One of the stated goals for the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was to combat al-Qaida, the terrorist group responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11. The group had utilized Afghanistan, under the control of the Taliban, as a safe haven.
In an Aug. 20 speech, President Joe Biden said al-Qaida was no longer in Afghanistan, which has again fallen under the control of the Taliban as the U.S. works to remove its troops and allies from the country.
“Look, let’s put this thing in perspective here,” Biden said. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaida gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as well as — as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did."
Is al-Qaida gone from Afghanistan?
No, al-Qaida is not gone from Afghanistan. While it’s not clear how many al-Qaida members are in Afghanistan, U.S. and international intelligence agree the group maintains a presence in the country.
WHAT WE FOUND
Following President Biden’s speech on Aug. 20, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby held a press conference. Kirby said al-Qaida, as well as ISIS, has a presence in Afghanistan.
“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,” Kirby said.
Kirby said he didn’t know how many al-Qaida members are in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) released a report in April 2021 focused on security in Afghanistan from June 1 to Nov. 30, 2020. In the report, the DOD said, “The few remaining AQ [al-Qaida] members in Afghanistan focus largely on survival.”
In a June 2021 report, the United Nations said al-Qaida had a presence in at least 15 Afghan provinces. The number of al-Qaida members in Afghanistan and across South Asia was estimated to range from several dozen to 500 people, according to the report.
The UN report also said al-Qaida still has a relationship with the Taliban.
“According to Member States, Al-Qaida maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Doha agreement,” the report says, referring to the 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the U.S.
As part of that deal, in which the U.S. said it would remove troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban agreed to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
The UN report says the agreement set expectations for a break between the Taliban and al-Qaida but that the two groups remain closely aligned “and show no indication of breaking ties.”
A U.S. inspector general report to Congress evaluated the happenings in Afghanistan from April 1 to June 30, 2021. It shared a similar description of the link between al-Qaida and the Taliban.
“The Taliban publicly claims that it is abiding by its commitments under the U.S.-Taliban agreement to prevent any group, including al-Qaida, from using Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies,” the report says. “However, the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] stated that the Taliban is ‘very likely’ requesting that al-Qaida restrict its activities and downplaying the longstanding relationship between the groups as a means of ensuring the complete withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops.”
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