President Joe Biden falsely claimed the United States had gotten rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan — only to be swiftly contradicted by the Pentagon minutes after his White House speech.
The contradiction adds to the tally of misleading statements that have accompanied the Biden administration’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis over the past week.
Biden contended Friday that al Qaeda had been eliminated in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. As vice president, Biden opposed the daring Obama-era U.S. special forces mission that killed the al Qaeda founder in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. However, he has repeatedly claimed he actually supported it.
“Let’s put this thing in perspective here. What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” Biden said when answering questions after a Friday speech at the White House. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as — as well as — getting Osama bin Laden. And we did … We went and did the mission. You’ve known my position for a long, long time. It’s time to end this war.”
Al Qaeda maintains a presence in Afghanistan, and it has continued its more than two-decade alliance with the Taliban. The Pentagon admitted in a press conference Friday afternoon that al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan, though Defense Department press secretary John Kirby said he did not know exactly how many fighters remained, contending the terrorist group doesn’t pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.
“I haven’t seen an estimate on that … I don’t know that we have an exact estimate … We know that al Qaeda is a presence, as well as ISIS, in Afghanistan, and we’ve talked about that for quite some time. We do not believe it is exorbitantly high, but we don’t have an exact figure for you,” Kirby said. “As I think you might understand … it’s not like they carry identification cards and register somewhere. We don’t have a perfect picture. And our ability — our intelligence gathering ability in Afghanistan isn’t what it used to be because we aren’t there in the same numbers that we used to be … What we believe is that there isn’t a presence that is significant enough to merit a threat to our homeland as there was back on 9/11 20 years ago.”
Kirby added: “What I said was we don’t have the degree of dexterity intelligence to give you a head count, a nose count, of exactly how many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan. No one is walking away from the fact that they aren’t there. And we’re certainly going to maintain as much vigilance as we can absent a presence on the ground.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly said Sunday that it is in the “self-interest” of the Taliban not to harbor a terrorist group that wants to harm the U.S., despite numerous U.S. and international security experts concluding the Taliban group maintains close ties with al Qaeda.
The Department of Treasury inspector general’s office said in January 2021 the Treasury Department “told us, as of 2020, al Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection” and that al Qaeda “capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”
The United Nations Security Council’s analytical support and sanctions monitoring team concluded in May that Afghanistan “remains host to a number of armed groups comprising foreign terrorist fighters, which are assessed to be allied variously” with the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS.
“A significant part of the leadership of Al-Qaeda resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region, alongside Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Large numbers of Al-Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan,” the U.N. report concluded this year.
The U.N. added: “Al-Qaeda continued to suffer attrition during the period under review, with a number of senior figures killed, often alongside Taliban associates while co-located with them. The primary component of the Taliban in dealing with Al-Qaida is the Haqqani Network. Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.”
The U.N. report concluded that “Al-Qaeda and likeminded militants continue to celebrate developments in Afghanistan as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global radicalism.”
Edmund Fitton-Brown, the coordinator of the U.N.’s Islamic State, al Qaeda, and Taliban Monitoring Team, said in October, “The Taliban were talking regularly and at a high level with al-Qaeda and reassuring them that they would honor their historic ties … Al-Qaeda are heavily embedded with the Taliban and they do a good deal of military action and training action with the Taliban, and that has not changed.”
Pentagon inspector general Sean O’Donnell wrote in February that “it was unclear to what extent the Taliban was meeting its commitments.” He noted that “while the Taliban opposes and actively fights ISIS members in Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to maintain relations with al-Qaeda” and that the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that “al-Qaeda members were integrated into Taliban forces and command structures.”
The Pentagon’s inspector general’s report said the DIA “stated that al-Qaeda likely welcomes the Afghanistan peace negotiations as a means of securing its short-term objective of decreasing the U.S. and coalition presence in Afghanistan thus relieving counterterrorism pressure.”
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction wrote in July 2020 that the U.S.’s representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, insisted in June 2020 that a U.S. monitoring group concluded the Taliban made progress in not hosting al-Qaeda and that “we have succeeded in getting Taliban, which refused to break with al-Qaeda, to say what I have repeatedly referred to.” But the Pentagon told the watchdog in July 2020 that al-Qaeda “routinely supports and works with low-level Taliban members in its efforts to undermine the Afghan Government” and “maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
The so-called peace agreement signed in February 2020 during the Trump administration between the U.S. and the Taliban said that the U.S. was “committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces” within 14 months, while the Taliban said it “will take the following steps to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the agreement last year, saying the Taliban “for the first time, have announced that they are prepared to break with their historically, al-Qaeda … The Taliban have now made the break. They’ve said they will not permit terror to be thrust upon anyone, including the United States, from Afghanistan.”
As one stark example of the close ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is considered the “deputy emir” of the Taliban, “currently leads the day-to-day activities of the Haqqani Network,” according to the State Department, which explained that “the Haqqani Network is allied with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida and seeks to reestablish Taliban rule in Afghanistan.” The State Department’s Reward for Justice program has offered $10 million for his arrest.
Sirajuddin notably wrote a February 2020 opinion piece for the New York Times titled “What We, the Taliban, Want” where he claimed, “Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop.”
The Taliban conducted massive deadly campaigns against Afghan forces since then, and swept across the country this summer.