Live: Blinken Is Grilled on Afghanistan in Congress

Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken is appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where lawmakers are asking questions about the withdrawal.

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Blinken faces public questioning from Congress for the first time since the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to testify about the government’s involvement in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover.CreditCredit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Sept. 13, 2021Updated 2:58 p.m. ET

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken defended the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw American forces and diplomats from Afghanistan on Monday, saying there was no evidence that the country would have stabilized had the United States remained, and that there was no way to predict its collapse as the Taliban advanced.

In his first public remarks to Congress, Mr. Blinken enumerated the efforts the United States has made to extract Americans from Afghanistan since the embassy closed and the military departed at the end of August. More than 50 American citizens and legal residents have departed Afghanistan over the last several days alone, in what Mr. Blinken described as a mission with no deadline.

He also repeated his commitment to Afghans who had worked for the United States or otherwise openly advocated its policies during the 20-year war and who now are vulnerable to Taliban retribution.

But, Mr. Blinken said, “it was time to end America’s longest war,” and he gave no indication that Mr. Biden had ever reconsidered that decision.

“There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining,” Mr. Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a live teleconference call. “If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, or five, or ten, make a difference?”

In his opening remarks, Mr. Blinken also briefly described months of threat assessments, aiming to clarify what the administration predicted would happen once American troops left. “Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained,” he said.

He maintained that the Biden administration would not abandon Afghanistan, noting continued diplomatic efforts and the nearly $64 million in humanitarian aid that the U.S. Agency for International Development announced Monday for relief agencies working in Afghanistan. Ninety percent of Afghans are living on less than $2 each day, according to the International Rescue Committee, and the looming threat of financial sanctions against the Taliban could further doom Afghanistan’s economy.

But it was clear that his message did not blunt the criticism by some lawmakers who have pointed to renewed terror threats, a sluggish visa processing system and the setback of Afghan women’s rights in demanding answers for why a military withdrawal that was 18 months in the making turned into a deadly crisis.

“We are now at the mercy of the Taliban’s reign of terror,” said Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the panel.

Another Republican, Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, said, “the administration’s bungled pullout from Afghanistan just may be the worst foreign affairs disaster in American history.”

The committee’s chairman, Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York, said ending the war was “never going to be easy for my friends who presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed.”

But he also suggested that the Trump administration bore responsibility for the deal that outlined the withdrawal and that the current outcry of criticism carried a partisan tinge: “Once again, you’re seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy,” Mr. Meeks said.

Ongoing diplomacy has continued, but from Doha, the capital of Qatar, and Mr. Biden has pointed to so-called “over the horizon” strikes in an effort to keep terrorists from gaining ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban has agreed to refuse refuge to terror groups as a condition of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was brokered during the Trump administration.

However, it is widely believed that Al Qaeda’s most senior leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is currently living in Afghanistan, which means “the Taliban is harboring Al Qaeda today,” Michael J. Morell, a former deputy and acting director of the C.I.A., told the CBS News program “Face The Nation” on Sunday. “I think that’s a very important point,” Mr. Morell said.

Top C.I.A. officials, including William J. Burns, the agency’s director, have acknowledged that they are looking for new ways to collect information in Afghanistan, and that their ability to gather information on terrorist activity is diminished.

Even Democrats who supported Mr. Biden’s decision to end the 20-year war have said they viewed the withdrawal with mixed feelings.

The vast number of American citizens, legal U.S. permanent residents, and Afghan allies who were not evacuated before the military departed on Aug. 30 are now vulnerable to Taliban “targets on their backs,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

“We’ve lost time precious time,” Mr. Blumental said on a call with reporters on Friday. “The situation of these individuals is desperate and urgent.”

Over the last two weeks, Mr. Blinken and other U.S. diplomats have urged allies in the region to restart commercial flights from the Kabul airport, which was badly dilapidated after the mass evacuation efforts, so that people with valid travel documents could leave.

The Taliban has agreed to let American citizens and residents depart, following a barrage of negotiations with U.S. officials. But the group has blocked Afghans — many of whom were stranded without proof of their employment with the American government when the U.S. Embassy in Kabul closed on Aug. 15.

Mr. Blinken has vowed that the United States would continue to pressure the Taliban to ensure safe passage for anyone who wants to leave Afghanistan. But the State Department has not said how it will provide clearances for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the government, and therefore qualify for special immigrant visas.

Mr. Blinken will have two days to make the administration’s case — before the House panel on Monday and in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

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