Since the Taliban seized control of the Afghanistan capital Kabul on Aug. 15, President Joe Biden has delivered speeches and given interviews to defend his administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal that preceded the swift fall of the Afghan government.
Here we look at some of the president’s remarks and how they square with the facts — as we know them at this point.
Al Qaeda Not ‘Gone’ From Afghanistan
In an Aug. 20 press conference, Biden questioned why the U.S. needed to be in Afghanistan. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” he asked.
But al Qaeda is not “gone” from Afghanistan. The president has gotten it right on other occasions, including in his remarks to the nation on Aug. 16, when he has said the terrorist group has been “degraded.”
As we wrote earlier this week, the lead inspector general for the Defense Department wrote in a quarterly report to Congress that covered activity in Afghanistan from April 1, 2020, to June 30, 2020, that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been conducting “joint attacks” in Afghanistan in apparent violation of the February 2020 withdrawal agreement with the United States.
The report noted that in the pact the Taliban “agreed to participate in negotiations with the Afghan government and ‘not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including [al-Qaeda], to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.'”
“The Taliban did not appear to uphold its commitment to distance itself from terrorist organizations in Afghanistan,” the report said. “UN and U.S. officials reported that the Taliban continued to support al-Qaeda, and conducted joint attacks with al-Qaeda members against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”
The report went on to say, “General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), said in June  that the conditions for a full withdrawal, including a significant reduction in violence and a guarantee not to harbor al-Qaeda, had not yet been met.”
In a quarterly report released Feb. 17, the IG’s office said “it was unclear whether the Taliban was in compliance with the agreement, as members of al-Qaeda were integrated into the Taliban’s leadership and command structure.”
McKenzie, in a June interview with the Military Times, said that “left unmolested [al-Qaeda] are certainly going to rebuild, restrengthen themselves, and we have no reason to doubt they…want to attack us in our homeland.”
At a Senate hearing on June 17, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley to “rate the likelihood of international terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS regenerating inside of Afghanistan” and posing a threat to the U.S. and its allies — using a scale of small, medium or large.
“I would assess it as medium,” Austin said. “I would also say, senator, that it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability.”
Milley said the risk would be even higher if the Afghanistan government collapsed.
“If there was a collapse of the government or disillusion of the Afghan security force, that risk would obviously increase,” he said. “But, right now, I’d say medium and in about two years or so.”
In a report released that same month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Services said, “Al Qaeda (AQ) is still assessed to have a presence in Afghanistan and its decades-long ties with the Taliban appear to have remained strong in recent years.”
In May, U.N. sanctions monitors reported that al Qaeda “is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions,” but “has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s” agreement with the United States. There are 34 Afghan provinces.
Afghan ‘Troops’ Not 300,000 Strong
On more than one occasion — including in his Aug. 18 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News and his address to the nation on Aug. 16 — the president has overstated the size of the Afghan military.
Biden, Aug. 18: The idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that the — that somehow, the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was gonna just collapse, they were gonna give up. I don’t think anybody anticipated that.
About a third of the “300,000 troops” includes members of the Afghan National Police, which is responsible for civil policing, including such tasks as enforcing curfews, according to Defense Department documents.
In a December report to Congress, the Defense Department said the authorized Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, or ANDSF, “funded by the international community remains 352,000” Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior personnel. Of that authorized number, “approximately 298,000 ANDSF personnel were eligible for pay.”
In a May budget document, the Defense Department also said “approximately 300,000 Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of Interior (MoI) personnel are currently enrolled and eligible for pay during the current fiscal year.”
So that’s where Biden gets his 300,000 figure.
But the Ministry of Interior is primarily composed of police officers and includes border patrol agents. (See flow chart on page 54 of the report to Congress.)
The U.S. Department of Defense in a February 2020 report on its fiscal year 2021 request estimated total authorized personnel levels for MoD and MoI at 347,294, including 114,320 for the Afghan National Police, or ANP, which is “responsible for providing civil policing.” (Again, those are authorized figures, not actual personnel enrolled and eligible for pay.)
The ANP “focused efforts on enforcement of curfews and movement restrictions, safeguarding food distribution, monitoring personnel, and securing transportation at the country’s borders for Afghans fleeing the pandemic from other neighboring countries” in the quarter that ended June 30, 2020, according to a report by the Defense Department’s lead inspector general.
“Although ANP work with and alongside the ANA to fight the insurgency, the ANP are underequipped to fight against an insurgency as formidable as the Taliban,” the December report to Congress said.
The Afghan military itself was ill-suited to fight the Taliban, as it turned out.
In a report on the swift collapse of the Afghan forces, Anthony H. Cordesman, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes, “The actual combat ready core of Afghan Army forces was very small, grossly overburdened with combat assignments, and forced to fight at unsustainable levels.”
Biden on Nation Building in Afghanistan
Even though Biden seemingly spoke in favor of so-called “nation building” in Afghanistan during the early years of the war, in the ABC News interview, he claimed that the concept “never made any sense” to him.
“We went there for two reasons, George. Two reasons,” Biden said. “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. In nation building. That never made any sense to me.”
But even though his position on the subject apparently changed years ago, Biden’s own comments in the early 2000s show that nation building — which to some generally means establishing order in a country postwar or another kind of upheaval — was something he initially thought might be necessary as an alternative to chaos.
His most declarative statement may have come in an October 2001 CBS News interview with Bryant Gumbel. When asked if the U.S. should “be in the business of nation building” in Afghanistan “if and when the Taliban falls,” Biden’s response was, “Absolutely, along with the rest of the world,” according to a transcript of the interview in the Nexis news database.
More than a year later, in remarks at a February 2003 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden spoke of a previous trip to Kabul, where he said he was repeatedly asked if the U.S. would help rebuild Afghanistan or declare victory and go home.
“The people of Afghanistan have long memories: After helping drive the Soviets out of the country in 1989, the United States quickly lost interest in the war’s untidy aftermath,” Biden said. “Nation building was slow, frustrating, and, above all, expensive. So, as my hosts in Kabul reminded me, we quickly left the Afghans to fend for themselves.”
“In some parts of this [George W. Bush] administration,” Biden continued, “‘nation building’ is a dirty phrase. But the alternative to nation building is chaos — a chaos that churns out bloodthirsty warlords, drug-traffickers, and terrorists. We’ve seen it happen in Afghanistan before — and we’re watching it happen in Afghanistan today.”
Only weeks after that, in another Senate hearing on a post-conflict Afghanistan, he retold that story and similarly said he was fearful of chaos in the absence of nation building.
Biden Denies Advisors Warned Against Withdrawal
In his interview on ABC News, Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether his decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan went against the advice of his top military advisors. Biden said it did not.
Stephanopoulos, Aug, 18: But your top military advisors warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.
Biden: No, they didn’t. It was split. Tha– that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.
Stephanopoulos: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?
Biden: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that.
Stephanopoulos: So no one told — your military advisors did not tell you, “No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that”?
Biden: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.
We don’t know what exactly Biden’s top military advisors may have told him in private conversations, or whether their recommendations may have changed over time. But Biden’s recollection is contradicted by reporting from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
According to an Aug. 14 story in the New York Times, “After Mr. Biden took office, top Defense Department officials began a lobbying campaign to keep a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for a few more years. They told the president that the Taliban had grown stronger under Mr. Trump than at any point in the past two decades and pointed to intelligence estimates predicting that in two or three years, Al Qaeda could find a new foothold in Afghanistan.”
“Shortly after Lloyd J. Austin III was sworn in as defense secretary on Jan. 22, he and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to Mr. Biden that 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan, nearly double the 2,500 troops there,” the Times story states.
Citing anonymous “officials,” the Washington Post also reported that, “In weeks of intensive deliberations in Washington, Austin and Gen. Mark. A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, privately advised Biden against a full withdrawal.”
The Wall Street Journal echoed that reporting in an Aug. 17 story.
“The president’s top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, urged Mr. Biden to keep a force of about 2,500 troops, the size he inherited, while seeking a peace agreement between warring Afghan factions, to help maintain stability,” the Journal reported. “Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who previously served as a military commander in the region, said a full withdrawal wouldn’t provide any insurance against instability.”
A publicly released Feb. 3 report from the Afghanistan Study Group, which was created by Congress in December 2019 and charged with making policy recommendations for a peaceful transition in Afghanistan, also recommended against troop withdrawal unless the Taliban met conditions set in a withdrawal agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban in February 2020.
Afghanistan Study Group Final Report, Feb. 3: The Study Group believes that further U.S. troop withdrawals should be conditioned on the Taliban’s demonstrated willingness and capacity to contain terrorist groups, on a reduction in the Taliban’s violence against the Afghan people, and on real progress toward a compromise political settlement.
As the report notes — and as we highlighted recently in our “Timeline of U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan” — the Taliban never met those conditions and continued to attack Afghan government forces and welcomed al Qaeda terrorists into the Taliban leadership.
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