Cables, Drones, Lipstick on Pigs: Highlights of Blinken’s Congressional Grilling on Afghan Disaster

© REUTERS / POOLU.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacts during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2021. Picture taken September 14, 2021. Drew Angerer/Pool via REUTERS
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reacts during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2021. Picture taken September 14, 2021. Drew Angerer/Pool via REUTERS - Sputnik International, 1920, 14.09.2021
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The US-backed Afghan government in Kabul disintegrated on 15 August, just over four months after President Biden’s announcement that Washington would be pulling all troops out of the country by summer’s end, and 10 days after the Taliban* began blitzing Afghanistan’s cities.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced day two of his congressional testimony on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Tuesday, a day after he appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Tuesday’s testimony saw the US top diplomat facing off against the senators, among them some of the most vociferous critics of the Biden administration in the wake of its humiliating retreat from Afghanistan.
Blame Game
Blinken began his testimony with an opening statement emphasising that his boss, Joe Biden, was not the one who kicked off the process which would culminate in the US’s withdrawal.
“When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining US forces in Afghanistan by 1 May of this year. As part of that agreement, the previous administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including some top commanders. Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2,500 troops,” Blinken recalled. “By January of 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 9/11, and we had the smallest number of US forces in Afghanistan since 2001,” he added.
Blinken repeated Biden’s oft-stated talking point that had the White House not followed through with the withdrawal agreement, the Taliban would resume its attacks on US forces, causing casualties and requiring additional US troops, and aiding “strategic competitors” and “adversaries” including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, who would like to see America “remain bogged down in Afghanistan for another decade.”

“There is no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces, or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining,” the secretary stressed, pointing out the 20 years and $2 trillion did not stop the Kabul government or its army of 300,000 from crumbling in a few months.

‘Clearly and Fatally Flawed’ Withdrawal
Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D) began questioning with a discussion of the chaotic nature of the US withdrawal, telling Blinken that “the execution of the withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” and stressing that “there has to be accountability” on the matter, not just from the Biden administration, but its predecessors as well.
Menendez went on to threaten to subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin if he declined to appear before the Senate voluntarily, saying the Pentagon chief’s refusal to testify would “affect [his] personal judgement of Department of Defense nominees.”
Answering Menendez’ questions, Blinken insisted that the administration had begun planning for a “worst-case scenario” for Afghanistan in the spring, including the possible need to take control over Kabul’s airport and to evacuate the US Embassy in 48 hours if necessary. He also defended Washington’s special immigrant visa (SIV) programme for Afghans who assisted the US during its occupation, saying that a “quadrupling” of SIV processing occurred starting in the spring of 2021.
‘Not Enough Lipstick in the World for This Pig’
Senator James Risch grilled the secretary on the damage done to America’s reputation, both at home and abroad, by the chaotic Afghan withdrawal.

“I’m not talking from a partisan basis, this goes both ways. There is not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig to make it look any different from what it actually is. The American people wanna know who’s responsible for this,” Risch said.

Blinken said the responsibility was shared – that Biden was “ultimately” responsible for the strategic decisions, and “different agencies, agency heads, agency officials” were responsible for the “tactical” ones.
Risch went on to ask Blinken about warnings he’d received from forces on the ground in Afghanistan about the dire situation there, including a 13 July cable warning from the US Embassy in Kabul about the Taliban’s rapid advance and the perceived danger of an imminent collapse of the government.
“Senator, I certainly received this cable in mid-July. I read it. I responded to it,” Blinken responded. “It did not suggest that the government and security forces were going to collapse prior to our departure,” he insisted. “It did express real concerns about the durability of that government force after our departure, and it focused on the efforts that we were making, particularly on the SIV front.”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio accused the Biden administration of ignoring evidence that the Afghan military and government would collapse, admitting that even while Trump was president, “at the beginning of 2020…we had already a bad status quo in Afghanistan. We had a small footprint, but we had a strong commitment to air support, and that sustained the Afghan security forces’ ability to resist the Taliban.” Rubio went on to slam Pakistan for providing a “safe haven” to Taliban fighters.
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“What did we think was going to happen when that terrible status quo was changed?” Rubio asked.
Senator Ron Johnson (R) went after Blinken over the administration’s claim that America’s allies were “on board” with the US withdrawal. “It’s detachment from reality that our NATO allies are onboard with this thing – they’re not. That’s not what we’re hearing,” he insisted.
The secretary responded by saying that he and Secretary Austin went to speak to allies before Biden announced the withdrawal in April to “listen” to “their views, their prescriptions, their ideas for what we should do moving forward in Afghanistan.”
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Terror Ties Possible, Blinken Admits
Senator Mitt Romney (R) asked Blinken about whether the Taliban had abandoned its ties to al-Qaeda.

“The relationship has not been severed. It’s a very open question as to whether their views and the relationship has changed in any kind of definitive way,” the secretary admitted. “Whatever the Taliban’s views on al-Qaeda, they do know that the last time they harboured al-Qaeda and engaged in… an attack on our homeland, certain things followed which I believe it would have an interest in not seeing repeated,” he added.

“ISIS-K, that’s a different thing, as you know,” Blinken added, referring to the Daesh (ISIL)* offshoot that claimed responsibility for the deadly 26 August attack at the Kabul airport as US forces and their allies were wrapping up their withdrawal.
“The Taliban and ISIS-K are sworn enemies. And in fact over the past five or six years, since the emergence of ISIS-K, the fight has actually been between the Taliban and ISIS-K, with the Taliban taking most of the territory that ISIS-K sought to hold onto in Afghanistan,” the secretary said.
Drone Strike Mixup
In his line of questioning, Republican Senator Rand Paul grilled Blinken over the administration’s intelligence failure in the recent drone strike response to the Kabul airport attack, which ended up killing civilians, including an aid worker and seven children, not terrorists.
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“The guy the Biden administration droned – was he an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative?” Paul asked.
“The administration is of course reviewing that strike and I’m sure a full assessment will be forthcoming,” Blinken said.
“You’d think you’d kind of know before you off somebody with a Predator drone whether he’s an aid worker or he’s in ISIS-K. See the thing is, this isn’t just you. It’s been going on in administration after administration. The Obama administration droned hundreds and hundreds of people. There is blowback to that…I see these pictures of these beautiful children that were killed in the attack. If that’s true, and not propaganda, guess what – maybe you’ve created hundreds or thousands of new potential people from bombing the wrong people,” a visibly agitated Paul retorted.
* The Taliban and Daesh (ISIL) are terrorist organisations which are banned in Russia and other countries
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