Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. From 1991 to 1997, Roggio served as a signalman and infantryman in the US Army and New Jersey National Guard
One year ago this month, President Biden told Americans that Al Qaeda was ‘gone’ from Afghanistan.
On Monday, we learned that clearly was not the case.
‘We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did,’ he told reporters on August 20, 2021, as American and allied forces hastily prepared to pull out of the country.
President Biden had set August 31st as the last day for US troops to leave Afghanistan after 20 years of war and the deadline had caught the world by surprise.
‘Look, let’s put this thing in perspective,’ he insisted amid calls to delay the evacuation, ‘What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al Qaeda gone?’
Days after those remarks, on August 26, 2021, a suicide bomb ripped through a crowd of soldiers and civilians at Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul.
By that point, the Afghan military had melted away and the Taliban had overrun the country.
Desperate people – American and Afghan – crowded outside the airport gates, as US Marines stood guard on its concrete walls.
The world watched as Afghans stormed the runaways. Some clung to the landing gear of departing planes and fell to their deaths after the aircraft left the ground.
One year ago this month, President Biden (left) told Americans that Al Qaeda was ‘gone’ from Afghanistan. On Monday, the White House revealed a CIA drone strike killed Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri (right) in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The suicide bomber’s blast killed nearly 200 people, including 13 members of the United States military.
And still, Biden declared ‘extraordinary success,’ even as he recognized the loss of life.
According to Biden, after two decades of war, America’s mission had been accomplished.
It would have been more difficult to sell that narrative to American people if Al Qaeda’s close ties to the new Taliban ‘government’ had been fully acknowledged.
But officials from the Biden administration, as well as the Trump administration, had assured us that the Taliban had cut ties with bin Laden’s fanatics.
On Monday, the White House revealed a CIA drone strike killed Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Zawahiri wasn’t found cowering in the remote, mountainous regions of northern or eastern Afghanistan, or camped out in the far-flung provinces of the south.
The 71-year-old was killed on the balcony of a house owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, arguably the most powerful and influential Taliban official.
Haqqani is one of two deputy Taliban emirs and the Taliban’s interior minister.
His Haqqani Network played a key role in the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
To put it simply, the top tier leadership of the Taliban sponsored the top leader of Al Qaeda at a safe house in the heart of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
Far from being ‘gone’ from Afghanistan – Al Qaeda’s Number One was being sheltered by the very government to whom Biden ceded control of the country.
The 71-year-old was killed on the balcony (above) of a house owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, arguably the most powerful and influential Taliban official.
Stunningly, Biden – once again – declared mission accomplished.
‘Justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more,’ he announced from the White House balcony on Monday night. ‘People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.’
If there wasn’t champagne popping, there was undoubtedly plenty of congratulatory backslapping in the White House.
But peel back the layers and you cannot overlook the irrefutable fact that Al Qaeda – the terrorist group that carried out September 11th – is once again entrenched in the country from which it attacked America.
Biden had assured America that Afghanistan wouldn’t again become a safe haven for terrorists.
But it has.
In fact, three successive American administrations have told the American people that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been ‘decimated,’ or ‘degraded’ or ‘on the path to defeat.’
The Obama administration first sold that story to justify its secret negotiations with the Taliban.
The Trump administration did so for the same reason and eventually signed a deeply flawed deal that negotiated the pullout of US troops and helped seal that nation’s fate.
Eventually, the narrative was put forth to justify the Afghanistan withdrawal.
The Taliban repeatedly said that it wouldn’t harbor Al Qaeda and they gave each administration the political ammunition they needed to justify washing their hands of the whole mess.
The Taliban lied.
The truth is that Al Qaeda has been operating in Afghanistan all along.
While each administration negotiated with the Taliban, top Al Qaeda leaders were sheltered.
As the US military killed terrorists in operations over the years, Al Qaeda was brazen enough to run training camps with the support and approval of the Taliban.
Officials from the Biden administration, as well as the Trump administration, had assured us that the Taliban had cut ties with bin Laden’s fanatics. (Above) Osama bin Laden sits with adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview in November 2001.
You wouldn’t know any of this if you listened to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on Tuesday.
He swept aside legitimate concerns about how the US withdrawal emboldened Al Qaeda, which is now operating freely in the country.
Kirby insisted that Al Qaeda leaders will now ‘think again’ about hiding out in Kabul.
I doubt it.
Even now, Zawahiri’s death does not signal the death of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
He wasn’t the only Al Qaeda leader in Kabul and he wouldn’t have been hiding out in the capital city alone without his staff and support network.
History shows that, like the Taliban, Al Qaeda is a well-oiled machine that can continue to hum along despite the head being cut off the snake.
Many questions remain to be answered.
Author Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of FDD’s Long war Journal
Does the US have the capability – and more importantly, the will – to execute a sustained campaign against Al Qaeda’s command?
Will President Biden order strikes against Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan?
Will he countenance the targeting of more Al Qaeda associates in Kabul and beyond?
Doing so would force US officials to admit they were wrong about the tight bonds between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
It is impossible to properly address the threat that emanates from Afghanistan until U.S. political, intelligence and military leaders admit these mistakes of the past.
They must recognize that the Taliban – the very group the US relented to – is just as big a part of the problem as Al Qaeda.
As we approach another September 11th – in many ways – America finds itself back where it started 21 years ago.
So let me ask you President Biden: What interest do you have in Afghanistan now?