WASHINGTON, D.C. — Facing often-hostile questioning by some Republican lawmakers 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, green card holders and other at-risk 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 at the small number of U.S. citizens who were not airlifted out of Afghanistan before it fell to the Taliban. 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 former President Donald 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 Aug. 26 at the airport in Kabul, 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.
Several Republicans labeled Blinken a liar and called 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 Blinken to face tough questioning as 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 on 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 NATO 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 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 of the 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, R-Ill., 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.”