WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 (Reuters) – Secretary of State Antony Blinken brushed aside criticism over the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on Monday in a controversial congressional hearing where at least two Republicans called on him to resign.
In five hours of often difficult discussions with lawmakers, Blinken defended President Joe Biden’s decision to step down and rebuffed accusations that the State Department should have done more to help at-risk Americans and Afghans to be evacuated, accusing the previous administration of missing a plan.
He has repeatedly noted that former Republican President Donald Trump negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, and said the Biden administration could not renegotiate due to threats from the group to start killing Americans again. .
“There is no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government more resilient or more self-sufficient,” Blinken said.
“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Blinken said, referring to the Trump administration’s agreement to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by the 1st. may.
Members of Congress – Biden Democrats as well as opposition Republicans – have vowed to investigate since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last month after a rapid advance.
Blinken appeared before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on Monday and was scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, the first official in the Biden administration to testify publicly before lawmakers since the militant group’s takeover Islamist.
Fireworks were expected, given the number of finger points on the end of the two-decade war. Many Republicans, especially those closely associated with Trump, interrupted or even shouted over Blinken during the House hearing, a departure for a committee known for its bipartisan cooperation.
Others have voiced harsh criticism.
“The American people don’t like to lose, especially not against terrorists. But that’s exactly what happened,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the panel’s top Republican.
McCaul asked why assets like Bagram Air Base were not being maintained and why the administration had not made anti-terrorism deals with neighboring countries.
“It is a threat to national security as China settles in. As far as I know, they are taking control of Bagram,” McCaul said.
Blinken said the United States is actively working to identify the threats.
A LOT OF QUESTIONS
Lawmakers asked a long list of questions about the rapid collapse of the US-backed Afghan government and rushed to evacuate 124,000 people.
Democrats have expressed concern about Americans and Afghans at risk who still want to leave, but supported withdrawal if necessary, if it were painful. “I would love to hear what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a chaotic and disorderly 20-year war looks like,” said Representative Gregory Meeks, chairman of the committee.
Blinken hailed the evacuation as “a heroic effort”. He pledged that the United States would continue to support humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, but through non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies, not the Taliban.
Afghanistan is in danger of running out of food as it faces a terrible drought in addition to political upheaval. “We must do all we can to make sure that the Afghan people do not suffer more than they already are,” said Blinken.
He said he had not personally spoken to members of the Taliban leadership. “Any legitimacy they could seek from the international community (…) will depend on their actions,” he said.
Blinken said he would appoint a senior State Department official to focus on supporting Afghan women, girls and minorities.
Republicans roasted in Blinken for what happened at Kabul airport during the evacuation ahead of the August 31 administration deadline set for departure. Thirteen American soldiers and dozens of Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing amid the chaos.
Democrats have said they want to address not only the seven months Biden was president before the fall of Kabul, but the 20 years of U.S. involvement in the country – under chairmen of both parties.
A US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban in 2001 after the September 11 attacks orchestrated by Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda leaders.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Humeyra Pamuk and Doina Chiacu, additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Peter Cooney, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall
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