Senators grilled Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday over the United States’ exit from Afghanistan, which Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., described as “fatally defective.”
As Blinken spoke before Congress for the second day, Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, promised to hold the Biden administration accountable for the US pullout from Afghanistan.
“The execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” Menendez said in his opening remarks. “This committee expects to receive a full explanation of the administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January. There has to be accountability.”
Blinken continued to defend President Joe Biden‘s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and end the 20-year war with Afghanistan, saying no one in the government expected Afghan forces to surrender to the Taliban so quickly, allowing the militant group to take control of the country.
“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained,” Blinken said. “They were focused on what would happen after the United States withdrew, from September onward.”
In the spring and summer, according to Blinken, the administration began planning for a “worst-case scenario,” which included contingency plans for evacuating the US Embassy in Kabul within 48 hours and regaining control of Kabul International Airport.
He testified on Tuesday that 2,400 US troops would not have been enough to keep Afghanistan from falling to the Taliban, and that the administration would have needed to send in a large number of more forces to resist the collapse.
Following the fall, Blinken said the State Department and Pentagon coordinated a “exceptional effort” to evacuate US nationals and Afghan allies in the two weeks leading up to the final withdrawal of troops.
According to Blinken, the State Department is “still tabulating” the number of Special Immigrant Visa applications who must leave Afghanistan, and “thousands” of American green-card holders remain in the country.
Blinken said “we took some risks” and that the time was mostly a military concern in response to a query from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, about why the administration couldn’t prolong the departure date beyond Aug. 31 to process SIV candidates.
“They worked around the clock to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us, citizens of our allies and partners and at-risk Afghans on planes out of the country,” Blinken said. “In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety.”
Blinken said that he did not know but the administration was reviewing the matter.
“You’d think you’d kind of know before you off someone with a predator drone,” Paul said.
Menendez and Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, both called for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to testify before Congress. Menendez said he will consider the use of subpoena power if Austin doesn’t testify soon.
“A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained and funded Afghan military,” Menendez said. “His decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees.”