just that.

Greg, in terms of U.S. national security, the group ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for these attacks, and Biden said the perpetrators will be hunted down. So how does the U.S. do that?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, it's certainly gotten harder. This ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, is a small, elusive group. They don't have a lot of fighters. They don't have a base that's an obvious target. They don't control territory. And one airstrike, for example, wouldn't destroy them. Now, it also would have been easier to do something like this before Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal back in April. Back then, the military and the CIA could move around much more easily, and the U.S. was carrying out airstrikes on a regular basis. The U.S. had the Afghan military and intelligence services to work with. So it's harder today with this U.S. military presence contracted and focused on the evacuation. And while certainly not impossible, it will be harder still after the U.S. military leaves and human intelligence on the ground shrinks even further.

FADEL: Franco, Biden has been criticized for working with the Taliban, a longtime U.S. enemy, to help secure the area around the airport and let people in who are authorized. But he's defended that relationship. How does he square that?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Biden is asked a lot if he trusts the Taliban. You know, he says, no one trusts the Taliban. But he also said there's no evidence to suggest that the Taliban and ISIS-K colluded to carry out the attacks on the airport and that, frankly, that the U.S. is counting on the Taliban's self-interests. He says they want the United States out, you know, basically so they can take over. And Biden argues that there are other reasons for the Taliban to work with the United States. They need help from the outside for basic things like running the airport or helping the economy, things they don't have the capacity for.

FADEL: So they don't want to be a pariah state, so to speak.

Greg, we've heard warnings that Afghanistan could again become a terrorist haven after the U.S. leaves. Was yesterday's attack a sign that this is already happening even before the U.S. leaves?

MYRE: Yeah. Yesterday was a terrible day for the U.S., one of the deadliest days for American forces in 20 years of war. But it was also a terrible day for Afghanistan because it revealed these monstrous problems that the country will have to deal with after the U.S. leaves. We saw that the Taliban were unable to maintain security and protect Afghan civilians in the place that was receiving the most scrutiny, the gates right around the airport. This was an attack by a group, ISIS-K, that opposes the Taliban because they don't think its hard-line enough. And it showed how ISIS-K could wreak havoc on the country. You also have a remaining al-Qaida presence in the country, all these radical groups with their own agendas. So the Taliban are hoping to set up a government, provide security, manage an economy and avert a humanitarian crisis. And we really saw yesterday there's no reason to think they're going to be able to do all of these things effectively.

FADEL: Now, Greg, President Biden said again, it's time to end U.S. involvement in this 20-year war. But he also said the U.S. was committed to Afghanistan and it wouldn't end next week. How does Biden do both?

MYRE: Right. Biden's remarks and the events we've seen playing out in recent days keeps sending a message that sort of sounds like unfinished business. Biden says that after the U.S. leaves, it will continue to work to get any remaining American citizens or Afghan allies out of the country, sort of hinted that perhaps he'll do this in coordination with the Taliban. And we've mentioned that the U.S. will pursue ISIS-K, an attempt to monitor other threats sort of over the horizon as Biden has put it. And he's also spoken about the need for ongoing humanitarian aid, probably more through the U.N. than directly from the U.S. But the U.S. would be deeply involved on that front as well. So the U.S. may be leaving Afghanistan next week, but it won't be done with Afghanistan next week.

FADEL: A lot to do without people on the ground anymore as of Tuesday.

NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thank you both for your reporting.

MYRE: Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.