President Joe Biden sat down with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday for an interview that focused on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden made some inaccurate claims in the interview – which was released in part on Wednesday and in full on Thursday – plus some other claims that, at least, could have used some more context.
US troops in Syria
Stephanopoulos asked about a possible al Qaeda terror threat to the US as a result of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden said, “Al Qaeda, ISIS, they metastasize.” He then argued that the US faces a “significantly greater” terror threat from Syria and East Africa than it does from Afghanistan.
Biden continued with regard to Afghanistan: “And we have maintained the ability to have an over-the-horizon capability to take them out. We’re – we don’t have military in Syria to make sure that we’re going to be protected…”
Facts First: Depending on Biden’s meaning, his remark about Syria is either plainly incorrect or, at least, missing important context. There are roughly 900 US troops in Syria, focused on supporting Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State terror group also known as ISIS.
An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told CNN on Thursday that Biden “was speaking about the al Qaeda presence in northwest Syria, which remains a threat to the United States and is being addressed without American troops on the ground. There are a small number of US and coalition forces on the ground in eastern Syria in areas that had been the ISIS caliphate.”
Regardless of Biden’s intentions, he did not make clear to ABC viewers that he was talking about a specific part of Syria rather than Syria as a whole, or that he was talking about al Qaeda in particular rather than ISIS as well.
When the dramatic plane images were taken
When Stephanopoulos began to ask Biden about dramatic images the public has seen this week – of hundreds of Afghans packed into a US military plane and of Afghans falling off the outside of a US military plane as it was in the air – Biden, who was trying to emphasize that the situation had since improved, interjected, “That was four days ago, five days ago.”
After Stephanopoulos continued by asking what Biden thought when he saw the images, Biden responded, “What I thought was, we have to gain control of this. We have to move this more quickly. We have to move in a way in which we can take control of that airport. And we did.”
Facts First: Unless Biden was talking about images the public hasn’t seen, his timeline was off. In reality, the images that were publicized around the world were taken less than 72 hours, or three full days, before Biden’s remarks. “Five days ago” is clearly wrong for both of the images Stephanopoulos described. “Four days ago” is wrong about at least one of the images – and wrong about both unless you are counting days quite creatively.
Here’s a rough timeline.
Biden recorded the interview with Stephanopoulos around 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, according to an ABC official. Videos of people falling from a US plane were tweeted by Afghan journalists early Monday morning ET; while we don’t have the exact time of the tragic incident, Afghanistan’s Aśvaka news agency, which posted one of the first videos at 4:11 a.m. ET on Monday, told CNN in a Twitter message on Wednesday that its tweet went up very shortly after the footage was taken, minutes later rather than hours. So we can be confident the incident occurred less than three days before Biden’s interview, not four days or five days.
Meanwhile, a US military flight crammed with hundreds of fleeing Afghans – of which the publication Defense One published a dramatic photo on Monday – took off from Kabul on Sunday Eastern Time, in the afternoon or early evening. (Defense One said “late Sunday.”) Perhaps someone out there counts late Sunday as “four days ago” in relation to early Wednesday afternoon, but that’s a stretch; the flight took off less than 72 hours before Biden made the claim.
Biden’s position on “nation-building”
Biden said of the US presence in Afghanistan: “We went there for two reasons, George. Two reasons. One, to get bin Laden, and two, to wipe out as best we could, and we did, the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We did it. Then what happened? Began to morph into the notion that, instead of having a counterterrorism capability to have small forces there in – or in the region – to be able to take on al Qaeda if it tried to reconstitute, we decided to engage in nation-building. In nation-building. That never made any sense to me.”
Facts First: It’s inaccurate for Biden to claim that nation-building “never” made sense to him – given that he explicitly and repeatedly advocated nation-building in the early years of the war in Afghanistan. Until at least 2004, Biden called for nation-building both in Afghanistan and in the world more broadly.
We’re not criticizing Biden for holding a different view today as president than he did more than 15 years ago as a US senator for Delaware; he’s entitled to change his mind over time, and his shift on Afghanistan occurred even before he became vice president in 2009. But given his public remarks in the early 2000s, it’s incorrect for him to suggest he “never” supported nation-building in Afghanistan.
In October 2001, after the Bush administration began bombing Afghanistan, Biden was asked on CBS: “Should we be in the business of nation-building?” He responded, “Absolutely, along with the rest of the world.”
Different people define “nation-building” differently. Very generally, the term tends to be used by Washington lawmakers to describe efforts to help build countries like Afghanistan and Iraq into functional states with effective state institutions, as opposed to narrower military-focused efforts to simply target terrorists and fight battles.
In a February 2003 statement at a meeting of the Senate foreign relations committee, Biden said that, while visiting Kabul the year prior, he was repeatedly asked, “Will America help to rebuild Afghanistan, or will we just declare victory and go home?” He said these Afghans were worried about the “long-term commitment” of the US to Afghanistan given that the US had “lost interest” in the country after helping to drive out the Soviet Union in 1989.
“Nation-building was slow, frustrating, and, above all, expensive. So, as my hosts in Kabul reminded me, we quickly left the Afghans to fend for themselves,” he said. “In some parts of this [Bush] administration, ‘nation-building’ is a dirty phrase. But the alternative to nation-building is chaos – a chaos that churns out bloodthirsty warlords, drug traffickers, and terrorists. We’ve seen it happen in Afghanistan before, and we’re watching it happen in Afghanistan today.”
At another committee meeting later that month, Biden repeated his warming that “the alternative to nation-building is chaos.”
Then, according to a report on the website of Princeton University, Biden issued a general endorsement of nation-building in a February 2004 speech at the school: “We also need a new attitude, an attitude that suggests that projecting power should not occur in an elective war absent a commitment to staying power. Don’t project the power unless you’re prepared to have staying power. Nation-building – that ‘four-letter word’ in this administration up to now – is an absolute prerequisite for the 21st century.”
And in a September 2004 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Biden wrote, “We also have to take seriously nation-building. This administration came to office disdaining the concept, only to be confronted with the two biggest nation-building challenges since World War II. Thus far, it merits a failing grade in both Afghanistan and Iraq.” Biden wrote that a Democratic administration “would empower experts to plan post-conflict reconstruction ahead of time, not on the fly.”
The number of Afghan troops
Biden said he didn’t think anybody anticipated “that somehow the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was going to just collapse, they were going to give up.”
Facts First: Biden didn’t invent this “300,000” figure; it has been used for years by the US military, think tanks and various media outlets. But independent experts say that, in reality, the Afghan military had far fewer than 300,000 troops before its collapse.
A bit later in the interview with ABC, Biden amended the figure to “up to 300,000,” which is at least somewhat more accurate. However, there is good reason to doubt the 300,000 figure even as an upper-bound estimate.
First of all, the 300,000 figure includes more than 118,000 listed employees of the Afghan police. Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank and a former federal official, said it is “fundamentally dishonest” to “count police as troops,” since, he said, they were not sufficiently trained or equipped to fight Taliban forces.
In addition, the US government’s watchdog for the Afghanistan war repeatedly warned that there were multiple reasons to doubt official figures about the Afghan security forces.
The figures were consistently marred by the problem of so-called “ghost” fighters: no-show soldiers and police officers who were listed on the employee rolls only so corrupt people could collect their salaries. Also, the forces were plagued by extraordinarily high turnover, about a quarter of the entire employee roster in a given year.
Jonathan Schroden, who has studied the Afghan forces as director of the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA, a federally funded research and analysis organization in Virginia, estimated to CNN this week that the true number for the pre-collapse Afghan military was “likely” in the range of 150,000 to 200,000 people.
That figure is in line with the findings of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research institution that studies militaries around the world. As the Washington Post noted earlier this week, the institute put the Afghan military at 178,800 “active” members as of November 2020. “Additionally, because the figure is from November 2020, it doesn’t keep pace with the effective reduction of personnel as units collapsed in 2021,” a spokesperson for the institute said in an email on Thursday.