Secretary of State Antony Blinken is addressing lawmakers Tuesday in a second day of questioning about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, as he faces the Senate Foreign Relations Committee one day after appearing before members of the House.
Like he did before the House committee on Monday, Blinken's prepared opening remarks blamed the failures and troubles in Afghanistan on others, while touting the efforts of the Biden administration to do what it could.
Blinken blamed the Trump administration for making a deal with the Taliban that allowed them to gain strength and be in a position to take over the country. He said that while the Trump deal kept Taliban forces from attacking U.S. forces, their allies, and major Afghan cities, "the Taliban continued its relentless march on remote outposts, checkpoints, villages, and districts, as well as the major roads connecting the cities."
"By January 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 9/11, and we had the smallest number of troops on the ground since 2001," he added.
In discussing the evacuation of Americans from Afghanistan, Blinken said that the administration began telling them to leave in March, sending 19 different messages including offers to help pay for airfare.
"Despite this effort, at the time the evacuation began, there were still thousands of Americans in Afghanistan, almost all of whom were evacuated by August 31. Many were dual citizens living in Afghanistan for years, decades, generations. Deciding whether or not to leave the place they know as home is a wrenching decision," Blinken said.
Like President Biden did after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Blinken blamed the Afghan government and military for the situation on the ground. He said that August’s urgent need for evacuation "was sparked by the collapse of the Afghan security forces and government," which the administration had not foreseen.
"Throughout the year, we were constantly assessing their staying power and considering multiple scenarios," Blinken said. Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained."
The secretary acknowledged the danger the U.S. now faces, stating that even though the Taliban "committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies," the administration does not trust them to hold to this.
To that end, Blinken said it was up to the Senate to confirm more of Biden’s nominees for national security positions.
"It is essential that we accelerate the appointment process for national security officials since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice," he said. Blinken stated that the Senate still has to take action on 80 nominees, calling the vacancies "a significant disruption in our national security policymaking."
Committee leaders from both parties put pressure on the administration early on in the hearing. Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said that no country should recognize the Taliban government until it meets various criteria related to democracy and equality. He also said that he is "very disappointed" that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not accept the committee's invitation to appear before lawmakers at the hearing.
"A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon," he said.
Ranking member Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, pushed back against the narrative that the current situation was due to the Trump administration's agreement with the Taliban. He said that deal "was contingent" on the Taliban reducing violence and that if they failed there would be "grave, grave" consequences.
Risch later questioned who was really making the decisions in the administration regarding the withdrawal.
"Who is responsible? Who made the decisions on this? Was it the president of the United States?" Risch asked.
Blinken responded that President Biden does indeed make the decisions that can only be made by the president, but noted that tactical and operational decisions are made by different agencies.
Risch pointed to an incident on Monday when Biden was speaking and the White House suddenly cut the feed while he was still talking. The senator asked who had the power to do that to the president.
"There is no such person," Blinken claimed, stating that Biden says what he wants. The secretary denied that an incident in which the president was cut off even occurred.
"Are you unaware that this is actually happening?" Risch asked. "Are you telling this committee that this does not happen?"
"That is correct," Blinken said.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., slammed the administration for acting as if operations in Afghanistan were successful, while ignoring any failure on their part.
"If I were just to read your testimony not having watched any news I would literally think this was a smashing success. But I do read the news, as most Americans do, and we realize that this was a complete debacle," Johnson said. "I think what concerns me the most, among many things, is that detachment from reality."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, disputed what Blinken told the House on Monday about the Biden administration inheriting a deadline from the Trump administration. Romney pointed out that Trump's deadline was May 1, and Biden had pushed it to August 31.
"Why didn't you push it much later, so that we would have been able to process the SIV applicants, as well as those who worked with us that had not yet applied?" he asked.
Blinken said that the military said they needed "three to four months" to withdraw in a "safe and orderly way," which is why the deadline was pushed from the beginning of May to the end of August. He added that the administration believed that beyond that point, the Afghan government would still be in control.
"What we did not anticipate was that 11-day collapse of Afghan security forces," he said.
Fox News’ Adam Shaw contributed to this report.