On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared before Congress for the second time this week—this time to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On Monday, Blinken’s appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee became heated, as Democrats and Republicans hurled accusations at rival party administrations. While debates in the upper chamber were calmer, they put on full display fundamental disagreements about whether the blame for the crisis should be put on former President Donald Trump or sitting President Joe Biden.
Blinken Defends Biden Administration
In the same prepared speech given to the House Monday, Blinken defended the actions of the Biden administration in Afghanistan.
He began by saying that the United States had two main goals in going into Afghanistan in the first place: “bringing justice to al-Qaeda” for its role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and ensuring that the country could not be used as a launching point for another such terror attack. These goals, said Blinken, were “completed long ago.”
Still, Blinken indicated that the current administration felt forced into conforming with the deal made by Trump with the Taliban. Biden had two choices when he came into office and inherited this deal, Blinken said: “ending the war or escalating it.”
Here, Blinken is referencing Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban that would have fulfilled one of the president’s campaign promises to get the country out of the war.
The former president has been heavily critical of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. In discussions of the situation, Trump has been open about the deal that he and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made with the Taliban, but has remained insistent that this deal would have been reliant on the Taliban meeting several conditions and that his administration would have handled the situation much differently.
Blinken then pointed to the successes of the administration during the crisis.
He said that in March, just weeks after Biden took office, the State Department was telling Americans to leave the country and offering to help them do so. At the same time, he claimed, the administration worked to speed up the processing of special immigrant visas (SIVs), a usually long and arduous process under standing law; the Trump administration, he added, had done little on this front.
Repeating an often-stated refrain, Blinken said that the rapid decay of the country’s political and military situation defied all predictions. Blinken said that “even the most pessimistic prediction” did not indicate such a quick collapse.
Democrats Criticize Biden Admin
The hearing opened with words from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman. Immediately following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, Menendez had promised that the committee would investigate U.S. policy on Afghanistan upon its return from August recess.
Despite his general alignment with Biden politically, Menendez was critical of the Afghanistan fiasco in his opening remarks. Menendez observed that “the execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed.” For those flaws, Menendez said, Blinken, representing the administration, would have to give Congress a full explanation of Biden’s decisions.
The rapid collapse of the country, Menendez said, demonstrated to him that “consecutive administrations lied to Congress” about the state of affairs in Afghanistan.
Speaking to reports about the Biden administration pursuing diplomatic ties with the Taliban terrorist organization, Menendez exclaimed that “there is no such thing as a reformed Taliban.” The strict Islamist group, he continued, is “stuck in the 14th century and refuse[s] to come out.”
Further brushing aside notions of building diplomatic ties with the terrorist group, Menendez argued that the administration should maintain existing sanctions on the nation but should also send humanitarian aid to its citizens, who are among the poorest in the world.
If the administration was going to pursue these ties and recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, Menendez said, the group must meet several conditions before a positive relationship is even considered. Among these conditions, Menendez listed a complete renunciation of harboring terrorists, guaranteeing the rights of women and minorities, renouncing the drug trade as a form of profit for the state, and building a truly democratic and inclusive government.
The information Congress had gotten from the Biden White House, Menendez said, was “vague and contradictory.”
Later, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) opened her remarks by saying that she “share[d] frustration with [her] colleagues.”
But like many Democrats in both chambers, Shaheen expressed a feeling that the blame did not lie exclusively with Biden, but with Trump and former presidents Barack Obama and George Bush. The collapse of Afghanistan, she said, came from “both Democratic and Republican administrations.”
She blasted Republicans for blocking Congress from bringing more special immigrant visa (SIV) applicants to the United States under the guidance of Trump. She said there’s a “lot of regret and a lot of recriminations to go around.”
Near the end of the hearing, moderate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Hillary Clinton’s former running mate, also expressed some doubts about the administration’s handling of the situation.
Criticizing Blinken’s claim that “the most pessimistic predictions” did not show such a quick collapse of Afghanistan, Kaine said, “I don’t believe that.” He conceded that such negative assessments were likely not the majority opinion, but considered it unlikely that they were not foreseen by any analysts.
On the other hand, Kaine said that despite the problems in how the withdrawal was handled, he felt that the Biden administration had made the correct choice in leaving the country and ending America’s longest war.
Kaine said, “I’m relieved that a child born in Nova Fairfax today is not in a nation at war.” Biden, Kaine continued, “had the courage to say ‘this nation is not a nation that should be permanently at war.’”
Still, while some Democrats conceded that Biden bore some of the blame and made errors in executing the withdrawal, almost all agreed that Trump bore a great deal of the blame for the situation as well.
Republicans Go On Offense Against ‘Strategic Unforced Error’
While Democrats sought to push much of the blame for the unpopular fiasco onto the Trump-era deal with the Taliban, Republicans were far more critical of the sitting administration.
Ranking minority member Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) spoke first for Republicans.
Like many other Republicans throughout the hearing would do, Risch acknowledged that he supported an end to the Afghanistan war, but not in the way that Biden’s administration carried out the logistics of ending the war.
The mishandled withdrawal of U.S. troops, Risch said, was a “strategic unforced error” with dire consequences. Among these, Risch warned, the withdrawal and the return of the Taliban had created “a safe haven for terrorists.” Moreover, Risch said that U.S. allies’ confidence in the nation has been “shattered.”
Risch made clear that he felt blame should fall squarely on Biden as the sitting president rather than being brushed to Trump. He asserted that “the preventable tragedy that unfolded at the airport in Kabul was a disaster of leadership and of the administration’s own making.” He further emphasized that “the Biden administration alone is responsible for this debacle and its consequences.”
Later, Sen. Marcio Rubio (R-Fla.) expressed concerns about the administration’s lack of preparedness for the rapid fall of the nation.
He mentioned several assessments he had seen that indicated that “it was gonna hit the fan.” Rubio continued, saying that with these assessments, “we had every reason to plan for the rapid collapse of the Afghani government and military.”
Rubio accused Biden of relying on a “naive optimistic prediction” in order to advance his plans to be out of the country by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “Either someone didn’t see this or someone didn’t want to see this,” Rubio ruled.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also added that Blinken and Biden presented the situation as “a smashing success” rather than “an extreme debacle,” indicating a serious “detachment from reality.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) commented on the same subject that this positive spin of the crisis is “the lie of the 21st century” and a “delusion.”
Barrasso also added to Blinken, “You nearly broke your shoulder patting yourself on the back for the great job you’ve done.”
Rand Paul Has Heated Exchange With Blinken
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has long been against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, noted that he was glad that the 20-year conflict was over. But, he continued, “never in my worst nightmares” would an administration have the “colossal incompetence” to leave billions of dollars in military equipment to the Taliban.
Another instance of this “colossal incompetence,” Paul said, was the sudden decision to abandon Bagram Airfield without warning. He called it “one of the worst military decisions in our history,” and warned Blinken that it “will be remembered by the people.”
Paul also referenced a report by The New York Times that a missile attack killed an aid worker after he was misidentified as an ISIS-K operative carrying a bomb. When Paul asked Blinken about the truth of this story, Blinken refused to comment beyond saying that the State Department was looking into the situation.
“You’d think you’d know” whether the person was an aid worker or an ISIS-K terrorist “before using a predator missile,” Paul quipped.
Paul, who has often argued against such indiscriminate bombings, warned that if the reports were true and an aid worker was the one killed, the administration could “create hundreds or thousands of new terrorists.”
Instead, Paul suggested, the administration should have focused on bombing the helicopters and other military equipment left behind rather than on bombing someone whose identity was not known.