Secretary of State Blinken faces bipartisan grilling on Afghanistan amid country’s rapid collapse

Democrat and Republican senators alike grilled Secretary of State Anthony Blinken about the Biden administration’s chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Mr Blinken spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, a day after testifying before the House, and defended the administration’s approach. But he faced bipartisan criticism on the Hill.

“Mr Secretary, the execution of the US withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in his opening remarks. “This committee expects to receive a full explanation of this administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January.”

Senator James Risch, the ranking Republican member on the committee, criticised the fact that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin did join Mr Blinken and testify.

“There’s questions that we really need to have answered, and it’s disheartening that they decline to testify. The debacle in Afghanistan is an interagency failure, and the fact that you are the only one stepping up is disheartening,” Mr Risch said in his opening remarks.

Blinken confirms 100 still await evacuation from Afghanistan

Throughout the hearing, members of both parties asked Mr Blinken pressed Mr Blinken on the drawdown, which operated under a deadline set by previous President Donald Trump. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida railed against the administration for not realising how quickly the Afghan government and security forces would fall to the Taliban.

“It doesn’t take some exquisite piece of intelligence or brilliant analysis to conclude that if you radically change an already bad status quo by removing US and NATO forces, by ending enablers and air support, the status quo was going to collapse and enable to Taliban,” Mr Rubio said.

Mr Blinken responded that as of February, the overall intelligence assessment indicated the worst-case scenario was that the Afghan government would fall to the Taliban within a year or two. By July, Mr Blinken said, the assessment was that it would fall by the end of the calendar year.

“You’re right that I think we need to look back at all of this because, to your point, we collectively over 20 years invested extraordinary amounts in those security forces and found that government,” he said. “Based on that, as well as based on what we were looking at real-time, again, we did not see this collapse in a matter of 11 days.”

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with criticising the administration’s use of a drone strike against supposed ISIS-K targets, said the fatal mistake of the US operation was to abandon Bagram Air Force Base.

“But leaving Bagram Air Force Base I think is an unforgivable sort of mistake,” he said. “It’s going to be remembered in history. But if you do nothing about it, you leave all these people in place and say ‘oh, well we all agreed,’ it’s like, well maybe everybody needs to go.”

But Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said objections like holding onto Bagram were made because they knew saying that staying in Afghanistan longer was politically untenable.

“The defence establishment, political appointees, so-called think tank experts, are complaining loudly about tactics because it’s their strategy that failed,” he said. “They are complaining about how America’s longest war ended because they didn’t want it to ever end.”

Mr Blinken agreed with the sentiment.

“We went to Afghanistan for one reason, and that was to deal with the people who attacked us on 9/11, to bring them to justice and to the best of our ability, make sure that would not happen again in Afghanistan,” he said, pointing to the death of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda being degraded in the nation.

Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee said that Mr Biden calling the evacuation a success was “beyond the pale” and noted he had visited the United Kingdom and NATO.

“And their sense of surprise and enragement is palpable,” he said. “We have a very significant failure that’s taken place here, a failure of global proportion. And it’s placed our allies in the position of questioning America’s resolve, of questioning our nation’s integrity.”

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said she had opposed the withdrawal but also railed against Republicans for opposing her and the late Sen John McCain’s efforts to process more special immigrant visa applicants.

“I do think we need an accounting, that’s important for history and for us going forward, but let’s stop with the hypocrisy about who’s to blame, there’s a lot of people to blame and we all share in it,” he said.

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