U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced a second straight day of tough congressional questions on September 14, with both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee skewering him over the White House's handling of the military's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Much as he did during a testy hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee the previous day, Blinken on September 14 attempted to bat back bipartisan criticism that the withdrawal orchestrated by the administration of President Joe Biden resulted in the complete takeover by the Taliban and left many U.S. citizens, green-card holders, and at-risk Afghans stranded.
Both the top Democrat and the top Republican on the committee gave a scathing review of the U.S. withdrawal of U.S. forces after 20 years of military engagement in Afghanistan, with New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez saying it “was clearly and fatally flawed.”
“This committee expects to receive a full explanation of this administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January,” Menendez said. “There has to be accountability.”
Idaho Republican James Risch echoed those comments, calling the withdrawal a "dismal failure."
Blinken opened his testimony by defending the U.S. withdrawal, saying the Biden administration had done the best it could under extremely trying and chaotic circumstances and reiterating that "it was time to end America's longest war."
He said the Biden administration had been focused on the safety of Americans and prior to the withdrawal had been constantly assessing how long the Western-backed government in Kabul could survive.
He also repeated criticism of the Trump administration for its February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban that he said had tied Biden's hands, as well as the quick and unexpected collapse of the Afghan government and security forces that led to the Taliban takeover on August 15.
“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained," he said. “They were focused on what would happen after the United States withdrew, from September onward.”
Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) accused the Biden administration of trying to lay blame on the Trump administration for its own failures and demanded to know how the intelligence had been so wrong.
“This was a failure of policy and planning," Rubio said. "China, Russia, and Iran look at this as incompetence they might be able to exploit.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat-New Hampshire) said presidents and lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties shared blame.
“Let’s stop with the hypocrisy about who’s to blame,” she said, while criticizing the 2020 deal with the Taliban.
“I want to know where the outrage was when they were giving away the rights of women and girls,” Shaheen said, highlighting worries that the Taliban will return to the strict interpretation of Islamic law it employed while in power from 1996-2001.
During the Taliban's first stint in power, girls were not allowed to go to school and women were banned from work and education. Concerns about their plight have risen since the Taliban's return to power, with the UN high commissioner for human rights saying this week that women were progressively being "excluded from the public sphere."
Blinken said he would soon be appointing a senior official to oversee U.S. policy toward Afghan women and girls.
On the issue of evacuating at-risk Afghans and U.S. citizens who remain in Afghanistan, Blinken said that Washington is committed to getting them out if they want to leave. When questioned, he said that roughly 100 U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan. On September 13, he told the House committee that “several thousand” green-card holders remain.
Blinken pledged that the United States will continue to support humanitarian aid but through nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies, not the Taliban.