Joe Biden rarely addresses the public, but has been forced to make several revealing statements since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. Yet even when Biden is given a script, he sounds either dishonest or delusional.
Last Friday, Biden stated, as scripted, “we’re going to retain a laser focus on our counterterrorism mission.” He promised that his administration is working with NATO so “that Afghanistan cannot be used in the future as a terrorist base of attack.” This is an allusion to al-Qaeda, which means “the base” in Arabic, and was the primary target of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Biden and his speechwriters are either deceptive or ignorant. The United Nations warned two months ago that “al-Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces.”
Secondarily, framing the issue as NATO’s problem is at best inaccurate, at worst insulting. NATO allies recoiled at Biden’s lack of consultation before unilateral U.S. withdrawal. Some governments, notably Britain, publicly opposed Biden’s schedule months ago. Since the debacle in Kabul, the British government has repudiated his policy—both in Parliament and by official channels.
In trying to justify the premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden answered a journalist’s question with a question: “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaeda gone?” One hour later, the Pentagon’s spokesman, apparently unaware of what Biden had said, denied the claim that al-Qaeda has “gone.”
Given this contradiction, a U.S. congressman characterized Biden as a liar. This is separate to accusations that Biden lied about lack of warnings of Afghanistan’s imminent collapse, and lied about the Taliban “cooperating” with free passage to Kabul airport—not to mention his claim that he received nothing but praise from foreign Allies.
Biden on Friday tried to allay the fears of resurgent terrorism, in a characteristically head-scratching way. In answer to a journalist, Biden replied, “There’s a greater danger from ISIS and al-Qaeda and all these affiliates in other countries by far than there is from Afghanistan.” This is like saying: “Don’t worry about the cancer in your pancreas, given the cancer in your spleen.” The cancer metaphor is apt, given that Biden keeps saying that terrorism has “metastasized” into other countries.
Biden’s answer to the journalist is perverse in two ways. First, he’s claiming that one threat justifies ignoring another. In reality, we must deal with both threats.
Second, he’s claiming that the threats are independent. In reality, jihadism is transnational. Al-Qaeda will be strengthened everywhere, given a base in Afghanistan—just as it was in the 1990s, when the Taliban gave sanctuary and support to al-Qaeda.
The “new” Taliban promised the Biden Administration to forego terrorism, but the Taliban never gave up terrorism during its various ceasefires in 2020 and 2021.
The “new” Taliban claims to repudiate al-Qaeda, but the Taliban is not at war with al-Qaeda, even though it is at war with ISIS. At the very least, the Taliban tolerates al-Qaeda. How else to explain al-Qaeda’s presence in at least 15 Afghan provinces? The Taliban has driven government forces from these provinces, but not al-Qaeda.
In his most bizarre but revealing statement about Al-Qaeda and ISIS, Biden said the following, initially reading from the script, before embellishing: “We’re also keeping a close watch on any potential terrorist threat at or around the airport, including from the ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan who were released from prison when the prisons were empty, and because they are, by the way, and make everybody understand that, the ISIS in Afghanistan have been the sworn enemy of Taliban.”
Let’s take a minute to identify three bizarre contradictions in one sentence. First: ISIS is a threat in Afghanistan, but only because its members were recently released from Afghan prisons. Second: ISIS and the Taliban are enemies, but the Taliban allowed ISIS to escape the prisons and make their way to Kabul airport. Third: the Taliban and ISIS are enemies, yet ISIS threatens the airport in a city that the Taliban controls.
Phew! Is your head spinning yet? The Biden Administration’s motivation for such bizarre contradictions is not explicit, but let me attempt an explanation. The administration presumably wants to avoid talking about al-Qaeda lest the public associate the resurgence of al-Qaeda with the administration’s clumsy withdrawal from Afghanistan. In other words, the administration wants to spin the withdrawal as “mission accomplished.”
While the administration wants to avoid talking about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it is happy to talk about ISIS in Afghanistan, because ISIS wasn’t around when the U.S. initially intervened in Afghanistan.
In misrepresenting terrorism, Biden has form. As so often in such cases, past form helps to explain current failures. Since 2020, he has claimed that right-wing extremism or white supremacism (interchangeably) is the greatest terrorist risk. He has offered no evidence for this claim, apart from false references to the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, or pervasive assumptions of systemic racism. Fellow partisans in the academic-think tank-mainstream media-industrial complex rushed to provide data. Under the category “right-wing,” however, they conflate nonpolitical terrorism (most terrorism)—even where the sub-categories are contradictory (such as anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic terrorism).
An administration that exaggerates one terrorist threat for partisan purposes inevitably enables another terrorist threat to reemerge. And an administration that exaggerates one can hardly be relied upon to handle the other.