Theories of Afghan withdrawal failures emerge as Blinken defends chaotic exit

Republicans and Democrats clash over GOP contention Trump's Taliban deal played no role in deadly U.S. exit

Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Biden administration took 'risks' with its Afghanistan exit plan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Biden administration took 'risks' with its Afghanistan exit plan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 14, 2021 at 4:14pm

ANALYSIS — Senators on Tuesday began what likely will be a long and laborious process of probing what went wrong in the planning and execution of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Several arguments emerged among Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill as both chambers began seeking answers — when members were not trying to merely score political points, that is.

A hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Secretary of State Antony Blinken was much less acrimonious than a House Foreign Affairs Committee session the previous day. What’s more, there was more bipartisan criticism of withdrawal-related decisions made by both Trump and Biden administration officials.  

“The execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed. … There has to be accountability,” Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said after gaveling in the Foreign Relations hearing. “This rapid collapse [of Afghanistan’s central government] laid bare a fundamental fact: that successive administrations lied to the Congress over the years about the durability of Afghan military and governing institutions.”

But despite the more civil tenor of the Senate hearing, few concrete answers were forthcoming from Blinken about the many tactical and strategic decisions made over the months and weeks that produced such a disastrous, deadly and chaotic end to the 20-year U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

The hearing did, however, offer a showcase for the three main arguments emerging on Capitol Hill about what went wrong during the Biden administration’s airlift of U.S. military personnel and civilians, as well as thousands of Afghan allies.

Doha denial

The first argument being made loudly by Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump goes like this: The February 2020 withdrawal agreement negotiated by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played little to no part in the Biden administration’s ability to carry out a smooth exit while leaving behind a durable Afghan government. Democrats, however, counter that his contention is full of multiple inherent contradictions that make it difficult to take seriously.

“The February 2020 agreement was contingent upon the Taliban reducing violence, meaning counterterrorism, commitments and engaging in substantive talks with the Afghan government,” said Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, on Tuesday. “Most importantly, it was telegraphed, telegraphed to the Taliban that failure to meet their commitments would be met with grave, grave circumstances for them.”

In actuality, the withdrawal agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, by Pompeo and Taliban leaders — and sometimes touted by Trump during his failed reelection bid — did not require the Taliban to cease its attacks on the Afghan government or its U.S.-trained military.

“The Taliban committed to prevent any groups, including al-Qaida, from threatening the United States or its allies,” stated an August analysis by the Congressional Research Service. “The U.S. withdrawal commitment was not conditioned on the Taliban reducing violence against the Afghan government, making concessions in intra-Afghan talks, or taking other actions.”

Some GOP lawmakers used their harshest language during the first two hearings for the subject of how many vulnerable Afghan allies, women and girls were left behind. 

But, notably, they skipped over the reality that for years beforehand, it was congressional GOP obstructionism that bogged down the efforts of a few members of both parties lawmakers to overhaul and expand the Special Immigrant Visa process. Many Republicans simultaneously cheered Trump’s moves to drastically curtail the number of refugees the United States annually takes in.

A noticeably heated Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., called out what she said was her Republican colleagues’ hypocrisy.

“I want to know where that outrage was when year after year, for 10 years starting with Sen. McCain, I and other in the Senate tried to get more Special Immigrant Visa applicants through the process,” she said. 

“There were a few Republicans in the Senate who blocked us year after year from getting more SIV applicants to the United States,” she added. “And I want to know where that outrage was during the negotiations by the Trump administration and former Secretary Pompeo when they were giving away the rights of women and girls.”

Two other arguments emerged that appear, so far, less divisive.

Shared blame

One is being promulgated by many think tank analysts, former officials from the last four administrations and some lawmakers like Shaheen and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. 

Some members of this camp opposed the military withdrawal, but some grudgingly accepted it. The thesis of this group is that the Trump and Biden administrations badly botched the details of withdrawing. 

Their thinking continues like this: Had those details been more carefully thought through and executed, then there is ample reason to believe a better outcome was achievable than the 11-day collapse of the central government that unfolded last month and helped cause the chaotic and deadly evacuation efforts at Kabul’s airport.

Romney told Blinken he didn’t understand why the Biden administration didn’t push to delay the final drawdown of U.S. troops beyond September after already deciding in April to postpone the May deadline established by the Trump administration.

“I don’t understand why … a date was not selected that would be sufficient to actually remove people from the nation in a way that would be — in keeping with our moral commitment to honor our citizens, our green card holders, as well as those who worked with us over the years,” Romney said.

'We took some risk'

But that argument is mostly rejected by progressives and senior Biden officials, including Blinken.

Their argument is there was little prospect of there ever being a tidy withdrawal as the last 20 years had produced an irreparably weak Afghan government. The administration-progressive camp’s thinking goes that withdrawal was always going to be difficult and the more important questions were always about just how painful it would be — and upon whom that pain would fall.

The Biden administration made a calculated risk that delaying the completion of a withdrawal from May 1 to Aug. 30 was necessary in order to ensure the drawdown of U.S. forces “in a safe and orderly way.”

“We took some risk in terms of what the Taliban would do or not do after May 1 in pushing beyond May 1,” Blinken said.

To which Romney interjected: “The risk was on people we care for,” he said referring to the vulnerable Afghans, U.S. citizens and green card holders who were left behind.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a leading progressive voice on foreign policy matters, sought to wrest the debate away from the nitty-gritty details and to put a big picture spin on it.

“We have to have a reckoning in this country about what we can accomplish and what we can’t accomplish,” the Connecticut Democrat said. “My worry is that the malady that we suffered for the last 20 years — this idea that it was just a bad plan, that it was a failure of execution as to why we couldn’t succeed in Iraq or Afghanistan — is plaguing us again today. 

“That right now, we’re having a conversation as if we just had a better plan, if we just executed better, we could have avoided these scenes at the airport, we could have guaranteed the easy and safe passage of everyone into that facility,” he added.

Blinken largely agreed with Murphy’s characterization.“We went to Afghanistan for one reason: and that was to deal with the people who attacked us on 9/11,” the secretary said. “Somewhere along the way with the best of intentions, we also sought to remake the country and in effect to use military force to remake another society … Whatever our intentions that is probably something that is beyond our capacity.”