House hearing on Afghanistan withdrawal descends into partisan mudslinging

Top U.S. diplomat criticizes Trump administration: 'We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan'

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was peppered with questions Monday by House members about the Biden administration's Afghanistan withdrawal. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was peppered with questions Monday by House members about the Biden administration's Afghanistan withdrawal. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 13, 2021 at 6:04pm

Republicans and Democrats on Monday used the first congressional oversight hearing about the end of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan to score political points, opting against any attempts to resolve the unanswered questions about the rapid Taliban takeover there.

By and large, House Foreign Affairs Committee members left unasked of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken key questions about the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policies and planning, as well as the deadly effort to evacuate hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies.

Those still-murky matters include the future of U.S. sanctions on the Taliban amid a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, why the U.S. intelligence community’s projections until fairly recently about the longevity of the former Afghan government proved so wrong, and whether the State and Defense departments adequately prepared for the possibility of an abrupt Taliban takeover.

“Throughout the year, assessments were made of the resilience of the Afghan government, the Afghan security forces and the possibility of the Taliban taking over the country and this was typically done in a series of scenarios,” Blinken said in response to one of the few questions he received about U.S. intelligence failures from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

“I think it is fair to say that the general assessment was that the government and security forces would be able to hold onto the country well into 2022,” the secretary added. “At some point in July, there was an assessment that it was more likely than not that that timeframe was down to the end of the year. To my knowledge, no one predicted the unraveling before our forces … left Afghanistan.”

In one of the most explosive moments of the hearing, Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., an Army veteran who lost both legs while serving in Afghanistan, accused the Biden administration of “manipulating intelligence” around the Taliban’s capacity to rapidly capture the country, asserting it was “the most logical explanation” for what occurred on the ground.

After a heated diatribe that included personal attacks on Blinken, Mast, who voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, refused to allow the secretary a chance to respond to his accusations.

“I do not wish to hear from you. I’m not yielding you a moment of time,” Mast said when Blinken attempted to respond to the lawmaker’s accusation that the chief diplomat had been involved in intelligence manipulation. "I don't wish to hear your lies.”

After Mast repeatedly yelled over Blinken, Meeks announced the member’s time had expired and gave the secretary an opportunity to respond.

“What the congressman said is simply wrong, period,” Blinken said. “I think virtually every member of this committee has had access to and been apprised of the intelligence assessments throughout the year. … We will continue to provide those assessments and those briefings in the weeks ahead.”

While GOP committee members used dire language to describe the national security situation created by the Taliban takeover, they left it to their Democratic colleagues to make the connection that President Joe Biden was, by-and-large, implementing the withdrawal agreement negotiated under former President Donald Trump. That pact included the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom went on to be key participants in the takeover of the country.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., accused Republicans of presenting a “salad mix of selective facts and a lot of amnesia in the salad dressing.”

He noted that in all of House Foreign Affairs ranking member Michael McCaul’s stated concerns about the involvement of hardline Haqqani network members in the Taliban takeover and now interim government in Afghanistan, the Texas Republican did not mention some of them were released as part of the prisoner swap negotiated with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“I guess our concern about terrorists is pretty selective and limited to partisanship,” Connolly said.

'We inherited a deadline'

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was one of the few lawmakers willing to offer bipartisan criticism.

“The Trump administration failed in the set up and, I think, the Biden administration absolutely failed on the execution of this,” said Kinzinger, who raised his profile this year as one of the few House Republicans willing to criticize his party’s embrace of Trump’s efforts to undermine public faith in the 2020 election and to excuse the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., faulted the Trump administration for leaving so many of the details surrounding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to the Biden administration to work out. The initial deadline for full withdrawal was May 1, but Biden extended it to Aug. 31.

“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Blinken said.

In his opening remarks, the secretary noted that as the security situation in Afghanistan was worsening last year, Pompeo’s State Department was “basically in a dead stall” and not carrying out interviews for Afghan interpreters seeking to immigrate under the special immigrant visa (SIV) program established by Congress. That significantly worsened the backlog of applicants.

“When we took office, we inherited a program with a 14-step process based on a statutory framework enacted by Congress and involving multiple government agencies — and a backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants,” Blinken said. “There had not been a single interview of an SIV applicant in Kabul in nine months, going back to March of 2020.”