WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democrats and Republicans alike grilled Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday, with the nation’s top diplomat pointing blame at the Afghan government and former President Donald Trump.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the panel’s top Republican, called the Biden administration’s withdrawal “rushed and embarrassing,” and said it left “a stain on America’s credibility that will have implications for years.”
“While I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, no American thinks we should have left this way,” Risch added. “America cannot end wars simply by walking away.”
Blinken’s testimony came a day after he appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee as Congress ramps up oversight on the chaotic final days of the two-decade U.S. war, America’s longest, in the south-central Asian nation.
The State Department chief argued President Joe Biden had little choice but to go ahead with the withdrawal after the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that included a full U.S. exit by May 1. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to temporarily pause attacks on U.S. and NATO troops.
The Afghan government, which the Trump administration excluded from that agreement, collapsed as a Taliban offensive made stunning gains and took control of Kabul on Aug. 15, after little more than a week of fighting.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked Blinken whether the administration had asked the Afghan government to consolidate its forces to defend the capital. Blinken told Merkley the administration had “repeatedly pressed” the Afghan government to do so, but that such a move “never took shape.”
When Merkley asked whether former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had given any indication he would flee the country during the fall of Kabul, an exasperated Blinken recalled a conversation on Aug. 14, just a day before Taliban forces reached the capital, in which Ghani told him he would “fight to the death.”
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the panel’s Democratic chairman, didn’t shy away from criticizing the administration’s handling of the withdrawal, which he called “clearly and fatally flawed.” But Menendez blamed what he called Trump’s “surrender deal” with the Taliban, saying the agreement was “clearly built on a set of lies.”
Risch criticized the Biden administration for blaming Trump, arguing that the former president would not have completed the withdrawal unless the Taliban had met all the conditions in the peace agreement. But the Idaho Republican spent much of his time pressing Blinken on an unrelated issue.
At an event at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Monday, Biden made brief remarks during a “pool spray” where reporters had access before being ushered out as a private meeting between the president, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and fire officials began. That portion of the event was also streamed online, with the broadcast cut just as Biden began to ask a question of Washington State Forester George Geissler.
After a Republican National Committee Twitter account shared a clip of the final seconds of the public event, several right-wing media outlets published stories suggesting Biden was being censored by his handlers, and Risch took up that narrative in his questioning of Blinken.
“Somebody in the White House who has authority to press the button and stop the president, cut off the president’s speaking ability and sound,” Risch said. “Who is that person?”
“I think anyone who knows the president, including members of this committee, knows he speaks very clearly and very deliberately for himself,” Blinken replied. “No one else does.”
While a handful of local reporters were allowed inside the NIFC campus, they were not allowed to ask Biden any questions. On Sept. 7, Politico reported some Biden aides fear the famously gaffe-prone president will go off message, and have tried to stop him from taking questions from the media.