In the midst of a heavy silence only interrupted by the crying of the mourners, Joe Biden received the remains of the 13 US servicemen killed in an attack in Kabul on Sunday, a difficult ceremony for a president heavily criticized for his handling of the Afghan crisis. One after another the coffins were deposited on the airport runway of the military base in Dover, Delaware, in front of the president and his wife Jill.
With his hand on his heart, the president watched the descent of each of the coffins transported by the soldiers towards dark vehicles, sometimes lowering their heads in meditation. Under a heavy sky, dressed in black, the presidential couple were accompanied by the head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin; the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken; the Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley; and other senior military officials.
The families were at a distance, protected from the cameras. Sobbing sometimes broke the silence. Just before the ceremony, the delegation boarded the huge C-17 military plane carrying the 13 coffins, for a brief private funeral prayer, as reported by the White House. Two of the thirteen families had requested that the descent of the remains of their respective loved ones not be filmed.
Five of the 13 soldiers killed were 20 years old, the duration of the longest war waged by the United States, launched in 2001 in Afghanistan. The case of a 23-year-old girl killed in the attack aroused great emotion in the country. A week before the attack, she had been photographed with a baby in her arms during the chaotic evacuation operations at the Kabul airport.
This attack, claimed by the Islamic State group in Khorasan (IS-K), killed more than 100 people, and was the deadliest launched in Afghanistan against Pentagon forces since 2011.
These soldiers are “heroes,” Biden remarked on Sunday, on the sidelines of a speech later in Washington on Hurricane Ida. Calling to “keep them in our prayers,” the president declined to answer questions about Afghanistan. The Dover base, about two hours from Washington, has for decades been synonymous in American minds with the heartbreaking return of the fallen military.
Some 114,400 people, including nearly 5,500 US citizens, have been evacuated from Afghanistan by a massive airlift since Aug. 14. Republicans harshly question Biden for managing this evacuation.