President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the dais behind him on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.

President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress, with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the dais behind him on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images

US ‘Won’t Ignore’ Terrorism at Home or Abroad, Biden Tells Congress

The change in the threat environment is part of why American troops should withdraw from Afghanistan, the president said.

Two weeks after ordering all U.S. troops to begin leaving Afghanistan, President Joe Biden told Congress that the terrorist threat the military was sent to fight there two decades ago is now dispersed around the world, including in America.

In his address to a socially-distanced joint session of lawmakers, the president laid out numerous threats facing the country, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyber attacks, but shared few specifics on how the military would respond to them differently in his administration. While the speech set ambitious goals to help American middle-class families, combat climate change, and accelerate the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, Biden focused the foreign policy portion of his remarks on describing the threat landscape facing the country rather than unveiling any new programs or strategies to counter it. 

American officials sent troops to Afghanistan in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, because that country harbored the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the attacks. But al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists can be found today from Yemen to Syria to Somalia, Biden said. 

“Make no mistake: in 20 years, terrorism has metastasized. The threat has evolved way beyond Afghanistan,” Biden said. “...and, we won’t ignore what our own intelligence agencies have determined to be the most lethal terrorism threat to the homeland today. White supremacy is terrorism.”

The war in Afghanistan was never intended to last for multiple generations, Biden argued. Instead, its goal was to get retribution for the 9/11 attacks, something America largely accomplished 10 years ago this week, when Navy SEALs in Pakistan killed Osama bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda who played a key role in planning the attacks on the U.S. homeland.

“We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We said we would follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell to do it,” he said in a departure from his prepared remarks. “We delivered justice to bin Laden. …After 20 years of American valor and sacrifice it’s time to bring those troops home.” 

Biden announced this month that all American troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, two decades after the attacks in New York and Washington. 

The Biden administration has not decided how the military will handle the lingering terrorist threat in Afghanistan and collect intelligence on attacks still in the planning stages without any troops in the country. Central Command’s Gen. Frank McKenzie told Congress last week that he would deliver his recommendations to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin by the end of this month. The issue was a top concern for senators at a hearing this week with Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation. 

Biden said the Pentagon will keep “an over-the-horizon capacity to suppress future threats to the homeland,” but Khalilzad conceded at the hearing that America’s ability to collect intelligence in Afghanistan will be “degraded” after the withdrawal. McKenzie also told Congress those missions would be more difficult, but still possible.

In his speech, Biden also promised a robust military footprint in Asia to counter China, which the Pentagon views as its greatest threat. 

“I told [Chinese President Xi Jinping] that we will maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific just as we do with NATO in Europe, not to start a conflict, but to prevent one,” Biden said, echoing comments made by China’s foreign minister Wang Yi last week. 

Biden made only one mention of NATO and Europe, but repeated his campaign-trail assertions that the United States would work more closely with allies to regain lost trust in American leadership abroad. 

“My fellow Americans, we have to show not just that we’re back, but that we’re back to stay. And that we aren’t going it alone – we’re going to do it by leading with our allies.”