Antony Blinken faces another grilling on Capitol Hill over Afghanistan exit

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Congressional Republicans took Secretary of State Antony Blinken to task for the second day in a row Tuesday over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, charging that a series of historically bad decisions by top officials across the Biden administration has disheartened allies, emboldened the Taliban and al Qaeda, and potentially put Americans at risk.

Mr. Blinken‘s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee even saw leading Republicans openly question whether President Biden is actually the one making decisions on Afghanistan and on American foreign policy more broadly. They cited several recent instances in which White House officials seem to have cut the president’s microphone mid-sentence in arguing that other mysterious figures in the administration may hold the real power.

Mr. Blinken flatly rejected those assertions. And just as he did a day earlier in an appearance before House lawmakers, he joined with Senate Democrats in turning the blame for the ignominious Afghan endgame on former President Trump, who signed the original U.S. peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that set the American troop pullout in motion.

Mr. Biden followed through on the major points of that deal and pulled out all American forces last month even as the country was falling into the hands of the militant Taliban insurgency.

Few Republicans argued that the U.S. should have remained in Afghanistan indefinitely. Instead, they took aim at Mr. Blinken and other administration officials for failing to prepare for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the failure to develop a plan to quickly evacuate U.S. diplomatic personnel and citizens. They rejected Mr. Blinken‘s repeated claim that no one could have predicted the U.S.-backed Afghan government and its 300,000-strong military would fall so quickly and easily.

“If in fact the people in charge of our foreign policy did not see all these factors and conclude there was a very real possibility of a very rapid collapse, then we have the wrong people making military and diplomacy decisions in our government,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.

But Mr. Blinken, appearing in person before the Senate panel, stood his ground and defended the frantic U.S.-led airlift out of Kabul last month, blaming the Afghan government for much of the chaos.

“That emergency evacuation was sparked by the collapse of the Afghan security forces and government,” he said. “… Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained.”

Mr. Blinken also faced questions about the circumstances in which the administration could formally recognize and work with the new Taliban government in Afghanistan. There is serious concern that the Taliban will again offer safe haven to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, though Taliban officials have tried to downplay that possibility.

“We will not allow anyone or any groups to use our soil against any other countries,” Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqi told reporters in Kabul on Tuesday.

That Taliban government is now among the best-equipped fighting forces in the region, thanks to the massive cache of U.S. weapons and vehicles it captured in recent months as American combat forces hastily departed. 

The failure to secure more of that equipment, Republicans said, is a catastrophe for U.S. national security.

“Never in my worst nightmares could I have imagined an administration would leave $80 billion of weaponry to the Taliban,” said Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican.

The U.S. over the past two decades since the 2001 invasion has provided more than $80 billion in weapons and other support to the Afghan security forces. It’s unclear exactly what monetary value can be put on the equipment now in Taliban hands.

Mr. Paul and other Republicans also blasted the administration for giving up control of the Bagram air base north of Kabul before the U.S. withdrawal was complete. Mr. Blinken wasn’t directly involved in that decision, which was made by the top leadership at the Pentagon.

Even top Democrats were visibly frustrated that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other Pentagon officials did not attend Tuesday’s hearing to explain that move and others.

“I’m very disappointed that Secretary Austin declined our request to testify today. A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and funded Afghan military,” said committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, at the outset of the hearing.

Mr. Austin’s “decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees,” the senator continued. “I expect the secretary will avail himself to the committee in the near future. And if he does not, I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others [involved in Afghanistan decision-making] over the course of these last 20 years to testify.”

A Pentagon spokesman later Tuesday said that Mr. Austin could not appear because of scheduling conflicts. He is expected to testify before other Senate and House panels later this month.

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