Infuriated Republicans demanded Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s resignation Monday for his handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, House Democrats mounted a well-coordinated defense of the Biden administration and tried to deflect virtually all of the blame for the chaotic, deadly exit onto former President Donald Trump.
Mr. Blinken‘s appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee was the first opportunity for lawmakers to question top officials in the wake of the lightning Taliban victory and chaotic U.S. pullout in Afghanistan.
It underscored how quickly the withdrawal of American forces has turned partisan on Capitol Hill. Republicans accuse the Biden administration of sheer incompetence in turning over Afghanistan to the hard-line Taliban. The militant group is back in control of Kabul after rolling over the U.S.-trained Afghan army last month and capturing a vast cache of American weapons and vehicles in the process.
“Mr. Secretary, the American people don’t like to lose — especially not to terrorists,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the panel. “But that is exactly what happened. This emboldened Taliban — a designated terrorist group — is now equipped with more American weapons than most countries in the world.”
Top Republicans also hammered Mr. Blinken for leaving American citizens and Afghan allies in Afghanistan despite repeated promises to the contrary and for prematurely abandoning key U.S. facilities, such as Bagram Airfield, that could have been invaluable resources during the frantic airlift.
The aftershocks of those two developments have not subsided. At least 100 Americans still in Afghanistan want to leave, Mr. Blinken said, and there is growing concern that China could strike a deal with the Taliban to take control of operations at Bagram.
But in the eyes of Democrats, the Biden administration performed admirably after being hamstrung by Mr. Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who signed off on a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that paved the way for the U.S. withdrawal.
“It’s amazing it wasn’t much, much worse,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, echoing others in his party who argued that it was impossible to leave Afghanistan smoothly after 20 years of war.
Mr. Blinken praised State Department officials who he said worked day and night to get U.S. citizens and Afghan allies through the gates at the airport in Kabul, even in the face of a suicide attack by the terrorist group ISIS-K that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 160 Afghans. Mr. Blinken said Washington will keep working on getting Americans, Afghan translators and other vulnerable people out of the country.
More broadly, he argued repeatedly that Mr. Trump‘s policies tied the administration’s hands.
“When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining forces from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year,” said Mr. Blinken, appearing by video conference from his office at the State Department. “By January 2021, the Taliban was in the strongest military position it had been in since 9/11, and we had the smallest number of troops on the ground since 2001.”
Although the Trump administration negotiated a withdrawal date, he said, little work remained to prepare for that exit.
“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” said Mr. Blinken, glossing over the fact that Mr. Biden unilaterally moved the withdrawal deadline to Aug. 31.
Mr. Blinken faces a second round of criticism Tuesday as he testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Shaping the narrative
The Trump administration did indeed sign a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that called for a conditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces in exchange for security guarantees from the insurgent group. But critics have argued that Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken could have altered that agreement once it became clear that the Taliban had no intention of living up to their promises, most notably a pledge to break all ties with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
Even if the administration stuck to the withdrawal timetable, critics say, the State Department and Pentagon should have had a better plan in place to get Americans and vulnerable Afghans out of the country quickly — and someone should be held accountable for the failure to prepare.
“You should resign,” Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, told Mr. Blinken.
Faced with withering Republican criticism over how quickly the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, Mr. Blinken and Democratic allies again blamed Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo. They said the Republicans erred by including in the U.S.-Taliban deal an agreement that thousands of Taliban fighters would be released from Afghan prisons.
“Trump‘s deal forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 prisoners and offered international legitimacy to the Taliban,” said committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat.
That accusation prompted a direct response from Mr. Trump later Monday afternoon.
“The inept Afghan government, led by corrupt [former Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani, released 5,000 prisoners — not the Trump administration,” the former president said in a statement, released while Mr. Blinken was still testifying before the committee.
“Secretary of State Blinken is doing everything in his power to make the most inept withdrawal in history look, at least, acceptable,” Mr. Trump said. “It never will. Now it is understood, on top of everything else, that billions of dollars will be paid to Afghanistan to help them along the way. The so-called leaders of our country have gone crazy!”
Tensions boiled over during Rep. Brian Mast’s questioning late in the hearing. The Florida Republican grilled the secretary about leaked transcripts of Mr. Biden’s final call with Mr. Ghani in July. In the call, Mr. Biden reportedly compelled Mr. Ghani to change the “perception” of the Afghan security forces’ failing opposition against the Taliban offensive, “whether it is true or not.”
Mr. Ghani fled the country days before the fall of Kabul, even as some of the top figures in his government stayed to try to negotiate with Afghanistan‘s new Taliban leadership.
“Mr. Secretary, as the transcript, the ‘leaked transcript’ as you refer to it, says, did President Biden work with the coward exiled [president] of Afghanistan to manipulate intelligence about the Taliban?” Mr. Mast asked.
“What the president said to then-President Ghani in private is exactly what he said in public,” Mr. Blinken responded. “That the issue was not whether Afghanistan had the capacity to withstand the Taliban. It’s whether it had the will and the plan to do so.”
The State Department has helped a trickle of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents make it out of Afghanistan over the past week. Still, several charter planes at the Mazar-i-Sharif airport remained blocked amid deteriorating State Department communication with the Taliban.
Mr. McCaul called the episode a “hostage situation” and worried that the Taliban will continue to use U.S. citizens stuck in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to gain recognition from the U.S. government.
Those concerns further escalated last week as the Taliban appointed several members of the Haqqani network to senior positions within the interim Afghan government.
“We are now at the mercy of this Taliban’s reign of terror,” Mr. McCaul said, “all while a dark veil of Shariah law covers Afghanistan.”