WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday rejected harsh Republican criticism of handling the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying the Biden administration inherited an agreement with the Taliban to end the war, but no plans to carry it out.
In a sometimes contentious hearing Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken sought to mitigate complaints from angry Republican lawmakers about the administration’s response to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and, more specifically, the actions of the State Department to evacuate Americans and others.
Blinken echoed White House talking points blaming the Trump administration for the situation that President Joe Biden inherited in Afghanistan. “We inherited a deadline. We don’t inherit a plan, ”he said, maintaining that the administration had done the right thing by ending 20 years of war.
“We made the right decision to end America’s longest war,” said Blinken, who will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.
Republicans attacked the withdrawal process as “a disaster” and “a disgrace.” And while some Democrats admitted that the operation could have been handled better, many used their questions to criticize former President Donald Trump.
The State Department has received strong criticism from both sides for not doing enough and not acting fast enough to remove US citizens, legal residents and Afghans at risk from the country after the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15. . leave it stranded there, although Blinken couldn’t provide an exact number. He said that roughly 100 US citizens remain along with some “several thousand” green card holders.
“This was an absolute disaster of epic proportions,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the committee’s top Republican. He said the abrupt withdrawal, along with leaving some Americans and Afghans behind, had “emboldened the Taliban” and other American adversaries. “I can sum this up in one word: treason.”
His Republican colleagues Steve Chabot of Ohio and Lee Zeldin of New York were even more forthright. “This is a shame,” said Chabot. “This was fatally flawed and poorly executed,” Zeldin said. I think you, sir, should resign. That would be leadership. “
The committee’s chairman, New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, urged his colleagues to keep politics out of their criticism. But he acknowledged that there had been problems. “Could things have been done differently? Absolutely, ”he said.
Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who has been ostracized by many in the Republican Party for his criticism of Trump, blamed both Trump and Biden for the situation. “The Trump administration failed to set up and the Biden administration failed to execute,” Kinzinger said.
Blinken calmly tried to deflect accusations of unpreparedness by pointing out that the Biden administration had inherited a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban from its predecessor, along with a languishing program to grant visas to Afghans who had worked for the government. from the United States.
Blinken, who had publicly predicted in June that a total takeover of power by the Taliban would not occur “from Friday to Monday,” also tried to pre-empt criticism of the prediction by pointing out that no one in the US government expected. That the Afghan government fell so fast. as it did.
“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse as long as US forces remained,” Blinken said in prepared statements released before his appearance. He also defended the evacuation effort, saying it succeeded despite nearly insurmountable odds.
“The evacuation was an extraordinary effort, under the most difficult conditions imaginable, on the part of our diplomats, military and intelligence professionals,” he said. “In the end, we completed one of the largest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety.”
But Republicans, in particular, have been demanding answers on why American citizens were left behind in the chaotic days and weeks before the military completed its withdrawal on August 30.
In a preview of Republican questions, the Republican National Committee released a statement early Monday with the headline “Fire Blinken,” demanding that it be held accountable for what it described as a litany of failures.
After the five-hour hearing concluded, the Republican committee doubled down on its demand.
“Today’s hearing makes clear the flaws and lies of Blinken,” said RNC President Ronna McDaniel. “Biden has no choice but to fire Blinken, hold him accountable and take responsibility for the mess he created.”
Some Republicans seemed eager to fight the generally unflappable Blinken. Florida Representative Bryan Mast accused Blinken of lying when he denied that intelligence had been manipulated to support Biden’s desire to withdraw US troops. “I don’t believe a word he said,” he told Blinken.
In a rare display of temper, Blinken responded, “Simply put, what you said, Congressman, is completely wrong.”
Blinken is very close to Biden and his job as America’s top diplomat is almost certainly certain, but criticism of the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal has not been limited to Republicans.
Numerous Democrats have also questioned the policy and expressed concern about stranded Americans, green card holders, and Afghans who could face retaliation from the Taliban because of their work or ties to the United States government over the past 20 years. .
State Department officials have acknowledged that congressional hearings could be contentious and possibly unpleasant, but many remain convinced that the US military and other officials did the best they could in extremely difficult circumstances, including the evacuation of the US embassy. In Kabul and the crowd of thousands of people. of desperate people at the Kabul airport seeking to leave the country.