Secretary of state testifies on Afghanistan withdrawal

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Melissa Mahtani and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT) September 13, 2021
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4:28 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken to name a senior official in the State Department to oversee efforts to assist Afghan women

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he will be naming a senior official to focus on efforts to support Afghan women.

"With regard to women and girls in particular, given the incredible fragility of the situation that they're now in, I will be naming a senior official here at the State Department to focus entirely on the ongoing effort from both from the United States government and in coordination with other countries to support them," Blinken said during a congressional hearing about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the hearing, Blinken discussed the progress made by Afghan women over the years and how the US is committed to continuing to help through other humanitarian and diplomatic efforts.

"One of the truly great achievements was the progress made by women and girls in particular in Afghanistan and one of the things that we should be proud of is the support, the leading support that we gave to that when it comes to access of education, health care, to the work force, entrepreneurship, those gains were significant. And we were the leading contributor," Blinken said.

The secretary of state also noted that when he was in Kabul in April, he saw and spoke with women who were able to rise to positions of leadership within parliament, the media and in NGO's who also expressed their concerns about Afghanistan's future.

Blinken said that those concerns were reiterated to him by refugees and evacuees he recently spoke to in Doha, Qatar, and at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

"I spoke to a lot of women and girls and heard their deep concerns about the future, as well as people who were still in Afghanistan," he said. "And so, we have an ongoing commitment to use every tool at our disposal, through our diplomacy, through our economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, programmatic assistance, to do whatever we can to continue in coordination with many other countries to support women and girls and minorities in Afghanistan. The assistance that we announced today will go in that direction. The assistance we'll provide going forward will do that."

4:54 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

GOP Rep. Perry slams Blinken for not testifying in person

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, criticized Secretary of State Antony Blinken for not appearing in person at a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan Monday. 

Perry asked Blinken where he was appearing from, since he was appearing on a remote video screen, and Blinken told him he was at the State Department. 

“Oh couldn’t be bothered to come down here and see Congress, alright that’s great,” Perry replied.  

Blinken clarified that he had not appeared in person because he believed that the House of Representatives was not in session.

After Perry finished questioning Blinken, Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, said the Secretary of State was not required to attend Monday’s hearing in person because it is a hybrid hearing, since the House of Representatives is not currently in session.

Several members from both parties joined remotely.

“Let me also make clear that this is a hybrid hearing, just as members had an option to come or to be other places, the Secretary also, it’s a hybrid hearing because we are not in session,” Meeks said after Perry criticized Blinken for not coming to Congress in person for the hearing.  

Meeks clarified that Blinken, along with every member of the committee, had the choice of whether or not to appear remotely or in-person for the hearing. 

4:18 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken: Staying in Afghanistan would have "reupped the war" for "another five, ten or twenty years"

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears remotely on a TV monitor on September 13.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears remotely on a TV monitor on September 13. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that if the US had not withdrawn from Afghanistan last month, the US would have “reupped the war in Afghanistan for another five, ten or twenty years.”

"The agreement reached by the previous administration required all US forces to be out of Afghanistan by May 1,” Blinken told Congress during a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing on Monday. “Had the President not followed through on the commitments that his predecessor made, those attacks would have resumed.”

Blinken acknowledged that a lot of people “don’t know” the agreement the Trump administration made about Afghanistan before President Biden took office in January.

“I recognize that a lot of people don’t understand that, don’t know the agreement that was reached, and the choice that President Biden faced for May 1,” Blinken said.

 

4:21 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Lawmakers from both parties raise concerns and grill Blinken on how Afghanistan withdrawal unfolded 

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette

Rep. Michael McCaul, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined at left by Chairman Gregory Meeks, discuss the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with Secretary of State Antony Blinken who appeared remotely.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined at left by Chairman Gregory Meeks, discuss the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with Secretary of State Antony Blinken who appeared remotely. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Lawmakers have demanded answers and condemned the administration performance during today's House hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The leading Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, called the withdrawal and the end of the war "an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions," a "debacle" and "a betrayal."

He blasted the Biden administration for "our unconditional surrender to the Taliban," the chaotic nature of the evacuation effort and that Americans were left behind, urging Blinken to work with private groups conducting a "Digital Dunkirk" effort to get Americans, legal permanent residents and vulnerable Afghans out of the country.

The Democratic chair of the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, warned against criticism driven by political partisanship.

"It strikes me that many of those critical of the administration evacuation efforts are really just angry at the President made good on his pledge to end America's involvement in the war in Afghanistan," Meeks said. "They are masking their displeasure with criticism but failed to offer feasible alternatives. Once again, we are seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy."

But he also raised his concerns about Americans still stuck in Afghanistan.

"I look forward to hearing from the secretary, how the State Department intends to complete its evacuation of the 100 to 200 Americans remaining in Afghanistan, who want to come home, as well as for evacuating those Afghans who worked alongside us during the past 20 years," Meeks said.

Read more about Blinken's testimony here.

3:33 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken: "We inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan" on withdrawing US from Afghanistan

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration “inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan,” referring to former President Trump’s May 1 deadline for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Here's how the exchange between Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, and Blinken unfolded in today's hearing:

Sherman: Did the Trump administration leave on your desk a pile of notebooks as to exactly how to carry out that plan? Did we have a list of which Afghans we were going to evacuate? Did we have a plan to get Americans from all over Afghanistan to Kabul and out in an orderly way? How meticulous was the planning for the Trump Administration declared May 1 withdrawal?
Blinken: Thank you congressman, we inherited a deadline, we did not inherit a plan.
Sherman: So no plan at all. It’s amazing that it wasn’t much, much worse.

Some more context: President Biden in remarks last month said he takes responsibility for the decision to withdraw at the end of August, but he also blamed his predecessor for signing on to an earlier agreement with the Taliban for a US withdrawal on May 1.

"My predecessor, the former President, signed an agreement with the Taliban to remove US troops May 1, just months after I was inaugurated. It included no requirement that the Taliban work out a cooperative government arrangement with the Afghan government," Biden said.

"But it did authorize the release of 5,000 prisoners last year, including some of the Taliban's top war commanders, among those that just took control of Afghanistan. By the time I came into office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001."

CNN's Maegan Vazquez and Kevin Liptak contributed reporting to this post.  

3:33 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken says the administration is in "constant contact" with Americans still in Afghanistan

(Pool)
(Pool)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today that the Biden administration continues to work to help Americans still in Afghanistan who want to leave.

"We're in constant contact with American citizens still in Afghanistan who have told us that they wish to leave. Each has been assigned a case management team to offer specific guidance and instruction. Each has been assigned a case management team to offer specific guidance and instruction."

Blinken said that some Americans who they have been in contact with "declined to be on the first flights for medical issues that precluded traveling last week."

He continued: "We'll continue to help them and we'll continue to help any American who still wants to leave and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment just as we've done in other countries where we've evacuated our embassy and hundreds or even thousands of Americans remained behind."

Later on in the hearing, when asked how many Americans remain, Blinken said the State Department knows of "about 100" American citizens who are still in Afghanistan.

"As of the end of last week, we had about 100 American citizens in Afghanistan who told us that they wished to leave the country. And I want to emphasize that this is a snapshot in time," he said.

Blinken stressed that it is very difficult for officials to know how many Americans are on the ground.

"To know precisely at any given moment in time exactly how many American citizens are in any country is something we can't and don't know," he said. "Americans are not required to register when they go to a foreign country or if they reside there. And so, from the start of this effort, we've been engaged in an intense effort to identify every American citizen that we could in Afghanistan to be in touch with them, in contact with them, and to work with them if they wanted to leave," he continued.

2:43 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken: Even the most "pessimistic assessments" did not predict the collapse of Afghan forces in Kabul

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said even the most "pessimistic assessments" of the situation on the ground in Kabul, Afghanistan, did not predict that "government forces in the city would collapse while US forces remained," during his congressional testimony.

"As General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, 'Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,'" Blinken noted.

Blinken continued: "Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies. Because of that planning, we were able to draw down our embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours. And the military – placed on stand-by by President Biden – was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours."

2:43 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Top Democrat defends Afghanistan withdrawal: It was "never going to be easy"

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

(Pool)
(Pool)

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying he saw no scenario in which such a pullout would have been smooth.

"Disentangling ourselves from the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy," he said, speaking on Capitol Hill today as he and members of the committee prepared to question Secretary of State Tony Blinken. 

Meeks challenged lawmakers who have been critical of the disorderly pullout to describe how they could have managed the operation better.

"For my friends who presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed, I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic 20-year war looks like," he said. "In fact, I've yet to hear the clean withdrawal option because I don't believe one exists."

But Meeks later acknowledge that some of the elements of the operation could have been "done differently."

"Are there things the administration could have done differently?" he asked. "Absolutely. Yes. As always. Foremost for me is for the State Department to evaluate how it could better evacuate Americans when events unravelled quickly."

2:36 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken: If Biden didn't pull out US troops, Taliban attacks on US forces and allies "would have resumed"

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his opening remarks that when President Biden took office "he inherited an agreement" made by Trump with the Taliban that his "to remove all remaining US troops by May 1 of this year."

He continued: "As part of that agreement, the previous Administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners – including some top war commanders. Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2,500 troops. In return, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking U.S. and partner forces and to refrain from threatening Afghanistan’s major cities."

Blinken said that after making the agreement, the Taliban "continued its relentless march on remote outposts, checkpoints, villages, and districts, as well as the major roads connecting" the cities. He said that by January 2021, the Taliban "was in its strongest military position since 9/11."

"Had he not followed through on his predecessor’s commitment, attacks on our forces and those of our allies would have resumed and the Taliban’s nationwide assault on Afghanistan’s major cities would have commenced," Blinken said.

His testimony before the House Foreign Affair Committee is ongoing.