Fresh off the verbal beating he received in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had round two on Tuesday with the Senate. The second time around did not go any better for the official, who is in the unenviable position of having to spin President Joe Biden’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal into something resembling competency.
Senate Questions Blinken
Blinken’s opening statement was much like the one he gave to the House on Monday. He followed the administration’s plan of pretending the Afghanistan fiasco was former President Donald Trump’s fault. He said:
“When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining U.S. troops by May 1 of this year. 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.”
One of the more noteworthy moments in the hearing came when a top Senate Democrat excoriated the Biden administration for mishandling the withdrawal and evacuation efforts. In his opening remarks, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) stated that the “execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed.” He continued: “This committee expects to receive a full explanation of the administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January. There has to be accountability.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) also slammed the president’s handling of the evacuation. “I’ve advocated for an end to the Afghan war for over a decade. I’m glad it’s finally over,” he said. “But never in my worst nightmares did anyone … conceive of such a colossal incompetence.” In a particularly heated moment, Paul asked Blinken whether a drone strike carried out on August 29 killed an Afghan aid worker or an ISIS-K terrorist. When Blinken stated he didn’t know, Paul said: “You’d think you’d kind of know before you off someone with a predator drone.” He continued, pointing out that if the target was an Afghan civilian, terrorist groups could use the strike as propaganda to recruit new members.
Sen. James Risch (R-ID) added to the criticism of the Biden administration, noting that the withdrawal and evacuation effort will have consequences in the future. He said that Biden “presented the American people with a false choice in Afghanistan and the rushed and embarrassing retreat is a stain on America’s credibility that will have implications for years to come.” Risch also called out the Democrats’ attempt to blame the debacle on Trump:
“I feel this administration is trying to blame the prior administration, and contrary to some that have said that the prior administration started this is responsible, that’s simply not true.”
For their part, Senate Democrats were more willing to criticize the Biden administration than their counterparts in the House. But they still employed the “blame Trump” strategy to distract from the president’s incompetence.
These are likely the first in a series of hearings to get to the bottom of how the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated so horribly. Lawmakers indicated they wished to question Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who stated he would not appear before Congress. However, there has been talk of issuing a subpoena to compel his testimony. Sen. Menendez stated that he expects Austin “will avail himself to the committee in the near future” and that “if he does not, I may consider the use of the committee’s subpoena power to compel him and others to testify.”
Republican lawmakers will undoubtedly want to question other members of the Biden administration as well. If they retake the House, Senate, or both, in the 2022 midterms, it is probable they will launch further investigations into the affair, which will spell nothing but trouble for the Democrats and their prospects for holding the White House in 2024. One thing is clear: This isn’t over yet.
Read more from Jeff Charles.