Defending the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said at the White House on Friday: “Look, let’s put this thing in perspective. What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al Qaeda gone? 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.”
Facts First: Biden’s claim that al Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan is false – as his own administration acknowledged soon afterward. Following Biden’s remarks, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters, “We know that al Qaeda is a presence, as well as ISIS, in Afghanistan, and we’ve talked about that for quite some time.”
Biden has correctly said in previous prepared remarks, including a speech on Monday, that al Qaeda has been “degraded” in Afghanistan; the terror group is widely viewed as having been substantially weakened by the 20-year US-led war. But Biden clearly went too far on Friday when he said – while offering impromptu answers to reporters’ questions – that the group does not exist in Afghanistan at all.
Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit that studies global security issues, said Biden’s comment was so “patently false” that he wondered if it was an accidental slip of the tongue. Clarke said there is no actual debate about whether al Qaeda is still in Afghanistan, though there is debate about how many members are there.
The United Nations reported in June that according to information from UN member states, al Qaeda “is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions.” The report estimated al Qaeda’s membership, including members of a regional affiliate group, as between “several dozen to 500 persons.”
While that sentence in the report didn’t explicitly say whether all of these people were believed to be living in Afghanistan, the 2020 version of the UN report estimated that there were “between 400 and 600 armed operatives” for al Qaeda in Afghanistan in particular.
Kirby said Friday after Biden’s remarks: “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.” He said he did not have an estimate for the number of al Qaeda fighters but the administration doesn’t believe it is “exorbitantly high.”
Asked about Biden’s claim, a White House official who commented on condition of anonymity said in an email: “As the President reiterated today, we have achieved our objectives in going to Afghanistan in the first place 20 years ago by bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice and decimating al Qaeda to the point where it longer presented a threat to the homeland.”
What the US and UN have said
As part of the Trump administration’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban, the group committed to breaking ties with al Qaeda. But the Taliban did not follow through.
“The Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties. Member States report no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties,” said the UN report released in June.
The report also said that “Al-Qaida’s own strategy in the near term is assessed as maintaining its traditional safe haven in Afghanistan for the Al-Qaida core leadership.” And the report said that an al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, “is reported to be such an ‘organic’ or essential part of the insurgency that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate it from its Taliban allies.”
In October 2020, Afghan intelligence reported that its security forces had killed an alleged al Qaeda leader who had been on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. The next month, Afghan officials reported killing another reputed senior al Qaeda figure in the country.
A US inspector general report to Congress, publicly released this week, said that for the period starting in April 2021 and concluding at the end of June, the Defense Intelligence Agency found that “as in previous quarters, al-Qaeda provided nominal military training and support to the Taliban without directly claiming credit for attacks, and the Taliban continued to provide safe haven for al-Qaeda fighters despite publicly denying the terrorist group’s presence in Afghanistan.”
In April, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that al Qaeda’s Indian Subcontinent affiliate had “fewer than 200 members throughout South Asia with the majority located in Afghanistan” and that it played only a “marginal” role in the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
The threat level
Berrier told Congress that “there was little discernible activity” out of the affiliate by the end of 2020 and “throughout 2021,” the group “very likely will be unable to conduct terrorist attacks. Instead, the group will bolster its relationship with the Taliban.”
Clarke, of the Soufan Center, said the threat to the US from al Qaeda in Afghanistan “is probably minimal right now compared to where it has been.” But he argued that the threat level “will definitely increase over time,” especially because the US will have far less intelligence capacity in the country following its withdrawal.
In June, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified to Congress that “it would take possibly two years” for terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to regenerate in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the US homeland or US allies. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the “risk would obviously increase” if the Afghan government collapsed or the Afghan security forces dissolved.
Both of those things have now happened. Kirby told reporters Monday that Austin believes that “in light of recent events,” a “reassessment of the possibilities for reconstitution of terrorist networks inside Afghanistan is warranted.”