The top US diplomat, the first member of the administration to publicly account for the events in Afghanistan before Congress, spoke before a virtual hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and defended the decision to leave the country as Republicans decried the withdrawal as a “debacle” and a “betrayal.”
Blinken suggested that extending the US presence would have made little difference and pointed out that the Trump administration left the incoming government little to work with apart from a deadline to withdraw by May.
“We inherited a deadline,” Blinken said. “We did not inherit a plan.”
In his opening testimony, the top US diplomat said that “there’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining.” Echoing arguments that President Joe Biden has made publicly and repeatedly, Blinken asked the lawmakers a question: “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?”
Blinken told lawmakers in his prepared remarks that the administration planned and exercised a range of contingencies, working with allies to execute the largest airlift in US military history — “an extraordinary effort” that got “almost all” of the US citizens and Afghans who wanted to leave Afghanistan out of the country.
“We planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies. Because of that planning, we were able to draw down our embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours. And the military — placed on stand-by by the President — was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours,” Blinken said in his opening statement, noting that no one expected the country’s collapse to happen as quickly as it did.
Blinken outlined the situation the administration inherited — the Taliban was in its strongest military position since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The Trump administration had negotiated directly with the Taliban, released 5,000 of its imprisoned members including top military commanders, and made a commitment to pull out by May, while reducing the US military presence to its lowest level since September 2001. In addition, Blinken said, the process to grant visas to Afghans who worked with US troops and diplomats “was basically in a dead stall.”
“As a result, upon taking office, President Biden immediately faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it,” Blinken said. “After 20 years, 2,641 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, and $2 trillion spent, it was time to end America’s longest war.”
Lawmakers demanded answers and condemned the administration performance. The leading Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, called the withdrawal and the end of the war “an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” a “debacle” and “a betrayal.”
He blasted the Biden administration for “our unconditional surrender to the Taliban,” the chaotic nature of the evacuation effort and that Americans were left behind, urging Blinken to work with private groups conducting a “Digital Dunkirk” effort to get Americans, legal permanent residents and vulnerable Afghans out of the country.
The Democratic chairman of the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, warned against criticism driven by political partisanship. “It strikes me that many of those critical of the administration evacuation efforts are really just angry at the President made good on his pledge to end America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan,” Meeks said. “They are masking their displeasure with criticism but failed to offer feasible alternatives. Once again, we are seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy.”
Americans still in Afghanistan
But he also raised his concerns about Americans still stuck in Afghanistan. “I look forward to hearing from the secretary, how the State Department intends to complete its evacuation of the 100 to 200 Americans remaining in Afghanistan, who want to come home, as well as for evacuating those Afghans who worked alongside us during the past 20 years,” Meeks said.
Along with administration officials, lawmakers were taken by surprise as the Taliban swiftly trounced Afghan troops, leaving US citizens, legal permanent citizens and Afghans who worked with US troops and diplomats struggling to leave the country during the rushed evacuation effort — or left behind. Many lawmakers were personally drawn in as they scrambled to help constituents escape Kabul.
Just before Blinken appeared on the Hill, the Biden administration announced Monday that it is providing nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghans to provide food, health care, medical supplies and other relief.
Monday’s hearing is the first of two appearances Blinken is making before Congress this week to testify about Afghanistan.
This story has been updated with additional details Monday.
CNN’s Ellie Kaufman and Sonnet Swire contributed reporting.