Nearly two years after the chaotic American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden’s statement that the Taliban is helping the U.S. push out al-Qaida from the war-torn country is reigniting controversy about the presence of terror groups there and the deal that ended the Afghan war.
“Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban," Biden said Friday. "What’s happening now? What’s going on? Read your press. I was right.”
The president made the comments in response to a question about a recent State Department report that highlighted shortcomings of the Trump and Biden administrations as key contributors to the frenzied U.S. military withdrawal in August 2021.
Biden’s remarks sparked immediate controversy. A former Afghan intelligence chief cited them to reiterate long-standing criticisms of the 2020 peace deal between the then-Trump administration and the Taliban that ended the war.
Rahmatullah Nabil served as head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security from 2010 to 2012. In a Saturday tweet, he mocked Biden’s remarks, joking that they made the Taliban look like a U.S. paramilitary partner, similar to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries. He said Biden has “made a groundbreaking revelation by exposing the hidden annexes of the Doha deal, shedding light on the true nature of the Taliban as the Wagner Group of the United States in this region.”
Under the Doha agreement, in return for Washington withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban agreed to prevent the country from becoming a haven for terrorists and to stop attacking U.S. service members.
Biden’s claims that al-Qaida has retreated from Afghanistan also contradict a February United Nations report that concluded terrorist groups including al-Qaida “enjoy greater freedom of movement in Afghanistan owing to the absence of an effective Taliban security strategy,” and are making “good use of this.”
Ending the U.S.’s longest war
Asked to clarify Biden’s comments, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president had to make a tough decision to end the nation’s longest war.
“And he also wanted to — and this is part of what he said at the end, which is he wanted to make sure that we remain vigilant against terrorism,” she said during her press briefing Friday.
“We took a leader of al-Qaida without having any troops – any troops on the ground,” Jean-Pierre added. She was referring to the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri by U.S. drone missiles in downtown Kabul, where according to the administration, he was residing as a guest of the Taliban.
A U.S. official who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence matters said that in referencing the Taliban’s “help,” the president was referring to the Taliban operation in April that killed a leader of ISIS-K, also known as Islamic State Khorasan, an affiliate of the terrorist group in Afghanistan. The National Security Council has claimed that the individual planned the deadly 2021 suicide bombing at the Kabul international airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 160 Afghans.
Biden’s assessment of al-Qaida in Afghanistan highlighted the division between Washington and the United Nations on the presence of terror groups in Afghanistan and the threat they pose to the region.
A U.N. report released earlier this year concluded that the group is expected to remain in Afghanistan for the near future, keeping the country as “the primary source of terrorist threat for Central and South Asia.”
“Ties between Al-Qaida and the Taliban remain close,” said the report by the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, based on member states’ intelligence.
The administration has dismissed the U.N. report since its release, emphasizing that al-Qaida in Afghanistan is not a threat to the homeland as Washington has relied on “over-the-horizon” capability since the withdrawal. The term is a euphemism for drone strikes and other actions by special operations forces.
The U.S. official said that the administration assesses the terrorist group “does not have a capability to launch attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad from Afghanistan.”
“We have no indication that al-Qaida in Afghanistan individuals are involved in external attack plotting,” the official said. “Of course, we will continue to monitor closely.”
The Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, welcomed Biden’s remarks as “an acknowledgment of reality” that no terrorist entities operated in Afghanistan under the group’s rule.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the South Asia Program at the Wilson Center, is skeptical of such claims.
The Taliban have gone after their bitter rival, ISIS-K, but have done little to curb the presence of al-Qaida and most other terror groups in Afghanistan, he told VOA.
“The Taliban isn't known to turn on its militant allies, so I have no reason to think it's trying to remove al-Qaida-or what's left of it from Afghan soil,” Kugelman said.
Republicans including former Vice President Mike Pence, who has announced he is running for president in 2024, have piled criticism on Biden following the State Department report.
“The blame for what happened here falls squarely on the current commander-in-chief,” said Pence during a television interview with the CBS television network Sunday. He said the “disastrous withdrawal” would never have happened under the Trump administration.
The report, however, laid the blame on both Biden and his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump. It highlighted how poor planning by officials in both administrations contributed to the chaotic and deadly withdrawal.
The report concluded that decisions by both Biden and Trump on ending the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan had “serious consequences for the viability of the Afghan government and its security.”
“Those decisions are beyond the scope of this review, but the AAR (After Action Review) team found that during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow,” it said.
The report also noted that the State Department, "confronted a task of unprecedented scale and complexity," in implementing an evacuation with a scope and scale that was "highly unusual, with no comparable situation since the U.S. departure from Vietnam in 1975."
Following the rapid takeover of the Afghan capital, Kabul, by the Taliban, the United States evacuated about 125,000 people - including nearly 6,000 U.S. citizens from the city's Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The administration said it has helped resettle 88,500 Afghan allies since the withdrawal. Advocates say tens of thousands are still left behind.
VOA's Sayed Aziz Rahman and Jeff Seldin contributed to this article.