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Blinken faces more heat from Congress over Afghanistan exit as lawmakers call for accountability

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, listens as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) addresses him Tuesday during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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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.

Blinken clashes with House Republicans over Afghanistan exit

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 self-sustaining,” 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 “worst-case 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.

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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 White House 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 country 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.

Americans refuse to leave Afghanistan without their families as evacuation flights resume

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 during the war 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. “I think it does need to be independent,” she said.

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.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.