Afghanistan blame game shifts to US Congress as Blinken testifies

Congress prepared a long list of questions for veteran diplomat about rapid collapse of US-backed government


Reuters September 13, 2021
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. PHOTO: REUTERS/FILE

WASHINGTON:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will testify twice to Congress this week about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as lawmakers kick off what could be a long series of high-intensity hearings about the chaotic end to America's longest war.

Members of Congress - President Joe Biden's fellow Democrats as well as opposition Republicans - have planned hearings since the Taliban seized control of the country last month after a rapid advance.

Blinken will appear on Monday before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first Biden administration official to testify publicly to lawmakers since the group's takeover.

Fireworks are expected, given the amount of finger-pointing over how the two-decade-long US presence in the country ended. Some Republicans have called on Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Blinken to resign.

"We expect a confrontational hearing," a Senate aide said.

Members of Congress prepared a long list of questions for the veteran diplomat about the rapid collapse of the US-backed Afghan government and the Biden administration's scramble to evacuate more than 142,000 people, including Americans, at-risk Afghans and others wishing to flee the Taliban.

"I imagine there will be a lot of questions on what decisions were being made leading up to the withdrawal, including why the White House pressed DOD (the Defence Department) to withdraw troops before we evacuated American civilians and our Afghan partners," Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House committee, said in a written reply to a request for comment on the hearing.

He said he also wanted to know why assets like the Bagram Air Base were not maintained and why the administration had not reached surveillance and counterterrorism agreements with neighbouring countries.

McCaul added that he expected questions about what happened at Kabul's airport during the evacuation ahead of the administration's Aug 31 deadline to leave the country. Thirteen US troops and dozens of Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing amid the chaos.

"We all want to know what State (Department) is doing to fulfill President Biden’s promise to get the remaining Americans, green card holders and our Afghan partners out of the country before it’s too late," McCaul said.

20 years involvement

Democrats said they wanted the hearing to address not just the seven months that Biden was president before Kabul was captured by the Taliban but the entire 20 years of US involvement in the country - under four presidents from both parties.

A US-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the Sept 11 attacks that were masterminded by al Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan.

"My fear is that Republicans are going to turn this into a circus and try to put the blame on Joe Biden for 20 years' worth of mistakes in Afghanistan," Senator Chris Murphy, a Democratic member of the foreign relations panel, told reporters on a conference call.

Murphy, who agreed with the decision to withdraw rather than "stay forever," said he did not want the hearing to focus only on the evacuation.

"The real question is why did we stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years after we knew that there was going to be no way we could build an Afghan military, an Afghan government that was capable of holding the country against the Taliban once we left," Murphy said.

Another committee Democrat, Senator Chris Van Hollen, noted that Republican former president Donald Trump had pushed to get out of Afghanistan even more quickly and criticised 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 the same call.

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