The Washington Post

Blinken clashes with GOP: He defends withdrawal at heated hearing.

- BY JOHN HUDSON AND MISSY RYAN john.hudson@washpost.com missy.ryan@washpost.com

Secretary of State Antony Blinken clashed with Republican lawmakers Monday over the Biden administra­tion’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanista­n in his first hearing before Congress since the Taliban’s takeover of the country.

Republican­s excoriated the administra­tion for ending the U.S. military evacuation before every American left the country, the sluggish pace of visa processing for Afghan allies, and other tactical decisions, such as the abandonmen­t of its largest military base at Bagram air base.

“I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditio­nal surrender to the Taliban,” said Rep. Michael Mccaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The American people don’t like to lose, especially to the terrorists.”

“The majority of Americans wanted to leave Afghanista­n, but not like this,” added Rep. Steve Chabot (R- Ohio).

While declaring the Taliban takeover a humiliatio­n, Republican­s stopped short of advocating for a new surge of U.S. troops into the country — an unpopular proposal that Blinken said would have been the only real alternativ­e to withdrawin­g all personnel.

“President Biden immediatel­y faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it,” said Blinken, noting President Donald Trump’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces.

“Had he 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,” he said.

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), the committee’s chairman, said Republican criticisms of the Biden administra­tion were unrealisti­c.

“Disentangl­ing ourselves from the war in Afghanista­n was never going to be easy,” he said. “And for my friends who presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed . . . I’ve yet to hear the clean withdrawal option because I don’t believe one exists.”

Blinken spent much of his testimony defending the administra­tion’s decision-making, saying Washington could not have anticipate­d that the Western-backed government would fall in 11 days. “Even the most pessimisti­c assessment­s did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained.”

In response to criticism that the State Department was slow to process visas for Afghan allies, or Special Immigrant Visas applicants, Blinken said he expanded the team of people working on those applicatio­ns from 10 to 50 and surged consular officers to Afghanista­n after the fall of Kabul. He also placed blame on the Trump administra­tion for pausing interviews for SIV applicants dating back to March 2020, a process Blinken resumed shortly after taking office.

“In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety,” he said.

Looking to the future, Blinken said a new pledge of $64 million in U.S. assistance to Afghanista­n would circumvent the Taliban and go directly to nongovernm­ental organizati­ons and U.N. agencies providing relief to impoverish­ed Afghans.

Blinken’s aid pledge follows the freezing of billions of dollar in foreign donations to Afghanista­n following the collapse of its Western-backed government — a developmen­t that the United Nations says has caused chronic shortages in food and cash in a country where 18 million people, or half the population, were already dependent on foreign assistance.

On Monday, the United Nations convened an aid conference in Geneva where nations pledged more than $1 billion for Afghanista­n in the hopes of lessening the humanitari­an crisis facing Afghans. “After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA.) expressed concern about the aid getting into the hands of the Taliban. “How are you accounting for that?” he asked Blinken.

“As we do around the world in places of conflict . . . working through the U.N., working through NGOS with long-tested methods,” Blinken said. “This aid will not flow through the government.”

Republican­s have called on the Biden administra­tion to take a more aggressive posture toward the Taliban even as the United States seeks to work with the militant group to secure the safe passage of Americans remaining in Afghanista­n.

Blinken touted efforts by the Biden administra­tion to rally allies and partners behind a statement calling on the Taliban to “ensure freedom of travel; make good on its counterter­rorism commitment­s; uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women, girls and minorities; name a broadly representa­tive permanent government; and forswear reprisals.”

“The legitimacy and support the Taliban seeks from the internatio­nal community will depend on its conduct,” he said.

The Taliban issued amnesty to Afghans who worked with the U.S. government and said women will be able to work and participat­e in public life under Islamic principles but the group has banned demonstrat­ions and carried out a violent crackdown on protesters in recent days.

Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.), like other Republican­s on the committee, blamed the Biden administra­tion for leaving behind U.S. military equipment to the Taliban and said the administra­tion’s decision to close Bagram in July resulted in the death of 13 American troops killed in a bombing during the evacuation operation. “You should resign,” he said. Blinken, as he did with other Republican calls for his resignatio­n, maintained a calm demeanor, and repeatedly thanked lawmakers for their questions and commitment to public service.

The hearing, which lasted more than five hours, consisted of short five-minute exchanges with lawmakers who often repeated similar points and questions. Blinken hewed closely to the administra­tion’s core arguments, though he noted he has not spoken to the Taliban directly and revealed that former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani told him he would “fight to the death” rather than leave Afghanista­n shortly before he fled.

During the hearing, Blinken came under fire from Trump, who issued a statement saying Blinken was “doing everything in his power to make the most inept withdrawal in history look, at least, acceptable. It never will.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly ( Va.) echoed other Democrats in placing much of the blame on Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which lawmakers said preordaine­d the withdrawal and did not seek protection­s for women and girls.

“What we’re listening to on the other side of the aisle sadly is sort of a salad mix of selective facts and a lot of amnesia in the salad dressing,” he said, pointing to Afghanista­n’s long history of instabilit­y and political strife.

While most Democrats defended the Biden administra­tion, some asked pointed questions about U.S. military actions in Afghanista­n.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-minn.) thanked Blinken for ending the United States’ longest war, saying that in Washington it is much more difficult to end wars than to start them. But she also noted reports in The Washington Post and New York Times raising doubts about the military’s account of an Aug. 29 U.S. drone strike that resulted in civilian casualties. Blinken promised a full accounting of events.

“With regard to the drone strike . . . that is being looked at very, very, very carefully by others in the administra­tion so we understand exactly what happened,” Blinken said.

He later acknowledg­ed that civilian casualties do not “advance what we’re trying to do.”

 ?? SAUL Loeb/agence France-presse/getty IMAGES ?? Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies remotely before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n. Blinken, facing irate Republican lawmakers, defended the administra­tion’s decision-making.
SAUL Loeb/agence France-presse/getty IMAGES Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies remotely before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n. Blinken, facing irate Republican lawmakers, defended the administra­tion’s decision-making.

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