Los Angeles Times

Blinken grilled on Afghanista­n withdrawal

Senators question the secretary of State over nation’s fall, chaotic evacuation­s and Taliban rule.

- By Tracy Wilkinson

WASHINGTON — For the second day, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday confronted a barrage of questions from lawmakers about last month’s U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n and the attempts to rescue people and deal with a future Taliban government.

Blinken, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, repeatedly defended the evacuation operation by the State Department and U.S. military that airlifted more than 124,000 people, including almost all 6,000 U.S. citizens believed to be in Afghanista­n at the time, as well as many vulnerable Afghans.

Republican­s especially have been hammering the administra­tion for what was a chaotic withdrawal that ultimately stranded thousands of people attempting to escape and saw a suicide bombing purportedl­y by Islamic State militants that killed 13 U.S. troops and nearly 200 Afghans.

“There is not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig,” said Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the committee.

“While I supported a responsibl­e end to the war in Afghanista­n, no American thinks we should have left this way,” Risch continued before pursuing a tangential line of questionin­g over whether aides had cut off President Biden in his public comments. “America cannot end wars simply by walking away.”

Blinken noted that it was the Trump administra­tion that struck a deal with the Taliban that paved the way for the Islamist organizati­on’s return to government. The Trump administra­tion also all but shut down the program to issue visas to Afghan interprete­rs and others the U.S. now wants to rescue.

The secretary made the same points Monday before a House committee.

Blinken also faced questionin­g on how it will be possible to deal with a Talibanled Afghanista­n government, which so far has shown itself to be the same as when it ruled the country brutally from 1996 until 2001, when it forced women out of public view and imposed an extreme form of Islam.

“Let’s not kid ourselves: There is no such thing as a reformed Taliban,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chair. “This group is woefully stuck in the 14th century with no will to come out.”

Bestowing recognitio­n or legitimacy on such a government seems impossible, Menendez said.

Blinken said there are areas in which the U.S. must cooperate with the Taliban — such as in removing people from the country — but that formal recognitio­n is a long way off and dependent on what the leaders do.

“We expect the Taliban to ensure freedom of travel; to make good on its counterter­rorism commitment­s; to uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women, girls, minorities; to name a broadly representa­tive permanent government; to forswear reprisals,” Blinken said.

“The legitimacy and support that it seeks from the internatio­nal community will depend entirely on its conduct.”

Senators from both parties questioned how U.S. intelligen­ce could have so badly misjudged the staying power of the Afghan military and government, both of which essentiall­y collapsed within 11 days. Blinken had no explanatio­n.

The unexpected­ly swift collapse “is what changed everything,” Blinken testified. “Even the most pessimisti­c assessment­s did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained.” Similar evaluation­s have been made by top Pentagon officials.

Several Republican senators used the hearing to highlight what they see as Biden’s failings, not necessaril­y related to Afghanista­n.

Some Democrats tried to plumb the broader and historic failures of the 20-year Afghanista­n project. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia suggested the U.S. tried to impose on Afghanista­n a system that Afghanista­n did not want, which doomed the effort to failure.

Despite good intentions, Kaine said, “let’s face it, we can’t get 30% of Americans to get a vaccine; we can’t get 30% of Americans to acknowledg­e the results of a presidenti­al election.”

“Do we really think we can determine what the culture of another county should be?” he said.

Lawmakers also raised another overriding concern: whether Afghanista­n once again becomes a haven for terrorists. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, Afghanista­n was a refuge for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant­s. A recent report by the United Nations said the Taliban has not severed ties with Al Qaeda as promised in the Trump agreement.

In a briefing Tuesday to the Intelligen­ce and National Security Summit, the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligen­ce Agency, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, said it may take only 12 to 24 months for Al Qaeda to rebuild itself in Afghanista­n and pose a threat to the U.S.

Blinken, in his testimony, acknowledg­ed that the Taliban maintains ties with Al Qaeda.

 ?? Kent Nishimura Los Angeles Times ?? ANTONY J. BLINKEN, secretary of State, discusses the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n, the evacuation­s and the Taliban before a Senate panel Tuesday.
Kent Nishimura Los Angeles Times ANTONY J. BLINKEN, secretary of State, discusses the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n, the evacuation­s and the Taliban before a Senate panel Tuesday.

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