Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified on Monday (Sept. 13) before the House Foreign Relations Committee on the withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan. It was expected to be a contentious hearing, with Republican lawmakers grilling the secretary on the botched effort to end the war. The event did not disappoint. But this is just the beginning of an overall effort to understand how the situation went so horribly wrong.
Blinken Defends Withdrawal Effort
Before the questioning began, Blinken gave opening remarks in which he seemed to blame former President Donald Trump for the chaotic and deadly withdrawal.
“When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining forces from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year,” he said. “As part of that agreement, the previous administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners – including some top war commanders. Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2,500 troops.”
Blinken claimed that President Joe Biden “immediately faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it.” He continued:
“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. That would have required sending substantially more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to defend ourselves and prevent a Taliban takeover, taking casualties – and with at best the prospect of restoring a stalemate and remaining stuck in Afghanistan, under fire, indefinitely.”
Blinken spent the hours-long hearing attempting to fend off attacks and blistering questions from Republican lawmakers who ripped apart the flawed strategy employed by the Biden administration to accomplish the withdrawal.
The secretary declared that the United States is committed to extricating the remaining 100 Americans who wish to leave the country, claiming that a significant number of these individuals had dual citizenship and had trouble deciding whether to stay in Afghanistan or flee to America. He declined to explain whether the U.S. government would evacuate the thousands of Afghan allies who applied for visas. The Taliban will likely target these individuals if they are not allowed to leave the country.
Republicans and Democrats Mobilize
Republican lawmakers honed in on the series of missteps that led to the disastrous situation in Afghanistan and highlighted the 13 service members killed in the suicide bombing carried out by ISIS-K. “Our standing on the world stage has been greatly diminished,” said Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), the ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He accused Blinken of “betraying” the Afghan allies who had assisted the U.S. military during the occupation.
Republicans also questioned Blinken on the leaked transcript of a phone call between Biden and former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In the call, Biden appeared to pressure Ghani to deceptively portray the situation with the resurgent Taliban as under control, but the secretary refused to comment on the exchange.
Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH) also laid into the Biden administration, calling the withdrawal “a disgrace” and “maybe the worst foreign affairs disaster in American history.”
The Democrats, for their part, employed a strategy of distraction. Left-leaning lawmakers continually attempted to blame the mess on Trump. Democrat committee members emphasized the deal the former president made with the Taliban, insinuating that Biden was somehow shackled by that agreement.
Foreign Affairs Chair Gregory Meeks (D-NY) said: “We are seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy.”
During the hearing, the only concession Blinken made about the withdrawal effort was that the situation “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” but he maintained that it was a success. He denied the administration had received intelligence that the Taliban would rapidly take over the country amid the evacuation. He also claimed the State Department did not prevent Americans from fleeing the country, contrary to recent reports.
Will This Have an Impact?
Despite the Democrats’ best efforts, Blinken – and by extension the Biden administration – did not come out of this favorably. Indeed, the secretary often ducked and dodged difficult questions posed by Republicans, appearing flustered at times and stammering his way through several queries. Republicans highlighted the flaws in Biden’s handling of the withdrawal and focused on the consequences of the botched effort.
The Democrats’ strategy of blaming Trump was likely the only one they could have employed, given the circumstances. However, it is not probable they will convince anyone that it was his fault other than the folks who want to believe it. On Tuesday (Sept. 14), Blinken is set to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will likely proceed in a similar fashion.
Read more from Jeff Charles.