(Trends Wide) — On the day the United Nations warned that Afghans were facing famine in a country on the brink of total collapse, political rivals in Washington were obsessed with profiting politically from the chaotic end of America’s longest war.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken became the first senior official in the Biden administration to testify before Congress about the final hasty, bloody and humiliating US exit from Kabul last month after two decades of conflict.
As an exercise in figuring out what went wrong in the war and withdrawal, the often incoherent and politically charged hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee provided few answers. But it did offer clear indications on how the Biden administration and its Republican opponents will grapple over the messy end of the war in the upcoming congressional election year.
And it showed, as was the case during America’s withdrawal and years of battle, that the perception of events in Afghanistan as seen from Washington often differs from the unfortunate reality in a failed state once again controlled by fundamentalist rulers.
The hearing continued after the dire state of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal and failed nation-building efforts were highlighted in a warning from UN Secretary General António Guterres. The secretary-general said Afghans are facing “the collapse of an entire country” and, while biting into a severe drought, they are already experiencing “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”
“Today, one in three Afghans does not know where their next meal will come from. The poverty rate is increasing and basic public services are on the brink of collapse,” Guterres warned at a UN aid conference in Geneva, a sad A reminder that while American leaders review political scores on a lost American conflict, Afghans continue to be cursed by the dire consequences of America’s departure and decades of war before that.
The hearing, which will be followed by Blinken’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, represented a test for the secretary of state and his ability to curb political criticism of President Joe Biden for the US withdrawal.
The death of 13 US servicemen in a suicide attack in front of the Kabul airport, along with dozens of Afghans, crystallized the spectacle of a withdrawal from the country. The chaotic retreat repeatedly saw Biden’s assurances of a safe and stable exit confounded, helping to damage the president’s political position.
Republicans sought to tap into that perception of a competition crisis in the audience with searing attacks on the administration, as the Republican Party forges a narrative of a weak White House surrendering to terrorists, following the example of former President Donald Trump as it tries to revive your own political fortune.
Blinken criticizes Trump’s deal with the Taliban
While there was some lukewarm Democratic criticism of the administration’s record, the hearing was primarily an example of how the hyperpartisanship of current politics, whichever party is in control, is not conducive to Congress’s role of calling for accountability and oversee the White House.
In many ways, Blinken’s performance mirrored that of Biden himself after the fall of Kabul required an emergency evacuation that rescued more than 120,000 American and Afghan citizens who aided American forces during the 20-year war. He distributed many blame. But he rarely admitted that the administration itself was wrong.
Indeed, the secretary of state left the impression that the evacuation could hardly have gone better, calling it “extraordinary.” Blinken also chided the Trump administration for its deal with the Taliban last year, which it said put the United States on an inexorable path to withdrawal.
“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Blinken said, referring to Trump’s agreement last year to pull out all forces by May 1, a timeline that Biden extended by four months.
Blinken’s statements were in fact anchored. But they also ignored the fact that Biden has reversed many of Trump’s other foreign policies and had been in office for seven months when the Afghan evacuation took place.
The secretary of state argued that there was no indication that the Afghan army, under assault by the Taliban, collapsed in just 11 days. And he said there was no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces “more resilient or self-sufficient.” Regarding the slowness of the operation to process the special visas for Afghan immigrants, he blamed the Trump administration and its hard-line immigration policy.
After entering the audience under heavy political pressure, it appeared that Blinken primarily weathered the storm. His past life experience as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee prepared him well as it flattered his interrogators, including Republicans who denounced the administration’s conduct.
Blinken also argued against the idea put forward by some military strategists that the United States could have stayed in Afghanistan longer with a small garrison, saying such a move would have led to clashes with the Taliban and the deaths of American soldiers. Most controversially, Blinken claimed that if Biden had extended the mission, he would have “resumed the war in Afghanistan for another 5, 10 or 20 years.”
The comment was the latest sign of a tactical assumption by the Biden administration that while the American people may not have been impressed by the chaotic end of 20 years of war, there was huge public support for bringing all of them home. forces out of harm’s way two decades after the 9/11 attacks.
‘An absolute disaster’
Republicans largely tried to create the impression that everything that went wrong in the evacuation was due to the Biden administration, rather than the corrosive impact of a 20-year war that had gone wrong for years.
They also ignored the fact that Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had set the stage for the US exit with a deal with the Taliban that freed 5,000 Taliban prisoners and, in many ways, cornered Biden, a fact. for which the former president has publicly boasted.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, accused Biden’s team of presiding over “an absolute disaster of epic proportions.” He later said in “Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer that some of the US Afghan allies left behind by the evacuation had already been executed by the Taliban.
“The American people don’t like to lose, especially not to terrorists. But this is exactly what has happened,” McCaul said, coining a line that will likely be heard often during next year’s midterm election campaign.
The committee’s Democratic chairman, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, tried to stop many of the Republican attacks in his opening statement, even while expressing concern for those Americans and Afghan allies of the US military who wanted to leave.
“Are there things the administration could have done differently?” Meeks asked. “Absolutely, yes, as always,” he said, but added that he had not heard of any “clean withdrawal option” that had worked in Afghanistan.
At times, the audience degenerated into the kind of political sideshow that often exceeds the testimony of senior officials, when members of Congress performed before the camera.
Pennsylvania Republican Representative Scott Perry criticized Blinken for failing to appear in person in the courtroom. “Oh, he couldn’t be bothered to come here and watch Congress, okay, that’s great,” Perry said.
Meeks said Blinken, who testified via a State Department video link, was not required to appear in person as the hearing was a hybrid event.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia criticized the Republican attacks on Blinken as a “salad of selective facts.”
Blinken can look forward to another rough ride when he appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. The panel’s Democratic chairman, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, told Trends Wide’s Jake Tapper on Monday that his audience would be one of many that would get to the “truth.”
“I think the exit was executed badly,” Menendez said, although he qualified his comment by saying that Trump gave a “bad situation” to Biden’s team.
Biden will also face an investigation within his own party into a tragic aspect of the US withdrawal, an airstrike in Kabul last month, by Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
The attack killed 10 civilians from the same family, including seven children, a relative of the dead told Trends Wide. At the time, the US Central Command said it carried out what it called a defensive airstrike on a car, targeting a suspected ISIS-K suicide bomber who posed an “imminent” threat to the airport.
An official with the House Intelligence Committee told Trends Wide’s Jeremy Herb on Monday that Schiff plans to examine the airstrike following investigations by The Washington Post and The New York Times that raised questions about claims that the vehicle contained explosives.