Report

Blinken Defends Afghanistan Withdrawal in First of Congressional Hearing Marathons

Republican lawmakers grilled Biden’s top diplomat over the end to the United States’ Afghan war.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden participate in a virtual diplomatic meeting.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, the opening salvo of a slew of congressional hearings aimed at addressing how a 20-year, more than $2 trillion war could end in a full-fledged Taliban victory.

Blinken told lawmakers the Biden administration did the best it could to rapidly evacuate as many Americans and vulnerable Afghans as possible given the rapid collapse of the Afghan government in the face of a rapid Taliban offensive. He also portrayed U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw as the least bad option left available to the United States after two decades of conflict.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump brokered a Feb. 2020 peace deal with the Taliban that gave the terrorist group political legitimacy, forced the Afghan government to free 5,000 Taliban fighters, and mandated a quick withdrawal of all U.S. fighting forces—with no plans for the country’s future stability. Biden ultimately kept U.S. forces in place for several months longer but still opted to pull out under the Trump deal’s broad terms.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, the opening salvo of a slew of congressional hearings aimed at addressing how a 20-year, more than $2 trillion war could end in a full-fledged Taliban victory.

Blinken told lawmakers the Biden administration did the best it could to rapidly evacuate as many Americans and vulnerable Afghans as possible given the rapid collapse of the Afghan government in the face of a rapid Taliban offensive. He also portrayed U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw as the least bad option left available to the United States after two decades of conflict.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump brokered a Feb. 2020 peace deal with the Taliban that gave the terrorist group political legitimacy, forced the Afghan government to free 5,000 Taliban fighters, and mandated a quick withdrawal of all U.S. fighting forces—with no plans for the country’s future stability. Biden ultimately kept U.S. forces in place for several months longer but still opted to pull out under the Trump deal’s broad terms.

“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Blinken told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining. If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another 10?”

The fall of the Afghan government “did not have to happen, but the president refused to listen to his own generals and the intelligence community, who warned him precisely what would happen when we withdrew,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban.”

Blinken’s testimony Monday, the first in a series on the war’s messy end, offered the most detailed preview yet of how the Biden administration will defend its decision to carry out Trump’s planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also gave a glimpse of how U.S. lawmakers—many of whom approved funding for the Afghanistan war effort during their decades-long careers in Congress—will seek to understand how 20 years of costly nation-building and counterterrorism operations went up in smoke in a matter of weeks.

During the hearing, Blinken, Democratic lawmakers, and even some Republican lawmakers sought to dole out blame for the botched withdrawal, underscoring both the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban and its deliberate sidelining of the then-Afghan government as well as the chaotic final days in Kabul that saw the death of 13 U.S. service members in a terror attack at Kabul’s airport.

“The Trump administration failed in the setup, and I think the Biden administration absolutely failed in the execution of this,” said Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger.

Around 100 U.S. citizens and potentially tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort and who want to evacuate have been left stranded in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

“We abandoned Americans behind enemy lines. We left behind the interpreters who you, Mr. Secretary, and the president both promised to protect,” McCaul said. “I can summarize this in one word: betrayal.”

The United States evacuated some 124,000 people total in the massive airlift operation, including at least 23,876 at-risk Afghans to the United States, between Aug. 17 and Aug. 31, the end of the U.S. presence in the country. But it is estimated the majority of Afghan interpreters and potentially tens of thousands of others eligible for special immigration visas to the United States due to their work supporting the U.S. war efforts were left behind.

Blinken said he remained committed to evacuating all Americans but did not offer any specific details on how the United States would make good on its past promises to evacuate the Afghan interpreters and their families. Now, the United States and its allies are warily watching whether the new Taliban rulers will make good on promises to provide safe passage for Afghans and foreigners seeking to flee the country.

The Taliban formed an all-male, all-Taliban interim government after sweeping to victory and taking hold of the country. The new cabinet, led by U.N.-blacklisted Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, consists of hard-liner Taliban veterans from the 1990s, many of whom were involved in deadly attacks across the country and on U.S. forces over the last 20 years.

The Taliban have said they will not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for foreign terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, that seek to strike the United States or its allies, but many U.S. officials and lawmakers are skeptical of these claims. Blinken said the administration would remain committed to addressing the threat but did not outline how it could do so without a diplomatic, military, or intelligence footprint in the country.

“The current assessment of the intelligence community is that long ago, al Qaeda was so significantly degraded that its not in a position to conduct externally directed attacks. But we will remain hyper vigilant about any reemergence of that threat,” he said.

Blinken’s even-keeled temperament and penchant for thanking and complimenting lawmakers during the hearing weren’t enough to quell the rage of Republican lawmakers who railed against the Biden administration’s evacuation efforts. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson briefly praised U.S. foreign service officers for their work, and then used his allotted question time to read aloud a New York Post editorial titled “6 lies Joe Biden told about Afghanistan.”

Left with little more than half a minute to respond, Blinken thanked Wilson for “his support for the men and women of the State Department; I appreciated that part of his statement.”

Blinken testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday while other top defense and intelligence officials are scheduled to testify on the same matter before other committees in the coming days.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Zinya Salfiti is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @zinyasalfitii

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.