'We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan': Blinken defends Afghanistan exit during testy House hearing

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WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken staunchly defended the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday during a contentious House hearing that highlighted lasting partisan divisions over America's longest war.

Republicans called President Joe Biden's decision and execution of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan a "disgrace" and "an unmitigated disaster" that leaves Americans vulnerable to future terrorist attacks.

"I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban," said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which held the hearing.

Democrats said the messy end to America's 20-year military presence in Afghanistan was inevitable, and they pointed the finger at former President Donald Trump, who negotiated the full U.S. withdrawal in a 2020 deal with the Taliban.

"Disentangling ourselves from ... Afghanistan was never going to be easy," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, the committee's chairman and a New York Democrat. "I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic 20-year war looks like ... I don't believe one exists."

The hearing marked the first time a top Biden administration official has testified publicly about the U.S. withdrawal and the chaotic effort to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies virtually in a House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on September 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. The committee questioned Blinken about the steps President Joe Biden's administration took during the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies virtually in a House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on September 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. The committee questioned Blinken about the steps President Joe Biden's administration took during the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan.

Here are the top takeaways from Monday's grilling.

A deadline, no plan

Blinken and Democratic lawmakers emphasized that when Biden came into office, he faced a May 1 deadline negotiated by Trump officials for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden extended the deadline to Sept. 11 but said any further delay of the withdrawal would have risked reigniting the conflict and risking the lives of American forces.

"When you came into office on Jan. 20, we were committed to pulling everyone out of Afghanistan within three months," noted Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. "Did the Trump administration leave on your desk a pile of notebooks as to exactly how to carry out that plan. ... How meticulous was the planning?"

"We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan," Blinken responded.

Biden's top diplomat noted that the Trump-negotiated deal paved the way for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including many of the militant Islamic group's top fighters who quickly returned to the battlefield.

"After 20 years, 2,641 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, and $2 trillion dollars spent, it was time to end America’s longest war," Blinken said in his opening remarks.

Evacuation ongoing, about 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan and want to leave

Blinken said about 100 American citizens remain in Afghanistan and want to leave. He said the State Department has assigned case workers to each U.S. citizen and is committed to evacuating those Americans who want to leave.

"People are making decisions hour-by-hour, if not day-by-day, about whether to leave or not," he said. The State Department offered 60 seats to Americans on two flights that left the country last week, but only 30 U.S. citizens were prepared to leave at that time.

"We offered seats on the planes that got out last week" to about 60 Americans, he said.

"Some declined to be on the first flights on Thursday and Friday for reasons including needing more time to make arrangements, wanting to remain with extended family for now, or medical issues that preclude traveling now," he said. "We will continue to help Americans – and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment – depart Afghanistan if they choose."

Blinken said he could not say how many legal permanent U.S. residents were still in Afghanistan, nor could he say how many Afghans eligible for special U.S. visas because of their service with American forces during the war were left behind.

Overall, the U.S. evacuated more than 120,000 Americans and Afghan allies before the U.S. military withdrew its last forces at the end of last month.

Blinken said he expected to have a more precise breakdown of that population in the coming weeks.

'You should resign'

Several Republicans, including Reps. Lee Zeldin of New York and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, used the hearing to call for Blinken's resignation.

Zeldin said the U.S. should not have set an "arbitrary" deadline for withdrawal.

"What we should have done was tell the Taliban that we are going to leave Afghanistan when we're done bringing every last American home," he said. "You should resign. That would be leadership."

Wilson accused Blinken and Biden of overriding the advice of military leaders.

Blinken appeared unfazed by the calls for his resignation and other GOP attacks throughout the hourslong session.

"Let me simply thank the representative for his support for the men and women of the State Department. I appreciated that part of the statement," he said in response to Wilson.

Blinken did show a flash of anger after more than four hours of questioning, when Rep. Ronny Jackson, a Texas Republican, seemed to suggest that State Department personnel had not been at risk in the evacuation operation.

"My team has been working 24/7, around the clock and around the world," he said. "They've been putting themselves on the line. They’ve been putting everything on the line."

Blinken grilled on U.S. military equipment left behind

The U.S. military likely abandoned tens of millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft, armored vehicles and sophisticated defensive systems in the rush to leave the airport in Kabul safely. And several Republicans asked Blinken to account for that trove of military equipment.

"Your legacy will be the Taliban flying our Black Hawk helicopters over Kabul," said Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla.

Blinken noted that millions of dollars in such equipment was handed over to the Afghan security forces, who had been America's allies in the war. But those fighters surrendered in a matter of days to the Taliban, and GOP lawmakers noted that some of those weapons are now in the hands of the militant Islamic group.

"Our folks worked very hard to disable or dismantle equipment that we controlled," Blinken said.

What isn't already disabled would be soon, he said, because the equipment needs to be maintained, and the Taliban doesn't have the capacity to do that.

Sherman said there was no way to get that equipment out of the country without either betraying Afghan security forces or risking major American casualties.

'No warning' of Ghani's plan to flee

Blinken was asked if he had a heads-up before then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul, a surprise development that paved the way for the Taliban to move into the city without a shot being fired.

Blinken said he had spoken with Ghani the day before and the Afghan leader assured him he was committed to a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban or would "fight to the death" if no agreement could be forged.

"He fled the next day. I had no advance warning of that," Blinken said.


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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: Antony Blinken defends U.S. withdrawal to House