President Biden marked the one-year anniversary of the suicide bombing at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, amid the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country by honoring the 13 U.S. service members killed in the attack.
Mr. Biden said the “heinous attack” offered a “painful reminder that there is nothing low-cost or low-grade about war,” which echoed his justification for ending the 20-year military operation in Afghanistan.
“Our nation will forever mourn their sacrifice and honor the memory of those 13 precious souls, stolen from their families, loved ones, brothers- and sisters-in-arms far too soon while performing a noble mission on behalf of our Nation,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
“They were heroes, working to save lives as part of the largest airlift evacuation operation in our history,” he said. “The example of their bravery and selflessness will live forever as a testament to the very best of our American character.”
The attack, which killed at least 170 Afghans and wounded 45 U.S. service members, was a jarring display of the chaos that had unfolded as the U.S. scrambled to evacuate hundreds of U.S. citizens and thousands of desperate Afghans who flooded the Hamid Karzai International Airport attempting to flee the country.
Afghanistan had quickly fallen into the hands of the Taliban just weeks before Mr. Biden’s self-imposed Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline.
The attack also became a symbol of what Mr. Biden’s critics said was his failures to adequately prepare for the withdrawal.
“President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan ignored the warnings of his top generals, our allies, and the intelligence community. He was determined to unconditionally withdraw come hell or high water, no matter the consequences,” the Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement marking the anniversary. “As a result, today we remember, honor, and continue to mourn the 13 brave U.S. service members who lost their lives serving our country. It didn’t have to be this way.”
The withdrawal and its aftermath have left a lasting blemish on Mr. Biden’s foreign policy record, and lawmakers continue to press for accountability from the administration.
Earlier this month, Mr. McCaul released an interim report from a year-long investigation into the U.S. pullout. The report details the miscalculations and sheer under-preparedness that led up to the disastrous final days of U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
The report found, among other items, that at the height of the evacuation, the U.S. had only 36 consular officers working at the airport, creating a logjam of people desperate to flee that spilled beyond the U.S.-controlled perimeter. The lack of staffing drastically reduced the number of people that the U.S. was able to evacuate and led to processors being overwhelmed.
“Americans deserve answers, and I will not stop until a thorough investigation has been conducted,” Mr. McCaul said Friday.
Critics say the collapse that led to the deaths of the 13 troops and the abandonment of tens of thousands of Afghans who had been promised safe harbor was a symbol of American weakness that will continue to mar U.S. foreign policy for years to come.
“The Afghanistan disaster of exactly one year ago was the most embarrassing, incompetent, and humiliating event in the history of the United States,” former President Donald Trump said in a recent statement to mark the anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Mr. Trump also has defense his decisions regarding Afghanistan, including the 2020 Doha Agreement in which he laid out a timeline for the U.S. withdrawal. It called for U.S. troops to be out by late spring 2021. Mr. Biden delayed that date to Sept. 11, 2021, before realizing the symbolically bad timing and moved it to the end of August.
Mr. Biden has dismissed much of the criticism of his decision to withdraw. In his statement Friday, he highlighted the costs of the two-decade engagement in which 2,461 U.S. troops were killed and 20,744 were wounded.
Mr. Biden also vowed to maintain pressure on terrorist factions that remain in Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal, highlighting the U.S. drone strike in Kabul last month that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
“In the wake of the horrific attack outside Kabul airport, we have redoubled our relentless global campaign against ISIS and other terrorists who threaten Americans,” he said. “We now maintain pressure against terrorist threats without keeping thousands of troops in harm’s way on the ground in Afghanistan. And my Administration will continue to hunt down terrorists who seek to harm the United States, wherever they may be.”
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this story.