screengrab Saigon Kabul split
'This is not Saigon': Blinken says Afghanistan is different than Vietnam
01:15 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee slammed the Biden administration over the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan on Sunday, calling it an “unmitigated disaster of epic proportions” that could lead to dire consequences.

“I think the secretary has been devoid of reality this whole time since the decision was made in May. I think it’s an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“And I think the President – this is going to be a stain on this President and this presidency. And I think he’s going to have blood on his hands for what they did,” McCaul said, adding later that he thinks Afghanistan is going to go back “to a pre-9/11 state – a breeding ground for terrorism.”

“I hate to say this: I hope we don’t have to go back there, but it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time,” he told Tapper.

As of Sunday afternoon, the American flag at the US embassy in Kabul was taken down, marking a final step in the evacuation of the diplomatic compound, days earlier than US officials initially projected, according to a source familiar with the situation. Taliban fighters entered Afghanistan’s presidential palace hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday, a milestone in the insurgent group’s assumption of control over the capital city Kabul.

The Taliban had been in talks with Afghanistan’s government over who would rule the nation, following the militant group’s strikingly rapid advance across the country, in which it seized power over dozens of key cities, often with little to no resistance. But those talks are likely to have been scuppered by the sudden departure of President Ghani.

Blinken, in a separate interview Sunday on “State of the Union,” defended Biden’s decision to end the US war in the country, telling Tapper: “The fact of the matter is had the President decided to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1, attacks would have resumed on our forces.”

“The Taliban had not been attacking our forces or NATO during the period from which the agreement was reached to May 1,” Blinken said, in reference to the May 1 withdrawal agreement the Trump administration had brokered with the Taliban. The secretary also noted that the US plans to “keep in place in the region the capacity to see any reemergence of a terrorist threat and to be able to deal with it.”

Nonetheless, Republicans have quickly blamed the Biden administration for the situation in Afghanistan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell slammed the Biden administration in a statement Sunday, saying its, “botched exit from Afghanistan including the frantic evacuation of Americans and vulnerable Afghans from Kabul is a shameful failure of American leadership.”

“Everyone saw this coming except the President, who publicly and confidently dismissed these threats just a few weeks ago.” McConnell said.

At the White House a little more than a month ago, Biden used a question-and-answer session to downplay the prospect the Afghan government could collapse and the Taliban could take over, saying that outcome was not inevitable. Aides say Biden has not shown any inkling of second-guessing himself after announcing in April that all American troops would leave Afghanistan by September 11, a symbolic deadline 20 years after the terror attacks that launched the war to begin with.

McConnell’s statement continued: “The United States had the capacity to avoid this disaster. We still have the capacity to dampen its effects, but without a presence on the ground or local partners, defending the homeland from a resurgent al Qaeda will be far more difficult.”

Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, also blasted the Biden administration on Sunday over the situation in Afghanistan, saying “the catastrophe that we’re watching unfold right now across Afghanistan did not have to happen.”

“It’s not just that people predicted that this would happen. Everyone was warned that this would happen,” she told ABC News.

Cheney, who has long held hawkish foreign policy views, also placed blame on the Trump administration for putting faith in and “legitimizing the Taliban.”

“President Biden bears responsibility for making this decision, but there is no question that President Trump, his administration, Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo, they also bear very significant responsibility for this. They walk down this path of legitimizing the Taliban, of perpetuating this fantasy, telling the American people that the Taliban were a partner for peace,” Cheney said.

Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, similarly said on Sunday that both Biden and Trump are responsible for the “totally avoidable” situation in Afghanistan.

“Both under President Trump and now President Biden, they couldn’t have rushed any more for the exits,” Kinzinger, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” “They thought it would be a political win, and it’s gonna be a huge disaster for both.”

Lawmakers press top administration officials for answers

In a virtual briefing with members of Congress Sunday morning, Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley were pressed by lawmakers about the rapid timeline of the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pushed the officials on why the process happened so quickly, saying, “We didn’t give them air cover. You say you had this plan. No one would plan out this outcome. The ramifications of this for America will go on for decades and it won’t just be in Afghanistan,” according to a GOP source on the call.

But a Democratic source on the call said Austin defended the administration’s actions as an extension of the timeline for withdrawal initially laid out during the Trump administration. The secretary also said the US maintains the capacity to do air strikes to respond to any Taliban actions that interfere with evacuation.

“We will defend ourselves and our people and any attack on an American will be met with strong and immediate response,” he said.

The call largely walked members of Congress through the strategy for removals from the country, and specifically the capital. The three officials did not have any answers for who interpreters and other Afghanis could actually call to leave the country.

Milley, meanwhile, said the withdrawal of American diplomatic personnel on Sunday was a “highly dynamic and very risky operation,” calling it a “deliberate and controlled evacuation.” He said terrorist groups like al Qaeda – which was responsible for the September 11 attacks and given safe harbor in Afghanistan by the Taliban – now may reconstitute in Afghanistan earlier than the two years that defense officials had previously estimated, according to a Senate aide briefed on the comments.

Austin said they want to keep the airport in Kabul open and secure, adding that the US had a contingency plan in place, which is why they were able to respond so quickly to the rapidly deteriorating situation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the officials about the status of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country Sunday, though they refused to say where he is because it wasn’t a secure line.

Senators received their own briefing from Blinken, Austin and Milley on Sunday, but a Senate aide tells CNN the meeting was not contentious and focused mostly on evacuations.

Senators were told there are as many as 60,000 people who could potentially qualify as Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders or applicants, P1 or P2 visa holders, or others like human rights defenders.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Liz Cheney’s state. She is from Wyoming.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux, Chandelis Duster, Kylie Atwood, Natasha Bertrand and Jasmine Wright contributed to this report.