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At This Hour

Secretary of State Blinken Testifies on Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 11:30   ET



SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI): We did not know who these people were. It wasn't like people we invited and the special immigrant visa holders.

ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: We did not control the city. We control the airport. Sorry if you --

JOHNSON: But, again, so we had tens of thousands of people in the Kabul airport. The reports we're getting on the ground was many didn't have -- had no form of I.D. whatsoever.

When I went to Fort McCoy, I asked the commanding general, again, every contingency planned for, I asked the commanding general, when did you first find out that your mission would be as an intake facility for the Afghanistan refugees? He said ten days ago. I asked the commanding general and I asked the representative for the Department of State as well as from the Department of Homeland Security, do we know that every refugee that you've received so far, and there was only a thousand at that point in time, do we know that they at least have some form of I.D., and we didn't.

We're hearing all of these assurances that we're getting biometrically screened, a 14-step plan. I asked the head of Northern Command, he's at Fort McCoy, describe those steps to me and what do we screen them against? I mean, are ISIS terrorists, are Al Qaeda terrorists, have we biometrically screened them in the past that we can compare them to a database? What is that 14-step process in detail? Not just 14 steps, tell me and describe to us in detail how are we keeping this nation safe from such a chaotic situation?

BLINKEN: So, senator, the 14-step process refers to -- specifically to the special immigrant visa applicants, and there is a lengthy process --

JOHNSON: So, how about for the other 124,000 people?

BLINKEN: So, to come to your point, Senator, a couple of things. We arranged, as you know, transit countries so that any Afghan coming out of Afghanistan would initially go to a transit country where we could initiate the screening, the vetting, the background checks. We surged customs and border protection officials to those transit points as well, of course, as other security law enforcement agencies to do these checks with biometric, biographic, other information that we have. Then, as people were cleared in these transit points, they then come into the United States. But they're not being re-settled immediately. They're going -- once they land at Dulles or in Philadelphia, they are then being sent to military bases where the checks continue and are completed.

JOHNSON: But, again, what checks? We need specifically what the checks are going to be.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): The time of the senator has expired. I'm sure you can follow up for the rest of your questions. Senator Coons.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Thank you, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch, for this hearing. And thank you, Secretary Blinken, for your service and your testimony today.

We have, I'm sure, lots opportunities to look backwards at the 20 years of our engagement in Afghanistan and the decisions, but I had hoped this committee would rise above the temptations of partisan politics and use this hearing to consider the urgent questions still before us, and I hope we'll get a few minutes to focus on this, Mr. Secretary.

How do we get the remaining citizens, legal permanent residents and those Afghans who served alongside us or worked with and for us and who are most at risk out of Afghanistan? And how do we make sure Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists again and deal with the Taliban? What leverage do we have in doing so and to also make sure humanitarian aid gets into Afghanistan? And most urgently, how do we support and re-settle those Afghan refugees whom we've evacuated to third countries and that much smaller population that has reached the United States?

Let me just start with my thanks to the State Department, to the employees in Kabul and Qatar and the D.C.-based task force that is worked with the evacuation, repatriation of Americans and Afghans, and to the many Delawareans and Americans whom I've heard from, former military, folks who served in Afghanistan, former diplomats and development professionals eager to help. And I look forward to continuing to coordinate with you and with agencies of our government, advocacy groups and other partners on resettlement efforts.

I'm glad that the former governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, that's been asked to step forward and help coordinate this re-settlement effort and I was encouraged to see welcomed, U.S. launched a broad, multi-faith, bipartisan national organization co-chaired by three former presidents, Bush and Obama and Clinton, and dozens and dozens of faith groups and nonprofits to welcome Afghans to the United States.

So, let me just start with a question about visa status. Senator Sullivan and I wrote a bipartisan letter in mid-August urging expanded eligibility for the SIV program. I'm interested in how you're working to expand eligibility under the existing visa programs to include family members and to support those the U.S. government supported and worked alongside but who we were not direct employees. [11:35:10]

I want to start if I could Mr. Secretary by asking question just yes or no answers about three groups that other senators have mentioned.


COONS: There's about 550 employees and family members from Voice of America, Radio for Europe, Radio Liberty, who were not evacuated. Is the department prioritizing they're evacuation?


COONS: And the department committed to evacuating our partners from NED, the National Endowment of Democracy, NDI, IRI. Are those also be prioritized?

BLINKEN: Yes, they are.

COONS: And our partners from the American University of Afghanistan as well?


COONS: And so if you would take the four minutes we have got left and explore with me how do we ensure safe passage across land, borders, whether into Tajikistan or Pakistan, safe and regular flights out of Afghanistan, whether from Mazar-I-Sharif or Kabul? And how do we get documents into the hands of those that don't have identity documents either because they were destroyed in our embassy or they destroyed them themselves out of fear of the Taliban? And how do we make sure that we're providing the financial support needed for the whole group of refugees who, after thorough vetting, ultimately reach the United States?

BLINKEN: Yes. Thank you very much, Senator. Those are all very important questions and let me try to respond briefly to them and we take on the details after the session, if need be.

First, we needed and we have established a clear expectation from the Taliban about allowing people to continue to leave the country, to include American citizens, green card holders, Afghans who are properly documented with a visa, including specific those who worked in some capacity for the United States. And not only do we have that understanding in public statements by the Taliban, of course, it is built in to everything we've done with a large coalition of countries in terms of setting an expectation and making very clear that the failure to fulfill that expectation will have significant consequences, which we can get into.

Second, very important to actually make sure that there are ways to travel freely from the country. We made an intensive effort before we left to understand and share with Qatar and Turkey, the countries that stepped to do this, what was necessary to make sure that the airport in Kabul could continue to function and, ultimately, not to have charter flights and then commercial flights going in under international civil aviation organization standards. We did intensive. We brought the American contractors back in the midst of the evacuation who had been running the airport to work that. We handed off a very detailed plan which is now being implemented.

Third, the land crossings. We've worked with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan on this to make sure that as we moved people out of Afghanistan, they would facilitate their crossing into their countries. We would have consular officials surged in the necessary places to handle people coming out in that fashion.

And now, to your very important point about documentation, and this is something that maybe we to take offline, we are working on a mechanism and means by which, and there are multiple ways to do this, to make sure that people that don't have the necessary documents, for example, a visa from us, a physical visa to get that to them. And I prefer to go into more detail on that in another setting.

COONS: Understood. If I might just as a closing question, you were asked at the outset sort what are the factors, leeways we decide the future of our relationship with the Taliban, and we're in this difficult situation. Many of us recognize the Taliban is a terrorist organization that has done horrific things within Afghanistan in the past, yet we need to have some working relationship with them to secure the safe passage out of thousands of people who we still care deeply about and a number of Americans citizens Delaware ties who I've been in contact with didn't leave because their families were still in Afghanistan. And there are clear measures that they should be expected to meet that you laid out in your opening statement.

What do you think will be the most important aspects of our leverage to ensure that the Taliban perform in ways that we would accept and what do you think will be the turning point at which we'll make decisions with our allies to take sharper and harsher measures against the Taliban?

BLINKEN: So, simply put, the nature of the relationship that the Taliban would have with us or most other countries around the world will depend entirely on its conduct and actions, specifically with regard to freedom of travel, as well as to making good on its counterterrorism commitments, upholding basic rights of the Afghan people, not engaging in reprisals, et cetera.


These were the things that not only we but countries around the world are looking at.

And there is, I think, significant leverage that we and other countries hold when it comes to things that the Taliban says it wants but won't get if it does not act in a way that meets these expectations. For example, we talked a little bit before about the existing U.S. sanctions on the Taliban. These are significant, as well as travel restrictions. There is now a new security council resolution that we initiated setting out the expectations for what the Taliban has to do. If it is in violation of that resolution, it is hard to see any of these U.N. sanctions being lifted, travel restrictions being lifted. And indeed, additional sanctions could well be imposed.

Similarly, the foreign reserves of Afghanistan are almost exclusively in banks here in the United States, including the Federal Reserve, other banks about $9 billion. All of that has been frozen. There are significant resources as well that are in the international financial institutions that Afghanistan normally would have access to, those too have been frozen. Over the last 20 years or so, the international community has provided about 75 percent of the Afghan government's annual operating budget. That too has been frozen.

So, among many things that the Taliban says it seeks, both basic legitimacy and basic support, the United States, the international community has a hand on a lot of that, much of that, most of that. And so we'll have to see going forward what conclusions the Taliban draws from that and what its conduct will be matching these basic expectations that we've set.

COONS: Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Senator Romney.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you, Mr. Secretary, for taking time to answer our questions today.

I'd like to associate myself with the comments that Senator Rubio made about planning for a potential immediate collapse of the Afghan government and security forces. It seemed that as the Taliban was running the table throughout Afghanistan, that the prospect of them continuing to run the table by coming into Kabul was a significant probability that should have been planned for.

In your view, Mr. Secretary, has the Taliban abandoned their sympathy and collaboration with groups like Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network? Do they continue to have the same aim and are they of like spirit or has that -- has that relationship been severed?

BLINKEN: The relationship has not been severed. And it is a very open question as to whether their views and the relationship has changed in any kind of definitive way. I think it is fair to say two things. One, whatever the Taliban's views on Al Qaeda, they do know that the last time they harbored Al Qaeda, and it engaged in an outwardly directed attack, an attack on our homeland, certain things followed, which I believe they would have an interest in not seeing repeated. So whatever their views on Al Qaeda, there is a strong disincentive built in to allow it engage in outwardly directed attacks, which the assessment of the intelligence community is they're not currently capable going to do.

And ISIS-K, the other main group, that's a different thing, as you know, because the Taliban and ISIS-K are sworn enemies. And, in fact, over the last five or six years since the emergence ISIS-K, the fight has actually been between the Taliban and ISIS-K with the Taliban taking most of the territory that ISIS-K sought to hold on to in Afghanistan. And the question is less whether they have the will to deal with ISIS-K and more whether they have the capacity. ROMNEY: Given that response, I know that previously the position of the administration and the State Department was that the 2001 AUMF no longer played a role of significance. But given the developments in Afghanistan and the Taliban's ongoing collaboration with and sympathy with Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, and likeminded groups, is it not appropriate for the State Department to revisit your recommendation that we abandon the 2001 AUMF?

BLINKEN: I think, Senator, we need to look to make sure that we have all of the authorities that we would need for any potential contingency, including the re-emergence as a threat of Al Qaeda or the further emergence of ISIS-K as an outwardly directed threat. If we don't have those authorities, we should get them, whether that that means relooking at those authorizations or writing new ones, which I think is the most appropriate thing to do if necessary.


We need to look at that.

ROMNEY: I appreciate your willingness to change your point of view and in part because of the conditions that have developed in the most recent weeks, nothing wrong with conditions leading to a change in perspective. I for one thought some years ago that we should withdraw from Afghanistan. The conditions that I saw in the ensuing years convinced me that I was wrong. And I, like Senator Shaheen, was one of those that felt that President Trump was wrong to enter into an agreement to withdraw. I thought President Biden was wrong to enter into an agreement or to continue with that agreement to withdraw. And, of course, I was appalled by the disastrous withdrawal process itself.

For us today, however, I guess I would like to focus more on the moral stain of leaving people behind and understand what we can do to make sure that we're not leaving people behind. I understand we're down to a small number of Americans. It is hard to know exactly how many are left behind. But in terms of legal permanent residents, is your priority just as high to get them out as it is to get out citizens or is there a different level of commitment for a legal permanent resident's return to the United States relative to a citizen?

BLINKEN: Senator, our number one priority is American citizens, and that has, I think, long been the case. In this situation in Afghanistan and this emergency evacuation in Afghanistan, we did everything we could to make sure as well to make sure that legal permanent residents, green card holders would identify themselves to us. We don't know -- like with American citizens, we don't know at any given time how many there are at any given country around the world and to make resources to help them. But our number one priority is any remaining residents who wish to leave.

ROMNEY: And I didn't recognize there is a secondary level of priority then for a legal permanent resident. If that's the case, how many of them approximately -- so we don't know the exact number, but how many legal permanent residents are we convinced are still in Afghanistan?

BLINKEN: We don't have an exact number. ROMNEY: A round number?

BLINKEN: In the thousands.

ROMNEY: Pardon?

BLINKEN: In the thousands.

ROMNEY: In the thousands. Likewise, in terms of SIV holders or SIV applicants or people who worked with us that have been our partners through the years, how many of them approximately are still in Afghanistan that want to come to the United States?

BLINKEN: So, this is what we're doing an accounting of right now based on two things. Based on the pipeline of applicants as it existed, before the evacuation, and then looking at those who we were able to evacuate. We don't have those numbers yet because as we've moved to evacuate people, a number of them are still at transit points around the world. Others --

ROMNEY: But it would be tens of thousands?

BLINKEN: So, realistically, two things. One, we talked about this a little bit earlier, but of the applicants in the program, and as I said, we inherited about 18,000, about half of those, and this remains more or less the case now, are at a point where it is before the chief admission has given his or her approval that they are, in fact, eligible for the program.

So, we've focused on

ROMNEY: I was looking for a number and I guess the question I was leading to is this, which is given the fact that the SIV process was so slow and not undertaken during the Trump years in a significant way, you sped it up. That is great. Although you knew that there was no way you were going to get all of these people out in time --

BLINKEN: Let me put a final point on it.

ROMNEY: -- given the rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces. And you said yesterday that you inherited a date, but, in fact, you didn't inherit the date. The date was May 1st and you pushed it to August 31st. Why didn't you push it much later so that we would have been to process the SIV applicants as well as those who have worked with us that had not yet applied? I don't understand why a date was actually not inherited and the date or 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 have worked with us over the years?

BLINKEN: Two things, if I may. First, the -- we took some risk in terms of what the Taliban would do or not do after May 1st in pushing beyond May 1st. And we, of course, worked this very hard because --

ROMNEY: Well, it is a risk with other people we took. BLINKEN: It is a risk --

ROMNEY: The risk was on people we cared for.

BLINKEN: Yes. Just to be clear, if I could, the military told us that in order to do its retrograde, its drawdown from Afghanistan in a safe and orderly way, it needed three to four months. That's why we pushed to move beyond May 1st and get to the end of August, early September.

Second, to your point, which is an important and good one, our expectation was that beyond August 31st, beyond the military drawdown, the government, the security forces were going to remain in control of Kabul, of the major cities, our embassy was fully planned to remain up and running.


We were leaving about 600 military behind to make sure that we could secure the embassy so that it would continue to operate. We had a robust plan to include continuing bring out anyone who wished to leave, notably SIVs. So, that was very much the plan and the expectation.

What was not -- what we did not anticipate was that 11-day collapse of the government security forces. That's what changed everything.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Senator Murphy.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for spending so much time with us.

I think what links our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they're both fundamentally failures of hubris, believing that we can control things and influence events on the other side of the world that are beyond our control or influence. America can be a force for good in the world, but there is a limit to what we can achieve. And so there's been decades' long magical thinking with respect to what's in our control and what's outside of our control.

As it turns out, it wasn't within our control to be able to stand up in American style democracy, an American-looking military in Afghanistan that was going to be able to protect the country from the Taliban, but we spent 20 years trying to achieve it.

And so, Mr. Secretary, you covered some of this in your opening remarks, but I wanted to ask you a series of questions to try to level set for the committee the situation you inherited, right, what was in your control, what was outside of your control. And then to look at the events of the last 30 to 40 days with that same lens, what was in your control, what was outside of your control. I think these are yes or no answers. Some of it you've covered in your testimony. But I think it's important to get it on the record.

So, Mr. Secretary, if President Biden had chosen to breach the agreement that President Trump signed with the Taliban, would the Taliban have restarted attacks against U.S. troops and bases? BLINKEN: Yes.

MURPHY: As you said in the opening testimony, by the time you -- the administration took office, the Taliban was on the outskirts of several provincial capitals. If President Biden had chosen breach the agreement between President Trump and the Taliban, would the Taliban have begun offensives on these urban centers?


MURPHY: So, if the Taliban had begun its siege on attacks and resumed attacks on troops, would 2,500 have been enough to keep the country from falling into the Taliban?


MURPHY: Would double that number had been enough? Do we know how big our force would have had to have gotten?

BLINKEN: I think it was the assessment of our military leaders that not to put a number on it but significant additional U.S. forces would have been required both to protect ourselves and to prevent the onslaught from the Taliban against the provincial capitals and ultimately against Kabul.

MURPHY: So, it wasn't a decision between leaving and the status quo. This was decision between a significant commitment of new U.S. resources to the fight or the continuation of the withdrawal plan?

BLINKEN: That's correct.

MURPHY: Okay. Let's talk about the last month. So, once the Afghan government and the military disintegrate all at once, it seems to me it was pretty predictable and understandable that there would be panic on the ground amongst the Afghan people. So, could it be expected that a few thousand U.S. troops and diplomats on the ground at the time would have been able to prevent this panic?


MURPHY: Much has been made about these dramatic and heartbreaking scenes at the airport. Were 2,500 or 5,000 troops enough to stop the Afghan people from rushing to the airport? It created this security nightmare for you, but was there any way for the limited number of personnel that were there to prevent individuals from rushing to the airport?

BLINKEN: No. They could control the airport, as we did. They could establish a basic immediate perimeter around the airport, as we did, but they couldn't control what happened beyond that perimeter.

MURPHY: And so let's talk about that perimeter. Others say, well, we should have controlled a bigger perimeter. We should have taken back over parts of Kabul to secure the passage of Americans and Afghans to the airport. I mean, let's say you would quadruple the number of troops you had there, let's say you had 10,000 troops there without the Afghan military or a functioning government, would that have been enough to retake Kabul to be able to secure the passage of everyone to the airport?

BLINKEN: I don't want to profess to be a military expert, so I'd really defer to my colleagues at the Pentagon on that. But I can that -- I think safely say that it would have taken a substantial number of forces to try to retake the city or establish a much broader perimeter.


And, of course, if that was ultimately opposed by the Taliban, in a sense, it would have defeated the purpose, because anyone outside that perimeter would not have been allowed to get through it to come to the airport, among other things.

MURPHY: Right. So, once the Afghan military collapses, it disintegrates, we don't have enough troops to retake Kabul, and we are in the position of having to rely on the Taliban or at least communicate with the Taliban to make sure that we get individuals to the airport?

BLINKEN: That's correct.

MURPHY: Okay. I just think this is important to put on the record in a clear and concise way. Because we have to have a reckoning in this country about what we can accomplish and what we can't accomplish. It's extraordinary that this administration got 130,000 people out of Afghanistan given those circumstances, given the situation that they inherited, that you inherited in January of this year.

And my worry, Mr. Chairman, is that the malady 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, it's plaguing us again today. That right now, we're having a conversation as if, 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.

It is heartbreaking what happened. It was impossible for Americans to watch. But if we just simply leave today, believing that if we had planned better, if we had better execution, we could have avoided this panic and confusion, I think we're just inviting another Iraq, another Afghanistan in the future.

Finally, Mr. Secretary, just quickly expand on your point about the message that it sends to China, this idea that the Chinese would love it if we stayed another 10 or 20 years and why this isn't a sign of weakness, and, in fact, it's an ability for you and the national security infrastructure to be able reorient resources towards fights that we actually can win. BLINKEN: Well, I think, Senator, you put well. In my assessment and the assessment of many others, as I said, there's nothing that strategic competitors, like China, like Russia, or adversaries, like Iran and North Korea, would like better than for us to have re-up the war, doubled down on it and remain bogged down in Afghanistan for another year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, with all of that dedication of resources, all of that energy and focus on that as opposed to the challenges that we have to face today.

And I might add, this committee has done, I think, a very good job on trying to refocus on, notably the competition from China. So I think that would have been doubling down on this war after 20 years, after nearly $2 trillion, after 2,461 American lives lost. 20,000 injuries, and not to preserve the status quo that existed before May 1st. That would have been one thing but to be in a situation where the war with us was restarted. The Taliban attacking our forces and partners and allies, going on an offensive across the country to retake the cities, that would have required a doubling down on a war.

And the bottom line is this. We were right to end the war. We were right not to send a third generation of Americans to Afghanistan to fight and die there. And I believe we were right in the extraordinary efforts that were made to make sure we could bring out as many people as possible, and now we have an obligation to make sure that we continue to do that, and, of course, to guard against the reemergence of any threats coming from Afghanistan.

MURPHY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN AT THIS HOUR: All right. For two hours now, the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, has faced a grilling on Capitol Hill over the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan. He's faced tough questions from Democrats and Republicans alike, some questions substantive and important. And he did not answer some of those very important questions, like why did you not start the withdrawal sooner. Other questions, though, honestly, bizarre and total theater.

The secretary has been defiant and defensive of the administration's actions throughout this hearing. We're going to continue to monitor this as the American people deserve answers still of why this withdrawal went so wrong.


I'm Kate Bolduan. Inside Politics with John King starts right now.