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Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration's handling of Afghanistan before a House committee Monday afternoon, answering questions under oath for the first time since U.S. forces' chaotic withdrawal in testimony that turned heated at times.
Blinken faced tough questions from both sides of the political aisle on the U.S. withdrawal and the ongoing efforts to evacuate Americans in an almost-four hour hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Blinken has said the end of the almost 20-year war marked a "new chapter of America's engagement with Afghanistan," one "we will lead with our diplomacy."
Some House Republicans ripped Blinken during his over four hours of testimony, with Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina demanding he resign and Rep. Tim Burchett telling him he has "blood on your hands." Rep. Brian Mast of Florida calling him a liar and refusing to let him answer his question. "We don't need to hear lies," Mast said, accusing the administration of manipulating intelligence.
A clearly frustrated Blinken responded that "what the congressman said is simply wrong. Period."
In his opening statement, Blinken said the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban had left President Joe Biden with two options — "ending the war or escalating it."
"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," Blinken said.
He also pointed a finger at Congress for the slow pace of getting Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas out of the country, noting lawmakers created a complicated 14-step process for the visas, and that the Trump administration had left a backlog of 17,000 applicants.
"Within two weeks of taking office, we restarted the SIV interview process in Kabul. On February 4th, one of the first executive orders issued by President Biden directed us to immediately review the SIV program to identify causes of undue delay and find ways to process SIV applications more quickly," Blinken said. He added that efforts to get Americans and allies out of Afghanistan have been moving forward and will continue until every American citizen who wants to leave is out. He said "about 100" American citizens with intentions of leaving remain in Afghanistan.
Ahead of the hearing, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., told Fox News he planned to press Blinken on why the Biden administration was caught flat-footed by the swift collapse of the Afghan government.
"We knew that we saw all this coming. We have some of the best intelligence capabilities in the world," Steube said. "They just stood by and watched the Taliban take over Afghanistan."
Blinken maintained the speed of the government's fall was a surprise.
“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained. As General (Mark) Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, 'Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,'” Blinken said.
Lawmakers used the hearing to attack the leadership of each other's parties.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, called the administration's handling of the withdrawal "a disgrace" and "maybe the worst foreign Affairs disaster in American history."
Committee chair Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said the real disaster was "a war that has gone on for almost 20 years."
"Disentangling ourselves from the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy. And for my friends who presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed. I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy chaotic 20-year war looks like," Meeks said.
Blinken was later asked about what plans the Trump administration had left behind for the evacuation and withdrawal it had agreed to. "We inherited a deadline. We didn’t inherit a plan," Blinken said.
The hearing is the first of several this month on the withdrawal.
Blinken is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, while the chamber's Intelligence and Armed Services committees will have closed-door hearings later this week. Top military officials and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are scheduled to testify publicly before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28.