Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday offered repeated assurances to lawmakers that Americans and allies in Afghanistan will be brought safely out of that country but gave few new specifics on how federal officials will do that in the absence of military forces there.
In his first appearance before Congress since the end of the military’s evacuation mission in Afghanistan — and the first public oversight hearing on Capitol Hill since the full U.S. military withdrawal there — Blinken said that work still continues to get individuals trapped in the Taliban country to safety.
“We are in constant contact with American citizens still in Afghanistan who have told us they wish to leave,” he told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We will continue to help Americans – and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment – depart Afghanistan if they choose.
“There is no deadline to this mission.”
But that pledge (repeated often by Blinken in the two weeks since the evacuation mission ended) was met with skepticism and disdain by Republicans on the panel, several of whom called for the Secretary of State to resign over the “bungled” withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“In the weeks before the fall of Kabul, I was on the phone with very high ranking officials at the State Department and the White House trying to save lives,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas and ranking member of the foreign affairs committee.
“We had Americans that couldn’t get out. We had interpreters that couldn’t get through. They are left behind, and they will be executed (by the Taliban).”
About 124,000 individuals were airlifted out of Afghanistan in the last 18 days of August, ahead of the end of the nearly 20-year American military presence there.
About 100 Americans still in Afghanistan have asked for assistance in escaping the country. Advocates — including veterans groups still in contact with individuals on the ground — say thousands more Afghan allies were left behind and now face retaliation from the Taliban for aiding U.S. troops over the years.
Republicans on the committee labeled that a failure by Blinken and President Joe Biden. McCaul said the incomplete evacuation effort means that “Our standing on the world stage has been greatly diminished, our enemies no longer fear us, and our allies no longer trust us.”
Democrats on the panel criticized their GOP colleagues for grandstanding during the hearing and ignoring decisions by former President Donald Trump in the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. Blinken echoed that blame in his statements.
“We inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan,” he said. “The deal that the previous administration struck involved committing to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year.”
But along with the political support, Democratic lawmakers still questioned Blinken on what will happen to individuals trapped in Afghanistan now, both those trying to leave and minority groups that may be oppressed by the new Taliban government there.
Blinken promised to use “every tool at our disposal — through our diplomacy, through our economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, programmatic assistance” to address the issue. That includes naming a new senior official at the State Department specific to protecting women and minority rights in Afghanistan.
He also vowed to work with outside groups on the continuing evacuation efforts, saying he is in close contact with more than 75 veterans organizations working with individuals on the ground.
In response to another point of GOP criticism, Blinken dismissed concerns about military equipment left behind in the withdrawal and shown under Taliban control in recent weeks.
“Our folks worked very hard to disable or dismantle equipment that we still controlled before we left,” he said. “What we see now is much of the equipment that was left behind, including what was in the hands of the Afghan forces that then fell to the Taliban, much of it … is inoperable or soon will become inoperable because it has to be maintained.”
Bliken is expected to testify Tuesday on Afghanistan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Gen. Austin Scott Miller, former commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, will testify in a closed briefing before the Senate Armed Services Committee later in the day.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.