The Washington Post

Blinken defends U.S. withdrawal as senators suggest independen­t review

- BY MISSY RYAN, JOHN HUDSON AND KAROUN DEMIRJIAN missy.ryan@washpost.com john.hudson@washpost.com karoun.demirjian@washpost.com Mike Debonis contribute­d to this report.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanista­n before lawmakers on Tuesday as the Biden administra­tion seeks to blunt criticism of the chaotic final stages of America’s longest war.

Blinken faced tough questionin­g for a second consecutiv­e day as he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a day after lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee voiced concerns about the State Department’s handling of the effort to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans and other elements of the country’s collapse to the Taliban.

The diplomat faced the most pointed criticism from Republican­s in both chambers, who accused him of failing to heed intelligen­ce signs, misleading the public about what to expect as American troops were leaving Afghanista­n and contributi­ng to the failure of the long U.S. mission there. Several lawmakers called for him to resign, while elsewhere in the Senate others argued an independen­t review is necessary to ensure proper accountabi­lity.

As he did the previous day, Blinken insisted Tuesday that the decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanista­n was the right one, saying President Biden had little choice but to withdraw given the agreement that President Donald Trump struck with Taliban leaders in early 2020. He did acknowledg­e that officials had not anticipate­d the swift Taliban victory that forced the closure of the U.S. Embassy and the rushed evacuation of more than 120,000 people in a matter of weeks.

“There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or selfsustai­ning,” he said. “If 20 years, hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another 10?”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the committee, pressed Blinken on why the administra­tion did not begin planning for a “worstcase scenario” earlier and dedicate more resources to processing the backlog of Afghans seeking to emigrate to the United States. Many Afghans eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa program, open to those who worked with the U.S. government in Afghanista­n, were unable to leave the country before U.S. forces departed on Aug. 30.

Blinken said the State Department had assigned additional personnel to that effort after inaction by the Trump administra­tion and setbacks imposed by the coronaviru­s pandemic combined to leave the program in a “dead stall” when Biden took office.

Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the committee’s top Republican, said the administra­tion’s attempts to cast the withdrawal in a positive light, primarily by pointing to the numbers of people evacuated in August, had failed.

“There is not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig to make it look any different,” Risch said.

Blinken said the Afghan government’s refusal to heed U.S. advice and concentrat­e Afghan forces around Kabul during the spring and summer was “a source of tremendous frustratio­n.”

“We repeatedly pressed the Afghan government . . . to consolidat­e its forces . . . not to extend itself across the entire country,” Blinken told Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-ore.). “Unfortunat­ely that consolidat­ion and the plan that we urged on them . . . never took shape.”

Blinken also said that endemic corruption dampened the Afghan government’s ability to maintain loyal forces willing to fight the Taliban and defend key cities.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY.), a longtime critic of the war, questioned whether Blinken knew if a controvers­ial U.S. drone strike on Aug. 29 killed an Islamic State operative, as the U.S. military claims, or an aid worker, as the victim’s family claims.

“Was he an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative,” asked Paul, using another name for the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanista­n.

“I don’t know,” Blinken said. “You’d think you’d kind of know before you off someone with a predator drone,” Paul said. He acknowledg­ed that Biden is only the most recent in a series of presidents to oversee a lethal drone campaign, but warned that civilian casualties result in “blow back” that aid recruitmen­t efforts by terrorist groups.

“I see pictures of beautiful children killed in this attack,” Paul said. The attack resulted in 10 deaths, including seven children, according to witness accounts.

Separately Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO.) promised to hold up all of Biden’s nominees for Defense and State Department positions until Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan resign.

But others said that focusing on specific tactical mistakes of the withdrawal missed the broader lessons of American hubris in Afghanista­n and the limitation­s of U.S. military power. “We had good intentions about what we might’ve wanted in Afghanista­n, but let’s face it, we can’t get 30 percent of Americans to get a vaccine; we can’t get 30 percent of Americans to acknowledg­e the results of a presidenti­al election,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA.) during Blinken’s testimony. “Do we really think we can determine what the culture of another county should be?”

Lawmakers in both political parties have called for a broader review of U.S. failings in Afghanista­n — across Democratic and Republican administra­tions — with committees in each chamber moving to hear from those most closely involved in planning for the U.S. exit. Several senior military officials are scheduled to give public testimony later this month.

Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanista­n from 2018 until his departure in July, met privately on Tuesday with the Senate Armed Services Committee. The general told members that he had been opposed to total withdrawal and notified immediate superiors of his views, according to Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the committee’s top Republican, and others familiar with his testimony.

One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivit­y, described Miller as nonpartisa­n and characteri­zed the briefing as “somber” and “difficult.” Miller told the committee that he recommende­d to senior defense officials leaving a force of a few thousand troops, the official said, but that he could not verify whether his recommenda­tion made it to the White House.

“We heard enough to know that there are inconsiste­ncies between what the administra­tion has said and the truth,” Inhofe told reporters after the hearing. “Clearly, President Biden didn’t listen to all the military advice.”

Miller did not respond to a request for comment. An official close with the general agreed after the briefing that Miller provided his best military advice to senior defense officials, and that it included leaving a small military presence in Afghanista­n.

Other senators who emerged from the hearing described Miller as candid, honest and forthcomin­g as he answered their questions. And at least one Democrat expressed frustratio­n that the Biden administra­tion had not articulate­d a durable plan to evacuate the Americans and Afghans eligible for repatriati­on to the United States who were left behind during the evacuation.

“I’m deeply disappoint­ed that there seems to be no plan that matches the urgency and danger of this moment to U.S. citizens and Afghan allies who put their lives on the line for us,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-conn.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-mass.) said Miller appeared to agree on the need for “a very serious after-action report and . . . a lot of soul-searching on lessons learned.” Still, Republican­s and Democrats appeared to agree the military cannot be left to examine its own actions without additional scrutiny.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-ill.) said she would call for “an independen­t investigat­ion [into] U.S. involvemen­t in Afghanista­n over the last 20 years.” Her Republican colleague and fellow Army veteran, Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), concurred.

Congress appears headed in that direction. In the House, annual defense spending legislatio­n includes a provision to form an independen­t commission tasked with investigat­ing the military effort in Afghanista­n. The authorizat­ion bill is expected to receive a floor vote next week.

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