Blinken grilled in first hearing since Afghanistan withdrawal

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first public appearance before Congress on Monday to answer a barrage of questions about the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

The nation’s top diplomat also came under scrutiny over the administration’s plans for Afghan allies left behind and the fate of more than 100,000 Afghan citizens evacuated from the country.

Much of the hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee descended into a debate over who bore the brunt of the responsibility for the 20-year war and the debacle during the final weeks of the nation’s longest military conflict.

“We inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan,” the secretary said when asked about the withdrawal set in motion by the previous administration, later adding that the deal former President Trump struck with the Taliban set the U.S. on a path for severe consequences that unfolded last month.

“The agreement reached by the previous administration required all U.S. forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1. In return, the Taliban stopped attacking our forces, our partners, and it didn’t commence an onslaught of the Afghanistan cities. Had the president not followed through on the commitments that his predecessor made, those attacks would have resumed, we would have re-upped the war in Afghanistan after 20 years for another five, 10 or 20 years we would have had to send more forces back in.”

Blinken also argued that no one had predicted the Afghan government and its army would fall as quickly as it did to the Taliban.

“Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of the government and the security forces in 11 days,” he told lawmakers. “This unfolded more quickly than we anticipated, including in the intelligence community.”

Blinken said the number of Americans who are in Afghanistan and want to get out remains around 100, the same as about a week ago.

The secretary further said that “several thousand” Lawful Permanent Residents, so-called green card holders, are still in Afghanistan. While he said the overwhelming majority of the 125,000 people evacuated were Afghans at risk, the secretary did not provide an exact number of how many of those are Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders, a number that when including family members is believed to be around 100,000.

Blinken said there are about 20,000 Afghans in the “SIV pipeline.” Of those, around 4,000 have cleared a key administrative hurdle that verifies they worked alongside the U.S. or government contractors during the course of the 20-year war. Another 4,000 are moving closer to clearing that threshold, he said.

Blinken repeatedly came under fire by Republicans for those Afghan allies left behind.

“We abandoned Americans behind enemy lines. We left behind the interpreters who you, Mr. Secretary, and the president, both promised to protect. I can summarize this in one word: betrayal,” Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the committee’s top Republican, said at the outset of the hearing.

A few Republican lawmakers called on the secretary to resign, while Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) called the withdrawal a disgrace.

“You’ve essentially surrendered that country and its people to the good graces of the Taliban, and the Taliban doesn’t have good graces. Yes, the majority of American people wanted to leave Afghanistan, but not like this,” he said.

Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) countered that Republicans have yet to make the case for how the U.S. could have withdrawn without seeing many of the same devastating outcomes.

“Disentangling ourselves from the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy. And for my friends that presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed, I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic 20-year war looks like. In fact, I have yet to hear the clean withdrawal option, because I don’t believe one exists. Are there things the administration could have done differently? Absolutely yes, as always,” Meeks said.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) argued that the Trump and Biden administrations must share the blame.

“The Trump administration failed in the setup, and I think the Biden administration absolutely failed in the execution of this,” he said.

Lawmakers also pressed Blinken on the vetting processes for the 125,000 Afghans who were evacuated, with the majority slated for resettlement in the U.S., and the administration’s capabilities to conduct and ensure counterterrorism operations without troops on the ground.

Administration officials have said they will seek to monitor and fight the spread of terrorism in Afghanistan through “over the horizon” forces, staged in nearby countries to quickly respond if needed.

But some Republicans have rejected that approach.

“This over-the-horizon capability, I believe, is exaggerated,” McCaul said. “It’s not a viable option — it’s too far away.”

Blinken acknowledged the newly formed Taliban government falls “very short of the mark set by the international community,” noting the interim government excludes women but includes individuals sanctioned by the U.S. for sponsoring or facilitating acts of terrorism.

The secretary referred to those individuals as having “very challenging track records” and said the U.S. will engage with a Taliban-led government “on the basis of whether or not it advances our interests.”

Such interests include allowing the freedom of movement, commitment to counterterrorism and preventing attacks from being planned and launched from the country. The U.S. also wants the Taliban to allow delivery of humanitarian assistance and support for basic rights of Afghan people, in particular women, girls and minorities.

Blinken announced Monday that the administration is providing $64 million in new humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan to address critical health and nutrition needs and to address protection of women, children and minorities. That brings the total amount of humanitarian assistance provided by the administration this year to $330 million.

Tags Adam Kinzinger Afghanistan Afghanistan War Afghanistan withdrawal Antony Blinken Donald Trump Gregory Meeks house hearing Kabul Michael McCaul Steve Chabot
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