Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Tuesday that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will concentrate the minds of “free riders” in the region about their interests in keeping the country stable.
Blinken spoke with CNN’s Jake Tapper, who asked him to respond to concerns that President Joe Biden’s plans to withdraw US forces from the country by September 11 could create a vacuum that leads to civil war or another Taliban takeover.
“That is certainly a possible scenario,” Blinken said, adding that “no one has an interest in renewed civil war in Afghanistan, certainly the Afghan people don’t. Neither the Afghan government or the Taliban do, none of Afghanistan’s neighbors do, neighbors and other countries in the region that have basically been free riders for the last 20 years, as we’ve been engaged there with our NATO allies and partners.”
Those countries “are now going to have to decide, given their interests in a relatively stable Afghanistan, given the influence that they have, whether they’re going to try to use that influence in a way that keeps things within the 40-yard lines,” Blinken said. “So a lot of people are having their minds concentrated by the President’s decision.”
Blinken emphasized that even as the US is withdrawing its forces, “we are not disengaging from Afghanistan, we’re remaining deeply engaged in the diplomacy in support for the Afghan government and its people, development, economic assistance humanitarian assistance, support for the security forces.”
Blinken spoke to CNN shortly after senators from both parties expressed their concerns during a Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the US withdrawal will lead to a Taliban resurgence, reverse gains made by Afghan women and civil society, and endanger American hostages in the country and Afghans who worked with US forces.
Biden announced earlier this month that the US would withdraw its remaining US forces in Afghanistan – just above 2,500, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said – bringing an end to nearly two decades of military involvement in the country by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, which prompted the US involvement.
Lawmakers held the hearing with Khalilzad shortly after the State Department ordered the departure of government employees from the US Embassy in Kabul “whose functions can be performed elsewhere” as the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan gets underway.
On Sunday, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, confirmed that the US has begun to withdraw troops from the country in local areas. “All of our forces are now preparing to retrograde,” Miller told reporters at a news conference in Kabul.
Blinken also spoke about the thousands of Afghans who worked with US forces and diplomats and the worry they may be the target of the Taliban once the US withdraws.
“We want to make sure that people who put their lives on the line, working with American folks in uniform, working with our diplomats who put, not just themselves in jeopardy, potentially their families as well, can get expedited consideration if they decide that they want to try to come to the United States,” he said.
The top US diplomat estimated that there are “about 18,000 people already in the pipeline, 9,000 of whom are relatively far along, another 9,000 are just the beginning of the process, and you know, clearly more likely to sign up, so we are working very hard to make sure that we’ve got in place the resources to work that program – to work quickly, expeditiously.”
On Capitol Hill, Khalilzad said he hopes that many Afghans will “want to stay in their country as well, and contribute to the nation’s future,” but he emphasized the importance of taking in those who want to come to the US. “We don’t have a good history of taking care of those who sided with us in conflict,” he admitted, adding that the US should accommodate those who “feel they cannot sustain themselves in their country or are unwilling to do so.”
Failing to do so “sends a global message,” Khalilzad said, ” ‘Don’t fight with the Americans, because when they’re finished they leave you behind.’ That’s not something we can tolerate.”
Blinken was also asked about a possible meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin and said the two countries are in discussions.
“I don’t know if there’s a formal acceptance, but I know we’re talking about it and talking about the timing of such a meeting,” he said.
The top US diplomat said meeting with strategic competitors is important. “It’s important to be able to speak clearly and directly to a President Putin or, for that matter, to the leaders of other countries with whom we have significant differences,” he said.
Blinken noted that Biden has been very clear that “if Russia continues to engage in aggressive, reckless actions, we are going to respond. He’s also been clear that, look, we would prefer a more stable, predictable relationship, but that’s ultimately up to Mr. Putin,” he said, noting areas of shared interest, such as arms control.
“There’s more to be done in that area, but all of that – whether it’s making clear what we’re going to do if Russia continues to act out, or what we could do if it chooses to get onto a more predictable and stable course – all of that benefits from being able to speak face to face,” Blinken said.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.