Joe Biden is due to address the nation about the deepening crisis inat 5pm on Thursday after 12 US troops and at least 60 Afghan civilians were killed in an Islamic State attack in Kabul.
The US president was reportedly in the situation room with his national security team when details of the atrocity first emerged, plunging the White House into full crisis mode.
It rescheduled Biden’s first in-person meeting with Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and canceled a video conference with governors about Afghan refugees arriving in the US.
His public remarks on Thursday evening are likely to be watched closely for an indication of whether the US will continue the evacuation, risking more deaths, or halt it earlier than planned and potentially leave behind Americans who are still seeking to leave the country.
It will also be seen as a test of his ability to project compassion and competence – qualities that some critics have found lacking in his response to the Afghanistan debacle so far.
The administration had believed it was beginning to shift the narrative in its favour after evacuating more than 95,000 people since 14 August, the day before the capital fell to the Taliban.
Noting it was on track to be the biggest airlift in American history, bringing out US citizens, Afghan partners and allies, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday: “I would not say that is anything but a success.”
But the deaths of US service personnel were likely to touch a nerve with the American public and compound the domestic political pressure on Biden, whose decision to withdraw US forces by 31 August led to the collapse of the national government and army.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, called for speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the chamber back into session to consider legislation that would prohibit the US withdrawal until all Americans are out of Afghanistan.
“Our enemies have taken advantage of the chaotic nature of the withdrawal,” McCarthy said. “It is time for Congress to act quickly to save lives.”
Such a return is highly unlikely because Democrats hold the majority in the House. Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill said on Twitter: “Right now, American heroes are risking & giving their lives to execute an extraordinarily dangerous evacuation. What’s not going to help evacuate American citizens is more empty stunts & distraction.”
The White House had warned for days that the danger of an attack from Islamic State was a motivating factor in seeking to complete the evacuation by the end of the month.
As of Wednesday, the state department said about 4,500 American citizens had been flown out, with around 1,500 still to go. Biden had pledged to get out of Afghanistan every American who wished to leave but Thursday’s attack many have changed the calculus.
With Afghanistan unravelling and the coronavirus resurgent, Biden’s overall job approval rating now stands at 41% who approve versus 55% who disapprove, according to a new USA Today/ Suffolk University opinion poll.
On a day of tragedy, Republicans mourned the loss of life and withheld their most biting criticisms of Biden. Donald Trump, the former president, said in a statement: “Melania and I send our deepest condolences to the families of our brilliant and brave Service Members whose duty to the USA meant so much to them. Our thoughts are also with the families of the innocent civilians who died today in the savage Kabul attack.
“This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen, which makes our grief even deeper and more difficult to understand.”
Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, added: “Terrible things happen when terrorists are allowed to operate freely. This murderous attack offers the clearest possible reminder that terrorists will not stop fighting the United States just because our politicians grow tired of fighting them.
“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. We need to redouble our global efforts to confront these barbarian enemies who want to kill Americans and attack our homeland.”
But some Republicans were more aggressive in their rhetoric and even called for Biden to resign.
Josh Hawley, a senator for Missouri, said: “Joe Biden has now overseen the deadliest day for US troops in Afghanistan in over a decade, and the crisis grows worse by the hour. We must reject the falsehood peddled by a feckless president that this was the only option for withdrawal. This is the product of Joe Biden’s catastrophic failure of leadership. It is now painfully clear he has neither the will nor the capacity to lead. He must resign.”