Key takeaways from Blinken’s Capitol Hill testimony on Afghanistan withdrawal

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(WASHINGTON) — In his first appearance on Capitol Hill since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced more than five hours of questions from members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

He faces more questions from the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Here are some key takeaways from Monday’s hearing in the House:

Doubling down on the withdrawal

Blinken’s opening statement laid out the Biden administration’s view of why everything went south so quickly and how they believe they did the best they could in those circumstances to evacuate 124,000 people — a line that Blinken never really broke from.

Instead, the top U.S. diplomat stuck to those talking points throughout the afternoon and into evening. He occasionally argued them in novel terms, but what was billed as the first oversight hearing of the Afghan withdrawal provided little new information.

“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” he said early on, essentially blaming former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by May 1, something Trump bragged about just earlier this summer.

While President Joe Biden reversed several Trump-era agreements, Blinken argued if Biden had “not followed through on the commitments his predecessor made,” then Taliban attacks on U.S. troops would have resumed, and the U.S. would have had to send more American forces into Afghanistan.

For every aspect of the chaotic evacuation, he also countered criticism largely by laying the blame elsewhere. While some Americans were left behind, the State Department had warned them to leave repeatedly, he said; or while thousands of Afghan partners were not evacuated, the Biden administration did its best to reinvigorate the special immigrant visa program in its short time in office after Trump gutted it.

Evacuation operations “definitely improved, but it did not start from a great place,” he conceded at one point — before adding, “largely because of the exigency of the situation that we were in.”

It was not a victory lap and Blinken came as close to bristling as he does when asked about the administration calling the evacuations a “success.” But in five and a half hours of testimony, Blinken echoed what his boss has said publicly — he doesn’t regret his momentous decision to pull out, one that a majority of Americans have long supported.

Criticism of Biden’s withdrawal is bipartisan

How that withdrawal ensued, however, is a different question. Most of the committee’s Democrats defended Biden and lay the blame at Trump’s feet for his negotiations with the Taliban that excluded the Afghan government and ended in a deal to withdraw U.S. troops and release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for Taliban commitments.

But a handful of them criticized the way Biden has conducted the withdrawal. Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., said many Afghan partners were not getting the help they needed, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., said there were “missteps,” and Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Mich., said the administration’s coordination was “very challenging.”

Perhaps the sharpest Democratic criticism came from Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who served with Blinken in the State Department during the Obama administration. He said Biden picked “up where the Trump administration left off” and “sacrificed everything that was right with Afghanistan.”

“The sacrifice, I think, is profound: An extremely important counterterrorism partnership was lost, and a terrorism state is now upon us. Enormous gains for women, for the rule of law, for democracy, for human rights. Mass displacement,” he said.

“The Afghans remade their society. We didn’t do it, they did. It was our withdrawal, I’m afraid, that has unmade their society — and what have we gained for this,” he added — noting U.S. troops are not coming home, but deploying elsewhere in the region as they continue to pursue terrorists, but now without partners on the ground and with more civilian casualties likely.

Across the aisle, however, few Republicans conceded there were any errors in how Trump handled Afghanistan — some even suggested that the president who orchestrated the withdrawal wouldn’t have carried it out.

At least one Republican lawmaker made clear that there was blame on both sides: Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a frequent Trump critic, told Blinken, “The Trump administration failed in the setup, and I think the Biden administration absolutely failed in the execution of this.”

Congress prioritizes partisan fights, not oversight

In two decades of war, Congress’ oversight role has been proven feeble at best — and Monday’s hearing put on bright display how deeply the legislative body has failed this critical mission.

Instead of achieving insights into executive branch decisions or securing commitments on the way forward, most lawmakers used their time to score political points or deliver soliloquies on who was to blame for a military and diplomatic mission that both parties led.

“Will you honor these families and give the American people the answers they deserve?” asked Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Tenn., without asking any question about the withdrawal except whether Blinken took responsibility.

He said he did for his agency and his decisions.

Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., repeatedly accused Biden, Blinken and the administration of manipulating U.S. intelligence about the Taliban threat — a dramatic accusation that, he said, meant they had blood on their hands. But when Blinken tried to address the accusation, Mast repeatedly talked over him, accused Blinken of lying, and said he wasn’t interested in what he had to say.

When Rep. Greg Steube, R-Fla., accused Blinken of trying to “ride the coattails” of the 13 U.S. service members who were killed by mentioning that State Department officials served alongside at the airport, Blinken interrupted with stunned offense. But Stuebe continued over him, refusing to let him address the accusation.

Three hours into the hearing, no lawmaker had asked about the U.S. drone strike that reportedly killed an aid worker and his family, not the ISIS-K terrorists the Pentagon said it had. There were just four questions about the issue, from two lawmakers.

Instead, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., for example, asked Blinken about Hunter Biden’s laptop and Burisma, the Ukrainian state-run energy company — something the committee’s Democratic chair Gregory Meeks reminded him was outside the scope of the hearing. Perry also pressed Blinken about evacuating Afghan interpreters and other allies — even though he was one of 16 Republicans who voted against authorizing more visas for these Afghan partners and their families in July.

While Blinken maintained a polite demeanor — one that engendered good will among some Republican members — he was more than happy to let Democrats slug back for him.

Trump left him and Biden with little to work with, Rep. Kathy Manning, D-N.C., said, and Blinken responded with a subdued chuckle, “Not much.”

Rep. Gerald Connelly, D-Va., used his time to torch Trump’s Taliban deal and accuse Republicans of “amnesia,” as Blinken watched on through his monitor.

Under the U.S. constitution, Congress alone has the right to declare war — a vote its members never took despite 20 years of operations in Afghanistan. And in spite of repeated findings by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction that U.S. money was being wasted or fueling corruption, Congress conducted very little oversight of U.S. funding.

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