President Joe Biden sat down with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday for an interview that focused on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden made some inaccurate claims in the interview – which was released in part on Wednesday and in full on Thursday – plus some other claims that, at least, could have used some more context.
US troops in Syria
Stephanopoulos asked about a possible al Qaeda terror threat to the US as a result of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden said, “Al Qaeda, ISIS, they metastasize.” He then argued that the US faces a “significantly greater” terror threat from Syria and East Africa than it does from Afghanistan.
Biden continued with regard to Afghanistan: “And we have maintained the ability to have an over-the-horizon capability to take them out. We’re – we don’t have military in Syria to make sure that we’re going to be protected…”
Facts First: Depending on Biden’s meaning, his remark about Syria is either plainly incorrect or, at least, missing important context. There are roughly 900 US troops in Syria, focused on supporting Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State terror group also known as ISIS.
An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told CNN on Thursday that Biden “was speaking about the al Qaeda presence in northwest Syria, which remains a threat to the United States and is being addressed without American troops on the ground. There are a small number of US and coalition forces on the ground in eastern Syria in areas that had been the ISIS caliphate.”
Regardless of Biden’s intentions, he did not make clear to ABC viewers that he was talking about a specific part of Syria rather than Syria as a whole, or that he was talking about al Qaeda in particular rather than ISIS as well.
When the dramatic plane images were taken
When Stephanopoulos began to ask Biden about dramatic images the public has seen this week – of hundreds of Afghans packed into a US military plane and of Afghans falling off the outside of a US military plane as it was in the air – Biden, who was trying to emphasize that the situation had since improved, interjected, “That was four days ago, five days ago.”
After Stephanopoulos continued by asking what Biden thought when he saw the images, Biden responded, “What I thought was, we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did.”
Facts First: Unless Biden was talking about images the public hasn’t seen, his timeline was off. In reality, the images that were publicized around the world were taken less than 72 hours, or three full days, before Biden’s remarks. “Five days ago” is clearly wrong for both of the images Stephanopoulos described. “Four days ago” is wrong about at least one of the images – and wrong about both unless you are counting days quite creatively.
Here’s a rough timeline.
Biden recorded the interview with Stephanopoulos around 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to an ABC official. Videos of people falling from a US plane were tweeted by Afghan journalists early Monday morning ET; while we don’t have the exact time of the tragic incident, Afghanistan’s Aśvaka news agency, which posted one of the first videos at 4:11 a.m. ET on Monday, told CNN in a Twitter message on Wednesday that its tweet went up very shortly after the footage was taken, minutes later rather than hours. So we can be confident the incident occurred less than three days before Biden’s interview, not four days or five days.
Meanwhile, a US military flight crammed with hundreds of fleeing Afghans – of which the publication Defense One published a dramatic photo on Monday – took off from Kabul on Sunday Eastern Time, in the afternoon or early evening. (Defense One said “late Sunday.”) Perhaps someone out there counts late Sunday as “four days ago” in relation to early Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a stretch; the flight took off less than 72 hours before Biden made the claim.
Biden’s position on “nation-building”
Biden said of the US presence in Afghanistan: “We went there for two reasons, George. Two reasons. One, to get bin Laden, and two, to wipe out as best we could, and we did, the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We did it. Then what happened? Began to morph into the notion that, instead of having a counterterrorism capability to have small forces there in – or in the region – to be able to take on al Qaeda if it tried to reconstitute, we decided to engage in nation-building