Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaotic evacuation effort that marked the end of America's longest war in the face of blistering criticism Monday from lawmakers and some calls for his resignation.
The top US diplomat, the first member of the administration to publicly account for the events in Afghanistan before Congress, spoke before a virtual hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and defended the decision to leave the country as Republicans decried the withdrawal as a "debacle" and a "betrayal," and Democrats expressed disappointment.
Blinken pushed back on the criticism of the withdrawal and how it had been carried out.
"We made the right decision," he said, "not sending another generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan. We did the right thing by our citizens, working feverishly to get every one of them out. We did the right thing by 5,000 Afghans to bring them to safety, and now we're working to do the right thing to hold the Taliban to the expectations of the international community."
In a hearing that lasted more than six hours and often devolved into political posturing, emotions ran high. Republican lawmakers interrupted Blinken so often it was sometimes impossible for him to answer the questions they were ostensibly asking. They raised the deaths of 13 US service members helping evacuation efforts, the Americans and vulnerable Afghans left behind, and the terror threat that might remain in Afghanistan.
Democrats challenged Blinken to explain why the administration had abandoned Bagram Air Base, a resource that could have helped in the evacuation, and what the administration will do to protect Afghan women and girls, and they urged him to work more closely with private groups that are trying to help Americans and vulnerable Afghans still in the country.
Blinken suggested that extending the US presence would have made little difference, stressing that the Trump administration left the incoming government little to work with apart from a deadline to withdraw by May that, he said, forced President Joe Biden's hand.
"We inherited a deadline," Blinken said. "We did not inherit a plan."
"I think what's perhaps, Congressman, hard to fathom, or perhaps people just don't understand, is that the agreement reached by the previous administration required all US forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1," Blinken said. In return, he said, the Taliban stopped attacking US and allied forces, and didn't start "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 reupped the war in Afghanistan for another five, 10 or 20 years," Blinken said. "We would have had to have sent more forces back in, and I recognize that a lot of people don't understand that, don't know the agreement that was reached, and the choice that President Biden faced for May 1."
One lawmaker pointed to the failings by both the Biden and Trump administrations -- just two of the four US administrations that oversaw the war of almost two decades.
"I think it's important to remind people, the Trump administration failed in the setup, and I think the Biden administration absolutely failed in the execution of this," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican. "I also want to make it clear, Mr. Secretary, we support the members of the State Department and their heroic actions. The point is they never should have been put in a place where they had to act heroically."
Blinken said the State Department is in touch with "about 100 American citizens" in Afghanistan who are seeking to leave, but he was unable to provide a number for legal permanent residents. "Green card holders is something that we don't track directly, " he said, before going on to say that the administration is collecting information about the people coming out of Afghanistan as they go through transit points or enter the US.
Blinken said the US has negotiated agreements with more than a dozen countries to transit Afghans and that as they move through those countries, "we do security screenings there" with US Customs and Border Protection agents, law enforcement, intelligence and security agencies doing vetting, biometrics and biographic information before the Afghans go on to a military base in the US, where vetting continues.
Blinken also announced that the State Department will appoint a senior official to oversee issues related to Afghan women and girls.
Asked what options exist for Afghans whose travel documents and passports were burned by US Embassy personnel as they rushed to evacuate the country, Blinken was circumspect, asking to answer more fully in a classified setting.
"I just want to assure you -- but I'd rather have this conversation in a different setting -- that we are putting in place plans to make sure that people can get documents that they need and documents that the Taliban says it will recognize to allow them to leave the country. I'd be happy to pursue that conversation," he said.
'An extraordinary effort'
In his opening testimony, the top US diplomat said that "there's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining." Echoing arguments that Biden has made publicly and repeatedly, Blinken asked the lawmakers a question: "If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, or five, or 10, make a difference?"
Blinken told lawmakers in his prepared remarks that the administration planned and exercised a range of contingencies, working with allies to execute the largest airlift in US military history -- "an extraordinary effort" that got "almost all" of the US citizens and Afghans who wanted to leave Afghanistan out of the country.
"We planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies. Because of that planning, we were able to draw down our embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours. And the military -- placed on stand-by by the President -- was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours," Blinken said in his opening statement, noting that no one expected the country's collapse to happen as quickly as it did.
Blinken outlined the situation the administration inherited -- the Taliban was in its strongest military position since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Trump administration had negotiated directly with the Taliban, released 5,000 of its imprisoned members including top military commanders, and made a commitment to pull out by May, while reducing the US military presence to its lowest level since September 2001. In addition, Blinken said, the process to grant visas to Afghans who worked with US troops and diplomats "was basically in a dead stall."
"As a result, upon taking office, President Biden immediately faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it," Blinken said. "After 20 years, 2,641 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, and $2 trillion spent, it was time to end America's longest war."
Lawmakers demanded answers and condemned the administration performance. The leading Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, called the withdrawal and the end of the war "an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions," a "debacle" and "a betrayal."
He blasted the Biden administration for "our unconditional surrender to the Taliban," the chaotic nature of the evacuation effort and that Americans were left behind, urging Blinken to work with private groups conducting a "Digital Dunkirk" effort to get Americans, legal permanent residents and vulnerable Afghans out of the country.
The Democratic chairman of the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, warned against criticism driven by political partisanship. "It strikes me that many of those critical of the administration evacuation efforts are really just angry at the President made good on his pledge to end America's involvement in the war in Afghanistan," Meeks said. "They are masking their displeasure with criticism but failed to offer feasible alternatives. Once again, we are seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy."
Americans still in Afghanistan
But he also raised his concerns about Americans still stuck in Afghanistan. "I look forward to hearing from the secretary, how the State Department intends to complete its evacuation of the 100 to 200 Americans remaining in Afghanistan, who want to come home, as well as for evacuating those Afghans who worked alongside us during the past 20 years," Meeks said.
Along with administration officials, lawmakers were taken by surprise as the Taliban swiftly trounced Afghan troops, leaving US citizens, legal permanent citizens and Afghans who worked with US troops and diplomats struggling to leave the country during the rushed evacuation effort -- or left behind. Many lawmakers were personally drawn in as they scrambled to help constituents escape Kabul.
Just before Blinken appeared on the Hill, the Biden administration announced Monday that it is providing nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghans to provide food, health care, medical supplies and other relief.
Lawmakers raised concerns about whether that money would find its way to the Taliban. Blinken said the funds would go through non-profit groups using "long-tested methods" to make sure the relief reaches the people who need it.
Monday's hearing was the first of two appearances Blinken is making before Congress this week to testify about Afghanistan.
This story has been updated with additional details Monday.
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