Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said Tuesday that the Biden administration’s execution of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was “clearly and fatally flawed” and demanded “a full explanation of this administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January.”
“There has to be accountability,” said Menendez, D-N.J. His harsh words initiated the second congressional hearing in as many days. The hearing featured testimony from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who attempted to defend the Biden administration's actions in Afghanistan against a torrent of tough questions and sharp critiques from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
While Menendez said the Trump administration’s “surrender deal” with the Taliban was largely to blame for the chaotic end of 20 years of war in Afghanistan, he questioned the Biden administration’s failure to begin evacuations from the country sooner, and accused the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House of providing “vague or contradictory” information throughout the process. He also expressed disappointment that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had declined to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, and said he “may consider the use of the committee’s subpoena power to compel him and others” to appear before the committee if Austin does not agree to do so “in the near future.”
“A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon — especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained-and-funded Afghan military,” Menendez said. According to Politico, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement that Austin "regrets that conflicting commitments made that appearance impracticable.” The defense secretary is scheduled to testify about the Afghanistan withdrawal before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28.
When Blinken appeared in person before the Senate panel Tuesday, his opening statement was nearly identical to the one he delivered via videoconference to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee one day earlier. In it, he blamed the Trump administration's withdrawal agreement with the Taliban for forcing Biden to withdraw troops when he did, and reiterated the assertion made by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Afghan government and security forces collapsed much more quickly than anyone had predicted.
Blinken hailed the U.S. evacuation operation as “an extraordinary effort” and insisted that the State Department “will continue to help Americans — and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment — depart Afghanistan if they choose.”
Senators asked many of the same questions that had been lobbed at Blinken during Monday’s hearing in the House. Among them were requests for more details about the administration’s plans to evacuate Americans, Afghan interpreters and others ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops last month, and for an update on the ongoing diplomatic effort to help remaining Americans and at-risk Afghans who want to get out of the country.
“You said you would have mechanisms for continued evacuations after 31 August,” charged Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. “Where is your plan?”
Risch, the ranking Republican on the committee, called the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal a “dismal failure” and echoed Menendez’s demand for Austin to testify.
“The fact that you’re the only one stepping up is disheartening,” Risch told Blinken.
Senators from both parties expressed doubts about whether the new Taliban-led government can be trusted to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe harbor for terrorist groups like al-Qaida, or to allow free travel out of the country for American citizens and at-risk Afghans who want to leave, as it has publicly promised to do.
“To demand the Taliban abide by its commitments now and expect a different result I think is somewhat absurd,” Menendez said in his opening remarks. While he conceded that “the Taliban rules Afghanistan, so we will have to deal with it in some form,” he said, “let’s not kid ourselves. There is no such thing as a reformed Taliban.”
Blinken, however, insisted in his opening remarks that the Biden administration expects 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.”
Pressed on what, exactly, the administration is doing to hold the Taliban accountable, Blinken cited existing U.S. sanctions, as well as a resolution passed last month by the U.N. Security Council which, he said, includes additional sanctions that can be levied against the Taliban if it fails to make good on such promises.
Blinken added that the State Department will soon appoint, at his direction, “a senior official responsible for focusing and marshaling all of our efforts for women and girls and minorities in Afghanistan.”
Among those who sought more information on the status of Americans and Afghan allies still trying to escape Afghanistan was Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who said he wanted to focus his questions on “the moral stain of leaving people behind.”
In response to a series of questions from Romney, Blinken repeated the same “very fluid” figures that he offered members of the House on Monday: The latest estimate of Americans in Afghanistan who want to leave is “about 100,” while the much less precise tally of legal permanent residents, or U.S. green card holders, who remain in the country is “in the thousands.”
For the second day in a row, Blinken declined to provide even a rough account of the number of Afghan interpreters and others in Afghanistan who have either received or are in the process of applying for a Special Immigrant Visa because their work with the U.S. military or government has placed them at heightened risk from the Taliban.
Blinken said exact figures on that group are not yet available because officials are still in the process of figuring out who, exactly, was evacuated during the U.S. military airlift operation, and what kind of protections they may be eligible for in the United States.
“The overwhelming majority of Afghans who have come out of Afghanistan thanks to our evacuation effort are in one way or another at risk,” he said.
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