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President Joe Biden said that al-Qaida is gone from Afghanistan, but in the same remarks he also said that terrorism, including al-Qaida, remains a threat.
A U.N. report in June said that al-Qaida is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces in the range of several dozen to 500 persons.
A recent report by the Inspector General to Congress said that the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that the Taliban maintains a relationship with al-Qaida and provides safe haven in Afghanistan for the terrorist group while publicly denying its presence.
As President Joe Biden defended his administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, he suggested that al-Qaida was no longer a threat there.
"Look, let’s put this thing in perspective here," Biden said in Aug. 20 remarks. "What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaida gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did."
Biden is wrong to say that al-Qaida is gone entirely; officials in his administration have said the terrorist group remains active.
On the same day of Biden’s remarks, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said: "We know that al-Qaida 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 added that al-Qaida’s presence isn’t enough to merit a threat to the U.S. as it did 20 years ago.
On Fox News Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed that, saying that there are al-Qaida members in Afghanistan, but their capacity for a 9/11 type of attack has been diminished.
Biden’s statement that al-Qaida is "gone" lacked that nuance and went further than his statement days earlier that al-Qaida in Afghanistan was "degraded."
A White House spokesperson pointed to comments Biden made on Aug. 20 stating the threat of terrorism broadly, and al-Qaida specifically, remains a concern. Biden said that there was "a greater danger from ISIS and al-Qaida and all these affiliates in other countries, by far, than there is from Afghanistan."
Reports by government agencies in recent months show that al-Qaida remains a presence in Afghanistan.
A United Nations report in June stated that a significant part of the leadership of al-Qaida resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region. Al-Qaida is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces and "is reported to number in the range of several dozen to 500 persons," the report stated. While al-Qaida maintains contact with the Taliban, it is laying low, and it’s longer term strategy is "strategic patience for a period of time before it would seek to plan attacks against international targets again," the report stated.
The Inspector General to Congress compiled information from various federal agencies about operations in Afghanistan and released the information in a report this summer. The Defense Intelligence Agency told the Inspector General that the Taliban "maintains a relationship with al-Qaida, providing safe haven for the terrorist group while publicly denying its presence in Afghanistan." Under a February 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the United States, the Taliban was supposed to prevent al-Qaida from using Afghanistan to threaten the U.S. Therefore, the Taliban is likely downplaying its relationship with the group.
Tricia Bacon, an associate professor who directs the Policy Anti-Terrorism Hub at American University, said while al-Qaida has been seriously degraded, it has also received a morale boost from the Taliban’s victory.
The group in Afghanistan "is seriously weakened, but it has proven to be a resilient organization, capable of surviving despite immense counterterrorism pressure and of recovering from setbacks," Bacon said.
Following the recent statements by Biden and administration officials, a Taliban spokesperson said in an interview with Saudi Arabia’s al-Hadath TV that al-Qaida is "not present in Afghanistan in the first place," according to the Washington Post. But the spokesperson said there may be "family ties'' between members of the two organizations.
Bacon said that the Taliban is being disingenuous and the statement does not "accurately reflect the situation on the ground."
Laura Dugan, a professor of human security at Ohio State University, said Biden is correct in that the U.S. drove al-Qaida out of Afghanistan years ago and greatly diminished its centralized power.
"This was especially true after Osama bin Laden was killed. However, what is also true is that al-Qaida and the Taliban are closely aligned, and with the Taliban back in charge of Afghanistan, al-Qaida can move around more freely, which means that they can more easily plan large scale attacks," Dugan said.
Biden said that al-Qaida is "gone" from Afghanistan.
Biden’s statement is wrong. On the same day, a Pentagon spokesperson said al-Qaida is present in Afghanistan, but that it wasn’t as powerful as it was 20 years ago. Recent reports from the federal government and the U.N., as well as comments from government officials in recent months, indicate that al-Qaida is still present in Afghanistan. Its future capabilities remain unclear.
We rate this statement False.
White House, Remarks by President Biden on Evacuations in Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021
White House, Remarks by President Biden on Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021
U.S. Department of Defense, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing, Aug. 20, 2021
Fox News, Fox News Sunday transcript on Aug. 22, 2021
U.N. Inspector General, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, April -June 2021
Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: In Brief, Updated June 11, 2021
Military Times, CENTCOM commander vows to keep the pressure on adversaries even after leaving Afghanistan: Exclusive interview, June 12, 2021
Washington Post, Taliban insists it will not shelter al-Qaeda in Afghanistan this time around, Aug. 23, 2021
New York Times, Biden’s Inaccurate Claims in Defending Afghanistan Withdrawal, Aug. 20, 2021
Factcheck.org, FactChecking Biden’s Statements About Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021
CQ Transcriptions, Senate Appropriations Committee Holds Hearing on Fiscal 2022 Budget Request for the Defense Department, June 17, 2021
Email interview, Vedant Patel, White House spokesperson, Aug. 23, 2021
Email interview, Laura Dugan, professor of human security and professor of sociology at Ohio State University Aug. 23, 2021
Email interview, Gary Ackerman, associate professor and associate dean for research and laboratory development at University at Albany, Aug. 23, 2021
Email interview, Tricia Bacon, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs, American University, Non-Resident Fellow, Program on Extremism, George Washington University, Aug. 23, 2021
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