U.S. Secretary of State faces angry lawmakers at hearing on Afghanistan withdrawal

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration's much-criticized handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan during a contentious congressional hearing Monday.

Republicans savage the response as 'disaster' and 'disgrace'

Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears remotely on a TV monitor to answer questions from the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the Capitol in Washington on Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed back Monday against harsh Republican criticism of the handling of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying the Biden administration inherited a deal with the Taliban to end the war, but no plan for carrying it out.

In a sometimes contentious hearing Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken sought to blunt complaints from angry Republican lawmakers about the administration's response to the quick collapse of the Afghan government and, more specifically, the State Department's actions to evacuate Americans and others.

Blinken echoed White House talking points blaming the Trump administration for the situation that President Joe Biden inherited in Afghanistan.

"We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan," he said, maintaining that the administration had done the right thing in ending 20 years of war.

"We made the right decision in ending America's longest-running war," said Blinken, who will testify on Tuesday before the Senate foreign relations committee.

Republicans savaged the withdrawal as "a disaster" and "a disgrace." And while some Democrats allowed that the operation could have been handled better, many used their questions to heap criticism on former president Donald Trump.

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas discusses the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who appeared remotely, at the Capitol in Washington Monday. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Blinken said Biden's administration did not consider renegotiating the withdrawal agreement Trump's government struck with the Taliban because of threats from the group to resume killing Americans.

"There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining," Blinken said.

The State Department has come under heavy criticism from both sides for not doing enough and not acting quickly enough to get American citizens, legal residents and at-risk Afghans out of the country after the Taliban took control of Kabul on Aug. 15. Some seeking to leave remain there, although Blinken could not provide an exact number. He said roughly 100 U.S. citizens remain, along with about "several thousand" green card holders.

Withdrawal called 'betrayal'

"This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions," said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the committee. He said the abrupt withdrawal along with leaving some Americans and Afghans behind had "emboldened the Taliban" and other U.S. adversaries. "I can summarize this in one word: betrayal."

His Republican colleagues Steve Chabot of Ohio and Lee Zeldin of New York were even more blunt. "This is a disgrace," Chabot said. "This was fatally flawed and poorly executed," said Zeldin. "I believe that you, sir, should resign. That would be leadership."

The chairman of the committee, New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, urged his colleagues to keep politics out of their criticism. But he acknowledged that there had been problems. "Could things have been done differently? Absolutely."

Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who has been ostracized by many in the party for his criticism of Trump, placed blame for the situation on both Trump and Biden. "The Trump administration failed in the setup and the Biden administration failed in the execution," he said.

In the first of two days of congressional testimony, Blinken tried to calmly deflect allegations of a lack of preparation by noting that the Biden administration had inherited a U.S.-Taliban peace deal from the previous Trump administration, along with a languishing program to grant visas to Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. 

Blinken, who had publicly predicted in June that a complete Taliban takeover would not happen "from a Friday to a Monday," also tried to pre-empt criticism of the prediction by noting that no one in the U.S. government expected the Afghan government to fall as quickly as it did.

"Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained," Blinken said in prepared remarks released ahead of his appearance. He also defended the evacuation effort, saying it succeeded despite near insurmountable odds.

"The evacuation was an extraordinary effort — under the most difficult conditions imaginable — by our diplomats, military, and intelligence professionals," he said. "In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety."

Afghanistan risks running out of food

Afghanistan is at risk of running out of food, as it faces a terrible drought in addition to political upheaval.

"We need to do everything we can to make sure the people of Afghanistan don't suffer any more than is already the case," Blinken said.

It's a little hard to take and listen to Republican colleagues who strongly supported the Trump decisions to now be attacking President Biden for decisions that they had previously supported.​​​​​- Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen

He said he would name a senior official at the State Department to focus solely on the effort to support women, girls and minorities in Afghanistan.

Blinken also pledged that the United States will continue to support humanitarian aid in Afghanistan.

"Consistent with sanctions, this aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations 
like NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and UN agencies," he said in prepared remarks.

But Republicans, in particular, have been demanding answers as to why American citizens were left behind in the chaotic days and weeks before the military completed its withdrawal on Aug. 30. 

Committee Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen noted that Trump had pushed to get out of Afghanistan even more quickly and criticized Biden for remaining as long as he did.

"It's a little hard to take and listen to Republican colleagues who strongly supported the Trump decisions to now be attacking President Biden for decisions that they had previously supported," he said on a call discussing a recent trip to Europe and the Middle East. 

WATCH | 'Canadian Dave' helped 100 Afghans get to safety: 

The former Canadian soldier who helped get 100 Afghans to safety

2 years ago
Duration 2:03
A special forces soldier with the Canadian Armed Forces, Dave Lavery, worked with a team of volunteers to get at least 100 Afghans through the chaos of the Kabul airport to safety.

In a preview of questions, the Republican National Committee released a statement earlier Monday with the banner headline "Fire Blinken," demanding that he be held accountable for what it described as a litany of failings.

"Blinken's disastrous handling of Afghanistan and weak leadership put American lives in danger, including the lives of Americans still trapped in Afghanistan," the committee said.

Blinken is very close to Biden, and his job as America's top diplomat is almost certainly safe, but criticism of the administration's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal has not been limited to Republicans. 

Numerous Democrats have also questioned the policy and expressed concern about stranded Americans, green card holders and Afghans who could face retaliation from the Taliban because of their work or ties to the U.S. government over the past 20 years.

State Department officials have acknowledged that the congressional hearings could be contentious and possibly ugly, but many remain convinced the U.S. military and other officials did the best they could under extremely trying circumstances — including the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the crush of thousands of desperate people at Kabul's airport seeking to leave the country.

With filed from Reuters