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.
“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.”