Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken
Senate Democrats and Republicans let loose their frustrations Tuesday over the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, giving an earful to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Republicans branded President Biden as responsible for what they said was a colossal failure in Afghanistan that has jeopardized America’s standing while empowering adversaries like Russia and China.
“I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during the hearing with the secretary. “No American thinks we should have left this way.”
Democrats largely placed responsibility for the failures in Afghanistan on presidents of both parties and Congress.
But Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the panel’s chairman, did criticize the Biden administration for its handling of the situation, and threatened to hold up Pentagon nominees and subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for not appearing at Tuesday’s hearing.
“A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and -funded Afghan military,” Menendez said. “His decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees.”
Blinken defended the Biden administration’s withdrawal operation, saying the president faced a choice “between ending the war, or escalating.” Keeping the American military in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31, he said, would have triggered Taliban attacks on U.S. forces and a deeper military engagement.
The Taliban had halted attacks on American personnel following an agreement reached with the former Trump administration, which pledged to evacuate all U.S. military by May 1. Blinken said the Biden administration took a risk in extending that deadline to August based on the needs of the military to finish its drawdown.
“Had [Biden] not followed through on his predecessor’s commitment, attacks on our forces, and those of our allies would have resumed and the Taliban’s nationwide assault on Afghanistan’s major cities would have commenced,” the secretary said.
“That would have required sending substantially more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to defend ourselves and to prevent a Taliban takeover, taking casualties, and at best, the prospect of restoring a stalemate and remaining stuck in Afghanistan under fire indefinitely.”
Blinken said the administration pressed the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan earlier this year to implement a strategy to defend the major cities.
“As we pressed, and pressed, and pressed on them, the response was ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’ But they didn’t,” the secretary said.
Lawmakers also pressed Blinken over the 125,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan between Aug. 15 and 31. The vast majority of these people are unaccounted Afghans who are not American citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants or Afghans who worked with the U.S. over the 20-year war.
Blinken said the majority of those evacuated are “Afghans at-risk,” a broad category that covers people who could be under threat from the Taliban for their work, gender or ethnicity. The secretary said a breakdown of this number will be ready “in a couple of weeks.”
Left behind are “thousands” of SIV applicants, the secretary said. About 100 Americans are still in Afghanistan requiring assistance to leave.
“We didn’t get the right people out,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said, criticizing the administration. “And many who we did get out, seem not to fall into any of the categories that we were concerned about.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also pressed Blinken on what the Biden administration knows of the U.S. drone strike last month that killed 10 people, including seven children and an aide worker. The military has said the strike took out an effort to bomb people at Kabul’s airport, but investigations by The New York Times and Washington Post have raised serious questions about the operation.
Blinken said the administration is reviewing the strike and “that a full assessment will be coming.”
“You think you’d know before you off someone with a predator drone,” Paul retorted.
GOP criticisms of the withdrawal drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who criticized the entire committee for hypocrisy.
“I think there is a lot of regret and a lot of recriminations to go around,” she said, and pressed for bipartisanship to facilitate more evacuations and efforts to protect the human rights of women, girls and minorities from the Taliban’s fundamentalist reign.
“I do think we need an accounting — that’s important for history and going forward. But, let’s stop with the hypocrisy of who’s to blame. There are a lot of people to blame, and we all share in it.”