Los Angeles Times

Blinken defends Afghanista­n withdrawal

The secretary of State hears criticism of the effort in appearance before lawmakers.

- By Tracy Wilkinson

WASHINGTON — Facing often-hostile questionin­g by some Republican lawmakers on Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken vigorously defended his department’s handling of the massive, if incomplete, evacuation from Afghanista­n of U.S. citizens, greencard holders and other atrisk Afghans.

The top U.S. diplomat testified in the administra­tion’s first public congressio­nal hearing about the chaotic end of the combat mission in Afghanista­n, America’s longest war.

“The evacuation was an extraordin­ary effort — under the most difficult conditions imaginable — by our diplomats, military and intelligen­ce profession­als,” Blinken testified to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his first of two days on Capitol Hill. “They worked around the clock to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us, citizens of our allies and partners, and at-risk Afghans on planes, out of the country, and off to the United States or transit locations.”

The department, along with the U.S. military and other agencies, managed to evacuate more than 124,000 people from Afghanista­n.

But vocal critics in Congress and veteran groups have attacked the State Department and other government entities for acting too slowly to rescue Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. Army and diplomatic missions. Such Afghans face potential injury and death at the hands of Afghanista­n’s new Taliban government.

Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee, said the withdrawal was “an unmitigate­d disaster of epic proportion­s.”

The administra­tion “abandoned Americans behind enemy lines. I can summarize that in one word: betrayal,” McCaul said.

Some members of Congress, like McCaul, are furious over the small number of U.S. citizens who were not airlifted out of Afghanista­n before it fell to the Taliban. Blinken said that as of last week, roughly 100 U.S. citizens remain who want to leave the country.

The State Department has continued to help U.S. citizens get out of the country, its officials have said, noting that diplomats in the months before the Taliban takeover urged Americans to leave Afghanista­n. And some U.S. passport holders are dual nationals who have chosen to remain in Afghanista­n.

Blinken argued that the Biden administra­tion’s hands were tied in the drawdown from Afghanista­n because of then-President Trump’s controvers­ial 2020 agreement with the Taliban to pull out troops by May 1.

The talks leading to that agreement excluded the U.S.-backed Afghan government and by most accounts left it demoralize­d while providing little in the way of concrete follow-up steps. Trump’s agreement also forced the Afghan government to release several thousand Taliban prisoners.

“We inherited a deadline,” Blinken told the lawmakers. “We did not inherit a plan.”

Some Republican members of Congress noted the Biden administra­tion has willingly canceled many Trump-era agreements. But Blinken said this is one that would have directly cost American lives because the Taliban vowed to resume warfare against U.S. forces if the deadline were not met.

Both Republican­s and Democrats criticized the withdrawal. A suicide bombing by an Islamic State affiliate at the Kabul airport last month during the rush of the evacuation killed 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghans. And already, rights for women and girls in education and work are being curtailed by the extremist Taliban, which has establishe­d a “caretaker” government that is all-male and includes only Taliban veterans.

Republican­s were especially scathing in the hearing, with several labeling Blinken a liar and calling on him to resign. They appeared eager to place the blame of the last 20 years of the Afghanista­n ordeal on the current government.

State Department officials feel they have unfairly suffered the brunt of blame in the hectic withdrawal, and Blinken is attempting to make that point over the next two days in congressio­nal hearings. He is expected to appear Tuesday before a Senate committee.

“There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining,” Blinken said. “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?”

State Department officials had expected tough questionin­g of Blinken, the first administra­tion figure to face such interrogat­ion by lawmakers.

Blinken, who toured U.S. refugee-rescue operations in Doha, Qatar, and Ramstein Air Base in Germany last week, remained steadfast in praising the legions of U.S. military and civilian officials who joined the evacuation effort and the processing of thousands of Afghans who are coming to the U.S.

“As we’ve done throughout our history, Americans are now welcoming families from Afghanista­n into our communitie­s and helping them resettle as they start their new lives,” Blinken said. “That’s something to be proud of too.”

Republican­s lawmakers ping-ponged between recriminat­ion of the administra­tion for not airlifting more Afghan allies out of the country and concern that those Afghans arriving in the U.S. have not been adequately vetted, suggesting some could be terrorists.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pressed one question that no one seemed to regard as having been satisfacto­rily answered. Why did the Afghan army and then the government, after two decades of support from the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organizati­on allies to the tune of more than a trillion dollars, collapse so quickly in the face of a Taliban offensive?

“For my friends who 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,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, the committee’s Democratic chairman from New York.

Meeks urged his colleagues to keep politics out of what he said should be a somber assessment, and he called out many Republican­s attacking Blinken.

“They are masking their displeasur­e with criticism but failed to offer feasible alternativ­es. Once again, we are seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy,” he said.

“Could things have been done differentl­y?” Meeks asked. “Absolutely.” But neither he nor other committee members offered a plan that might have worked out better.

“The Trump administra­tion failed in the setup, and the Biden administra­tion failed in the execution,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (RIll.), an Air Force veteran who served in Afghanista­n and Iraq and who often diverges from the convention­al GOP line.

Blinken noted that in addition to its dire political outlook, Afghanista­n faces a humanitari­an disaster fueled by war, drought and potential famine.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure the people of Afghanista­n don’t suffer any more than is already the case.”

‘There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining.’ — Antony J. Blinken, secretary of State

 ?? Marcus Yam Los Angeles Times ?? AFGHANS SEEKING to leave the country walk toward the military entrance of the airport in Kabul for evacuation­s last month after the Taliban takeover.
Marcus Yam Los Angeles Times AFGHANS SEEKING to leave the country walk toward the military entrance of the airport in Kabul for evacuation­s last month after the Taliban takeover.

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