The Pentagon appeared to backtrack on President Biden’s implication that al Qaeda was “gone” from Afghanistan and admitted the terror group still has a “presence” in the region.
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“Let’s put this into perspective here,” Biden said during a press conference Friday defending the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?”
Roughly an hour later, Fox News National Security Correspondent Jennifer Griffin questioned Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby on Biden’s statement.
Griffin asked Kirby for an estimate on how many al Qaeda operatives were currently in Afghanistan, and Kirby was not able to give her a specific number.
“I haven’t seen an estimate on that,” Kirby said. “OK, I don’t know if we have an exact estimate.”
“You don’t have military intelligence estimates about how many al Qaeda remain in Afghanistan?” Griffin pushed back.
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“We know that al Qaeda is a presence as well as ISIS in Afghanistan,” Kirby said. “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, as I think you might understand.”
Griffin then asked Kirby about the comment from the president less than an hour before where he suggested the terror group was “gone.”
“The president just said that there is no al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan,” Griffin told Kirby. “That does not seem to be correct.”
Kirby responded, “What we don’t think is that what 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. The president also said there is no national security interest, no national interest in Afghanistan.”
Griffin told Kirby she was “a little confused by that” and asked for an explanation as to why U.S. troops were in Afghanistan for two decades if there is no “national interest” in Afghanistan.
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Kirby responded by saying that there was an interest 20 years ago but now that al Qaeda has been “defeated” it is safe to withdraw, and the United States will maintain an “overwatch vigilance with respect to the counterterrorism threat emanating out of Afghanistan.”
“But, John, you just said that you don’t have intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan anymore. How are you going to have overwatch?” Griffin said. “And you still have al Qaeda in the country.
“What I said was we don’t have the degree of dexterity, intelligence to be able to give you a headcount, a nose count of exactly how many al Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan,” Kirby said. “Nobody’s walking away from the fact that they aren’t there. And we’re certainly going to maintain as much vigilance as we can absent a presence on the ground.
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Biden said in his speech Friday that the U.S. was ramping up evacuations of citizens and had made “significant progress.” He also cautioned that he couldn’t promise what the final outcome of the dire situation in Kabul would be.
“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or that it will be without risk of loss, but as commander in chief I can assure you I will mobilize every resource necessary,” he said.
Officials said Friday that they have so far evacuated about 13,000 people from the country since the Taliban pressed toward Kabul, sparking chaotic scenes at the capital’s airport as nationals and Americans made desperate bids to board planes out of the besieged country. Biden has been widely criticized for the crisis, yet on Friday he sought to portray the situation as one in which the U.S. had control.
“We’ve established a flow of flights and we’ve increased the number of people we’re moving out of the country,” Biden said.
Jennifer Griffin and Adam Shaw contributed to this report