Blinken faces barrage of queries, criticism from senators over Afghanistan withdrawal

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Sept. 14, 2021.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken appears at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

For the second day, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Tuesday confronted a barrage of questions from U.S. lawmakers about last month's U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the attempts to rescue people and deal with a future Taliban government.

Blinken, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, repeatedly defended the evacuation operation by the State Department and U.S. military that airlifted more than 124,000 people, including almost all 6,000 U.S. citizens believed to be in Afghanistan at the time, as well as vulnerable Afghans.

Republicans especially have been hammering the administration for what was a chaotic withdrawal that ultimately stranded thousands of people attempting to escape and saw a suicide bombing purportedly by Islamic State militants that killed 13 U.S. service men and women and nearly 200 Afghans.

"There is not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig," said Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the committee.

''While I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, no American thinks we should have left this way," Risch continued before pursuing a tangential line of questioning over whether aides had cut off President Biden in his public comments. "America cannot end wars simply by walking away."

Blinken noted that it was the Trump administration that struck a deal with the Taliban that paved the way for the Islamist organization's return to government. The Trump administration also all but shut down the program to issue visas to Afghan interpreters and others the U.S. now wants to rescue. The secretary made the same points Monday before a House committee.

Blinken also faced questioning on how it will be possible to deal with a Taliban-led Afghanistan government, which so far has shown itself to be the same as when it ruled the country brutally in the 1990s, when it forced women out of public view and imposed an extreme form of Islam.

"Let's not kid ourselves: There is no such thing as a reformed Taliban," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chair. "This group is woefully stuck in the 14th century with no will to come out."

Bestowing recognition or legitimacy on such a government seems impossible, Menendez said.

Blinken said there are areas in which the U.S. must cooperate with the Taliban — such as in removing people from the country — but that formal recognition is a long way off and dependent on what the leaders do.

"We expect the Taliban to ensure freedom of travel; to make good on its counterterrorism commitments; to uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women, girls, minorities; to name a broadly representative permanent government; to forswear reprisals," Blinken said. "The legitimacy and support that it seeks from the international community will depend entirely on its conduct."

Senators from both parties questioned how U.S. intelligence could have so badly misjudged the staying power of the Afghan military and government, both of which essentially collapsed within 11 days. Blinken had no explanation.

The unexpectedly swift collapse "is what changed everything," Blinken testified. "Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained." Similar evaluations have been made by top Pentagon officials.

Several Republican senators used the hearing to highlight what they see as Biden's failings, not necessarily related to Afghanistan.

Some Democrats tried to plumb the broader and historic failures of the 20-year Afghanistan project. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia suggested the U.S. tried to impose on Afghanistan a system that Afghanistan did not want, which doomed the effort to failure.

Despite good intentions, Kaine said, "let's face it, we can't get 30% of Americans to get a vaccine; we can't get 30% of Americans to acknowledge the results of a presidential election.

"Do we really think we can determine what the culture of another county should be?"

Lawmakers also raised another overriding concern: whether Afghanistan once again becomes a haven for terrorists. Under the Taliban in the 1990s, Afghanistan was a refuge for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. A recent report by the United Nations said the Taliban has not severed ties with Al Qaeda as promised in the Trump agreement.

In a briefing Tuesday to the Intelligence and National Security Summit, the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, said it may only take 12 to 24 months for Al Qaeda to rebuild itself in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the U.S.

Blinken, in his testimony, acknowledged that the Taliban maintains ties with Al Qaeda.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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