U.S. Secretary of State faces 2nd day of bipartisan anger and questions over Afghanistan withdrawal

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday sought to ward off bipartisan congressional criticism of the Biden administration's Afghanistan withdrawal as new intelligence estimates warned that al-Qaeda could soon again use Afghan soil to plot attacks on the United States.

Antony Blinken blames Trump administration, calls evacuation of Americans and allies 'an extraordinary effort'

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on Sept. 14, 2021. Blinken was questioned for a second day about the Biden administration's handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Drew Angerer/Pool/The Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday sought to ward off bipartisan congressional criticism of the Biden administration's Afghanistan withdrawal as new intelligence estimates warned that al-Qaeda could soon again use Afghan soil to plot attacks on the United States.

Blinken faced a second day of tough congressional questioning, this time from the Senate foreign relations committee. As was the case a day earlier before the House foreign affairs committee, he was assailed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike over the administration's handling of the pullout.

Even lawmakers sympathetic to U.S. President Joe Biden's decision to end America's longest-running war by withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years expressed disappointment and concern about the large number of Americans, green card holders and at-risk Afghans left behind in the chaotic evacuation from Kabul.

And, as Blinken testified just three days after the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, intelligence officials presented a bleak assessment that al-Qaeda could begin to use Afghan territory to threaten America within one to two years.

"The execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed," said committee chair Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, who has been generally supportive of U.S. President Joe Biden's foreign policy but has taken issue with several of its aspects, including Afghanistan.

"This committee expects to receive a full explanation of this administration's decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January. There has to be accountability."

A 'dismal failure'

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican member of the panel, called the withdrawal a "dismal failure." He accused the administration of "ineptitude" that has cost the United States international credibility, led to a deadly attack on U.S. troops and Afghan civilians at the Kabul airport and left many in the lurch.

"There's not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig to make it look any different than what it actually is," Risch said.

British and American security forces are seen amongst Afghan evacuees waiting to leave Kabul on Aug. 25. (Marcus Lam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Blinken maintained the administration had done the best it could under extremely trying and chaotic circumstances.

He again blamed the Trump administration for its February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban that he said had tied Biden's hands. He also criticized the quick collapse of the Afghan government and security forces that led to the Taliban takeover.

"Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained," he said. "They were focused on what would happen after the United States withdrew, from September onward."

A woman pulls a suitcase with a child sitting on top during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 24. (Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps/Handout/Reuters)

Renewed al-Qaeda threat

Blinken said the administration would hold the Taliban to their promises not to allow Afghanistan to be used again as a base for terrorist attacks.

But as he spoke, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaeda may be only 12 to 24 months from reconstituting itself in Afghanistan to pose a significant threat to the United States.

Lt.-Gen. Scott Berrier, who leads the Defence Intelligence Agency, gave that estimate while speaking at the Intelligence & National Security Summit in Maryland. Meanwhile, David Cohen, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the U.S. already had detected "some of the indications of some potential movement of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan.

Experts have long said the Taliban still maintains ties to al-Qaeda, which took sanctuary in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. Although Blinken was not asked directly about the intelligence assessments, he said the Taliban had not fully severed its links with the group.

Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a vehement opponent of numerous Biden policies, called the withdrawal "the worst foreign policy catastrophe in a generation" and accused the administration of being naive in hoping the Taliban will live up to their promises of moderation. "They don't want to be welcomed into the community of civilized nations," he said.

Some Democrats not swayed by Blinken's case

The State Department has come under heavy criticism from both parties for not doing enough and not acting quickly enough to get people out of the country. The Taliban took control of Kabul, cementing its hold on the country, before the completion of the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 30.

Blinken defended the withdrawal and the end of America's longest-running war as "the right thing to do." He also pointed out the U.S. and its allies had managed to evacuate some 124,000 people despite the severe difficulties on the ground.

"The evacuation was an extraordinary effort — under the most difficult conditions imaginable — by our diplomats, military, and intelligence professionals," he said.

U.S. air force loadmasters and pilots help passengers board a C-17 Globemaster III in Kabul on Aug. 24. (U.S. Air Force/Reuters)

Even some Democrats, though, were unswayed.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the only woman on the committee, who has long fought for the U.S. to protect the advances made by Afghan women and girls, lamented the current situation and said presidents and lawmakers of both parties shared the blame for the situation.

"Let's stop with the hypocrisy about who's to blame," she said in a pointed dig at former U.S. president Donald Trump and his second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who negotiated the 2020 peace deal with the Taliban separate from the Afghan government, with no assurance that rights would be respected.

"I want to know where the outrage was when they were giving away the rights of women and girls," Shaheen said.

In response, Blinken said he would soon be appointing a senior official to oversee U.S. policy toward Afghan women and girls.