Fact-Checking Biden’s Latest Statements on the Afghanistan Withdrawal

The president claimed al-Qaeda is ‘gone’ from the country and that no Americans have been unable to get to Hamid Karzai Airport.

On Friday, President Joe Biden delivered a speech on the effort to evacuate Americans and our Afghan allies from Afghanistan. During his speech, Biden made false claims about the presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the safety of Americans attempting to evacuate the country through its capital city of Kabul.

At one point, in response to a question about Biden’s message “to America’s partners around the world who have criticized not the withdrawal, but the conduct of that withdrawal and made them question America’s credibility on the world stage,” Biden responded, in part, by saying that al-Qaeda is “gone.”

More specifically he said: “Look, let’s put this thing in perspective here. 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.”

Biden’s statement is false. Al-Qaeda is not “gone.”

The Dispatch’s Thomas Joscelyn explains that based on “operational claims and other evidence,” he has tracked al-Qaeda affiliated groups “in at least 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces from November 2020 to April 2021.”

Joscelyn also points to a report from the U.N. Security Council from June of this year that explicitly mentions “large numbers of Al-Qaeda fighters.” In more complete terms the report states the following: “A significant part of the leadership of Al-Qaeda (QDe.004) 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.”

In January 2021, as Joscelyn notes, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury: “al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection. Al-Qaeda broadly still depends on donations from likeminded supporters, and from individuals who believe that their money is supporting humanitarian or charitable causes.”

Furthermore, the Washington Post reported that although al-Qaeda’s ability “to launch international terrorist attacks” from Afghanistan and Pakistan is “limited,” al-Qaeda does have fighters in Afghanistan. 

It’s worth noting that following Biden’s speech, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby clarified Biden’s statement, saying, according to CNN, that “[W]e know that al Qaeda is a presence as well as ISIS in Afghanistan and we've talked about that for quite some time.”

Kirby further explained, per CNN, that “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.”

Biden also claimed that no Americans still in Kabul were having difficulty reaching the Hamid Karzai International Airport—the last evacuation point in Afghanistan that has not yet fallen to the Taliban. The Taliban has set up checkpoints leading to the airport, which Biden said Americans were passing through with no problem. 

This is, even by the admission of his administration, false.

The claim arose in response to a question from ABC correspondent Stephanie Ramos, who asked Biden during the post-speech press conference: “The military has secured the airport, as you mentioned, but will you sign off on sending U.S. troops into Kabul to evacuate Americans who haven’t been able to get to the airport safely?”

Biden responded: “We have no indication that they haven’t been able to get—in Kabul—through the airport.  We’ve made an agreement with the—with the Taliban.  Thus far, they’ve allowed them to go through.  It’s in their interest for them to go through.  So, we know of no circumstance where American citizens are—carrying an American passport—are trying to get through to the airport.  But we will do whatever needs to be done to see to it they get to the airport.”

Biden was pressed on his response by Scott Detrow from NPR, who pointed out that Biden’s claim “doesn’t really square with the images we’re seeing around the airport and with the reporting on the ground from our colleagues who are describing chaos and violence.” Detrow asked: “Are you saying unequivocally that any American who wants to get to the airport is getting there and getting past the security barrier and to the planes where they want to go?”

The president doubled down, saying, “To the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints—they are letting through people showing American passports,” and attempting to differentiate between violence and chaos at the hands of the Taliban versus “when they get into the rush and crowd of all the folks just outside the wall, near the airport.”

These comments from Biden were flatly contradicted by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in a House briefing phone call later on Friday, with Austin revealing that the U.S. government is “aware that some people, including Americans, have been harassed and even beaten by the Taliban.” Austin said that “with the exception of those cases, we continue to see Americans and appropriately credentialed Afghans continue to move through,” comments that were echoed by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who said that “by and large” documented Americans were being let through Taliban checkpoints. 

If you have a claim you would like to see us fact check, please send us an email at factcheck@thedispatch.com. If you would like to suggest a correction to this piece or any other Dispatch article, please email corrections@thedispatch.com.