President Joe Biden, on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but acknowledged that the terrorist group al-Qaeda may attempt to reconstruct itself in the country following the Taliban takeover.
The president, who marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by visiting all three sites where the hijacked planes crashed, told reporters he believes the terrorist group could “come back.”
“Could al-Qaeda come back? Yeah,” Biden told reporters in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where one plane went down after crew and passengers fought with hijackers. “But guess what? It’s already back [in] other places. What’s the strategy? Every place where al-Qaeda is, we’re going to invade and have troops stay in? Come on.”
The Biden administration’s evacuation efforts came to a halt on Aug. 30, with the final U.S. flight of evacuees leaving Kabul’s international airport hours before the president’s Aug. 31 deadline. The withdrawal concluded two decades of U.S. involvement in the country following the deadly terror attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people and wounded thousands more.
Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate within Afghanistan before the United States invaded and overthrew the Taliban in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Over the past two decades, al-Qaeda has been vastly diminished, as its former leader Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, but with the Taliban takeover, questions remain about whether the group could return to prominence.
“Let’s put this thing in perspective here. What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaeda gone?” Biden continued. “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. … We went and did the mission. You’ve known my position for a long, long time. It’s time to end this war.”
The president’s comments come after Defense Department press secretary John Kirby told media on Aug. 20 that while the terrorist group has maintained its presence in the country, it wasn’t clear how many fighters remained.
“We know that al-Qaeda is a presence, as well as ISIS, in Afghanistan, and we’ve talked about that for quite some time. We do not believe it is exorbitantly high, but we don’t have an exact figure for you,” Kirby said.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Thursday that the international community is “watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaeda has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan.”
“The nature of al-Qaeda and ISIS-K is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate, whether it’s there, whether it’s in Somalia, or whether it’s in any other ungoverned space,” Austin added. “I think that’s the nature of the organization.”
Austin said that the United States has issued a warning to the Taliban not to harbor al-Qaeda or any other terror group. The group was put “on notice that we expect them not to allow that to happen,” he remarked.
Jack Phillips contributed to this report.