Blinken defends Afghanistan withdrawal decision and process before U.S. Congress


“There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining,” says the U.S. President

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly defended how and why the Biden administration withdrew U.S troops from Afghanistan after two decades, as lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives attacked or defended the administration, largely along party lines at an acrimonious five and a half hour hearing on September 13, 2021. Quizzed by both sides of the aisle on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. would re-assess its relationship with Pakistan.

Also read: India willing to stand by Afghan people as it did in the past: Jaishankar

Mr. Blinken, who appeared via a video-link in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), said that President Joe Biden had inherited a bad deal on Afghanistan from his predecessor, Donald Trump, that the alternative to withdrawal would have cost lives, required and troop surge. 

The secretary said the Trump administration had pressed the (former) Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including “top war commanders” and had reduced U.S. troop strength to 2,500.  This put the Taliban in its strongest position since September 2001 and the U.S. had its smallest troop level since the invasion, Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Biden had a choice between ending the war or escalating it – which would have come at the cost of casualties and resulted in a “stalemate” according to Mr. Blinken.

“There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining,” he said.  The U.S. had been assessing the Afghan security forces’ staying power and had considered multiple scenarios.

“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained,” he told U.S. lawmakers.

Often using their question time to make long-winded statements, Democrats bolstered Mr. Blinken’s arguments while some Republicans accused him and the administration of incompetence and deceit and losing the trust of allies. 

Mr. Blinken also said he was in “constant contact” with U.S. allies and partners “to hear their views and factor them” into U.S. thinking on withdrawal.

Evacuation

“I want to acknowledge the more than two dozen countries that have helped with the relocation effort – some serving as transit hubs, some welcoming Afghan evacuees for longer periods of time,” he said.

Among the current activities of the State Department were efforts to help evacuate any remaining Americans, Afghans and citizens of partner countries who wanted to leave Afghanistan, Mr. Blinken said.

The U.S. was also focused on counterterrorism, as per the Secretary, who said the Taliban had committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a safe haven. (This has been India’s central concern with the unfolding situation in Afghanistan).

“That does not mean we will rely on them [the Taliban],” Mr. Blinken said, adding that the U.S. would remain vigilant and maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region.

The U.S. was also continuing its “intensive diplomacy” with allies and partners, he said, citing a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) Resolution that called on the Taliban to uphold its counter-terrorism commitments and its commitments to allow free trave and the rights of Afghans, especially women and girls. The resolution was passed during India’s month-long presidency of the UNSC.

U.S. to re-assess relationship with Pakistan

Pakistan was raised by both sides of the aisle during the course of the hearing.

Mr. Blinken said the administration would, in the coming days and weeks, be looking at “the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role that we would want to see it play in the coming years, and what it will take for it to do that.” His comment was in response to a question from Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, who asked if given its role in support of the Taliban, Pakistan’s status as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ of the United States and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship should be reconsidered.

Representative Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican, asked Mr. Blinken if, given “the rumours” that Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) was supporting the Taliban, the U.S. had reached out to India or thought about northwest India  “as a possible staging area for the over-the-horizon” responses.

Mr. Blinken said the U.S. was “deeply engaged” with India across the board but he would prefer to take up any discussion on “over the horizon” capabilities and plans in a different setting (i.e., a classified hearing).

Ghani said he would ‘fight to the death’: Blinken

Mr. Blinken also said he did not know that former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would flee Afghanistan and that the day before Mr. Ghani fled, he had told Mr. Blinken that he would “fight to the death” if the Taliban was unwilling to cooperate in a peaceful transfer of power.

“I had no advance warning of that,” Mr. Blinken said.

Another segment of the hearing, to be held at a future date, will examine the history of the twenty year US presence in Afghanistan.

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