Spokesman contradicts president who hours earlier said al-Qaeda is ‘gone’.
CHICAGO, United States (AA) – The Pentagon broke Friday with US President Joe Biden’s assessment that al-Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan after 20 years of US-led operations.
“What we believe is that there isn’t a presence to merit a threat to our homeland as there was 20 years ago,” spokesman John Kirby told reporters, referring to the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “We know that al-Qaeda is a presence, as well as ISIS in Afghanistan. We do not believe it is exorbitantly high, but we don’t have an exact figure for you. It’s not like they carry identification cards and register somewhere. We don’t have a perfect picture.”
“And our intelligence gathering ability in Afghanistan isn’t what it used to be because we aren’t there in the same numbers we used to be,” he added.
Biden, just hours earlier, told reporters at the White House that al-Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan, questioning US national security interest for those who maintain Washington should remain in the war-torn country.
Kirby said there was a national interest in 2001.
“The goal was to defeat al-Qaeda and we did that and a whole heck of a lot more (but) the president decided it was time to end this conflict,” he said.
Operations at the Kabul airport were paused for about six hours Friday while the US tried to secure more destinations for evacuated refugees. Those destinations now include Germany and Qatar.
With more than 6,000 US troops on the ground around the airport, Kirby said no decision has been made on whether to expand the operation to help get more Americans and Afghan allies safely to the airport.
“An expansion does incur extra risk and you have to balance risk versus gain in every military operation,” added Kirby.
He said while there have been reports that some Americans are not getting access to the airport, he said the Taliban, which is controlling access to the airport, have been letting most Americans through.
“We’re seeing that things we are asking for (from the Taliban) are getting done and getting better,” he said.
There have been chaotic scenes at the airport after the Taliban rolled into Kabul untouched last weekend and thousands of people rushed to Hamid Karzai International Airport, fleeing their advance.
Kirby insisted things are becoming more orderly, and he addressed a video showing an Afghan woman tossing her baby over a fence at the airport to a US serviceman.
He said the child was ill and was treated at the airport before being returned to the father.