Return to Transcripts main page
Secretary of State Tony Blinken Grilled Before Congress. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired September 13, 2021 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Not only us, but virtually the entire international community, including in a United Nations Security Council resolution, has made clear what we expect and will insist on from the Taliban if they want to seek any legitimacy or any support.
And that includes, it starts with freedom of travel. So we have been intensely engaged with Turkey and Qatar to get the airport in Kabul up and running again, which is now the case. And we started to get flights out last week with American citizens on board.
And with regard to Mazar-e-Sharif, you're correct. There have been charter flights there that have been there for some time that have not been allowed to leave. We want to see those flights leave. We need to see a process put in place to allow those flights to start to move. And we're working on that every day.
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): Thank you. I yield back.
REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D-NY): Thank you.
Mr. Secretary, we have requested such a classified briefing not too long ago, and we welcome your assurance to schedule this briefing sometime in the immediate future.
BLINKEN: Yes, absolutely.
MEEKS: I now recognize Representative Brad Sherman from California for five minutes.
REP. BRAD SHERMAN (D-CA): Secretary Blinken, thank you for reminding us that Americans were not required to register if they were in Afghanistan. And I hope my colleagues will support my legislation to require Americans to register if they go to a war zone.
The ranking member says that he never thought he'd see an unconditional surrender of the United States to the Taliban. He saw it in 2020, when President Donald Trump announced that we'd be out by May 1 of 2021, forced the release of 5,000 of the Taliban's best fighters, and, most importantly, created a circumstance where there was not even a credible possibility that we would engage in force to support the Afghan government. There are those who say we should get out all of our Afghan allies and
all those who face oppression or death from the Taliban. I would point out that the Afghan army, together with all of its veterans over 20 years, together with all their families, you're talking about millions of people.
And while the Taliban may be harsh to the girls who are music students, who are orphans, imagine how harsh they will be to a girl whose father was in the Afghan army trying to kill the Taliban.
The administration -- when the administration took over, the American people made it clear we had to get out in 2021. The Afghan government, some thought, had some chance to fight to a stalemate. But, by spring, those closest to us, those most in the know were demanding visas to get out, to flee as quickly as possible.
They weren't asking for guns to build trenches around Kabul to fight the Taliban. They were asking for visas. They were demanding visas. They were making videos about how they were going to be killed.
When they started to flee, that started a stampede. And there is simply no way the administration could have an orderly or successful stampede.
And it seems absurd, at least in retrospect, to think that the average Afghan grunt would fight in the trenches while seeing those who are best connected desperate to flee in a matter of days.
Secretary Blinken, when you came into office on January 20, we were committed to pulling everyone out of Afghanistan within three months, by May 1. 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 withdraw?
BLINKEN: Thank you, Congressman.
We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan.
SHERMAN: So, no plan -- no plan at all. It's amazing that it wasn't much, much worse.
We -- it was controversial when we gave up five Taliban for Bergdahl, not the most meritorious of American fighting men. But the Trump administration gave 5,000 of the Taliban's top fighters back to the Taliban.
What did we get for that, other than empty promises that were broken?
BLINKEN: Congressman, the deal that the previous administration struck involved, as you rightly said, committing to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year, and, in addition, as that deal was being negotiated and then put into effect, pressing the Afghan government to release these 5,000 prisoners, many of whom went back to the battlefield.
And, at the same time, in return, getting from the Taliban a few commitments, one, not to attack our forces or allied and partner forces during the time of the agreement, from the time it was reached until May 1, when we were supposed to pull out all of our forces, as well as not to go at the major cities, and to take steps to ensure that Afghanistan would not be used by al Qaeda or any other terrorist group.
SHERMAN: Mr. Secretary, I have got...
SHERMAN: ... one more question.
You're criticized for not getting our weapons out. Our weapons were given to the Afghan military. They were all over the country. Was there a way to disarm the Afghan government without being seen by the world as betraying the Afghan government?
And was there a way without casualties to go all over Afghanistan and grab the trucks and the tanks, et cetera.
BLINKEN: Simply put, no.
Of course, a lot of excess equipment was handed over to the Afghan security and defense forces, partners that we had worked with for 20 years, supported, financed and equipped for 20 years to take on some of that equipment. And, of course, when those forces collapsed in the space of about 11 days, some of that equipment wound up in the hands of the successor forces, the Taliban.
Our folks worked very hard to disable or dismantle equipment that we still controlled before we left Afghanistan. And what we see now is much of the equipment that was left behind, including in the hands of the Afghan forces that then fell to the Taliban, much of it based on what I understand from my colleagues at DOD, is inoperable or soon will become inoperable, because it has to be maintained, it's not of any great strategic value in terms of threatening us or threatening any of Afghanistan's neighbors.
But it does give the Taliban, as we have seen in pictures, all of us, uniforms and guns and some other equipment that is now in their hands.
MEEKS: The gentleman's time has expired.
SHERMAN: Thank you very much.
MEEKS: I now recognize Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, who's the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights, for five minutes.
REP. CHRIS SMITH (R-NJ): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, you testified that you had encouraged Americans to leave the country. But simultaneous with that was statements being made, including by President Biden, that Afghans' military capability was 300,000-man strong and that they had the best training imaginable.
So, at best, I would say they were misled.
And you don't mention withdrawal conditions that were placed by President Trump on any exodus from Afghanistan. But I do have a couple of questions I'd like to ask.
Did you concur and support President Biden's July 23 phone call telling President Ghani to be untruthful about the Taliban's success? According to Reuters, which reviewed both the transcript and the audio, President Biden said -- quote -- "And there's a need, whether it be true or not, there is a need to project a different picture."
Was that an ad lib by President Biden? Or was or was that lie scripted into the phone call? And if it was scripted, by who?
Secondly, have any Americans been arrested, beaten, abducted or killed by the Taliban or ISIS-K since we left? And do we have the capacity and the capability to know that?
Third, were there any gaps or weaknesses in the vetting process of Afghan evacuees, especially in light of the fact that reliable information on some, perhaps many, who got parole wasn't available to conduct a meaningful background check? Are you concerned that the Taliban may have embedded its members as evacuees?
I visited our base in Fort Dix recently with some other members of Congress and our governor and asked a number of questions. But I was very concerned about the vetting or lack thereof and the fact that parolees about 70 percent strong at our base at least -- and we're going to go up to about 13,000 -- they can leave if they would like. They're free to leave.
It's not clear whether or not they return, but they are free to leave.
And, finally, one of the profoundly negative consequences outside of Afghanistan has been China and Taiwan. The state-controlled Chinese Communist Party media, including CCP-run "Global Times" -- and I read it every day -- are saturating the Taiwanese with messages to give up and surrender to Beijing because the United States will, just as it did in Afghanistan, abandon them too.
That's what "The Global Times" is saying.
But if you could start off with the first question, I would appreciate it and go through them.
BLINKEN: Thanks very much, Congressman. Let me see if I can address all those questions.
[15:10:02] First, with regard to the phone call you cited, I'm obviously not going to comment on leaked -- purportedly leaked transcripts and phone calls.
Here's what I can tell you.
What the president said in that conversation with then-President Ghani is exactly what he was saying in public. And it's this, that the issue was not the capacity at that point of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces to hold the country and to hold Kabul. It was their will and whether they had a plan to do so.
And we were concerned that they were not demonstrating that will or that plan. He pressed President Ghani on the need to consolidate his forces, based on the military advice from our military leaders, to make sure that he could defend the places that needed defending and not overstretch those forces.
And he needed to bring people together...
BLINKEN: ... to show a united front. That was what -- that's what he said.
SMITH: I only got a few minutes.
BLINKEN: ... if I can.
SMITH: On whether or not it's true or not, was it a real -- I mean, it's a transcript untrue?
BLINKEN: Again, I'm not commenting on any purportedly leaked transcripts.
I'm telling you what, based on my knowledge of the conversation, the president said, and what he said is exactly what he said in public.
Second, with regard to American citizens remaining behind, the ones we're in contact with, we're -- we have 500 people on a task force that -- and teams dedicated to them to be in regular contact with them. And I have not heard from those people that concern raised.
I can't say whether there are any American citizens who we're not in contact with or don't know of who may have been mistreated in some fashion in Afghanistan.
Third, with regard to the background checks -- and this is very important, and you're right to focus on it -- as you know, before Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan reach the United States, they go to a transit country, and that's where the initial checks are done.
We have surged Customs and Border Patrol. We have surged our intelligence and law enforcement capacity to do those initial checks. And then, when they get to the United States, first at a military base, those checks are continued using all of law enforcement, intelligence, security agencies to do that, so that we can make sure that we are not letting anyone into the country who could pose a threat or risk.
It's exactly that balance that's so important as well in the SIV program. We all want to bring Afghans at risk in the United States. We also have an obligation that you rightly point out to the security of our fellow citizens.
Finally, on China and Taiwan, as I said earlier, whatever protestations they may be making in newspapers or in their propaganda, there is nothing that China would have liked more than for us to have re-upped the war in Afghanistan and to remain bogged down for another five, 10 or 20 years. That would have been profoundly against our strategic interests and profoundly in China's strategic interests.
MEEKS: The gentleman's time has expired.
I now recognize Representative Albio Sires of New Jersey, who is the chair of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, Migration and International Economic Policy, for five minutes.
REP. ALBIO SIRES (D-NJ): Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for being with us for the third time.
And I want to also say thank you to the work that the State Department has done in getting people, including 11 members of one family that were all united and are here now in this country. So I -- my hat is tipped off to those people who work so hard.
The question that I have is, the Taliban seems to be having a complete hold in the country. But I understand there are other groups in Afghanistan. How fragile or how strong, firm is the Taliban's hold on this country? And do you see that breaking apart, as everybody wants their piece down the line, because it seems that this country is made up of pieces of people that control certain pieces of the country?
BLINKEN: It's -- thank you. It's a very good question and an important one.
And it is very, very hard to predict with any certainty. The country is in so many ways, as you pointed out, fractured among different groups, different ethnic groups, north, south, east, and west, different outside actors that may be supporting one group or another.
And so for the Taliban to fully consolidate control, that is -- I think that remains an open question.
It's also why, ironically, it would be profoundly in the Taliban's interest to actually put forward a genuinely inclusive and representative government, because, to the extent it doesn't, to the extent that everyone other than the Taliban is left out, that's only likely to over -- at some period in time, whether it's tomorrow, next week, next year, or thereafter, cause those who are left out to try to assert one way or another their rights and needs.
So, all of that, I think, is an open question at this point.
One last thing I would mention. The country itself is in desperate straits. The U.N. estimates that fully half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. We have severe malnutrition, health problems, COVID-19, droughts, et cetera.
And so there too the Taliban has a big problem on its hands. And, of course, it is generating very, very little revenue in order to deal with that, all of which, I might add, gives the international community very significant leverage and influence going forward.
SIRES: I also read where they're running out of food in the next few months?
BLINKEN: Yes, that's correct.
We have seen a terrible drought, growing nutrition problems. It's one of the reasons that we think it's so important to make sure that, regardless of anything else, we and other countries find ways to continue humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. We have committed additional funds to do that.
There's a pledging conference called by the United Nations that's ongoing. And we can and will do that, consistent with the sanctions, consistent with our laws, by directing assistance through NGOs, through the United Nations agencies, not through the government.
We need to do everything we can to make sure the people of Afghanistan don't suffer any more than is already the case.
SIRES: I would like to see, if we're going to help Afghanistan with food and aid, that we extract certain commitments from them before we just give them food.
BLINKEN: Thank you.
SIRES: The thing I want to say, I want to commend the country of Colombia.
I think they have taken thousands of Afghanistans (sic), and they're vetting them before they get here. Is that accurate?
BLINKEN: There are a number of countries around the world that have made those commitments that are either serving as transit countries or serving as resettlement countries, taking in Afghans as refugees.
And we deeply appreciate the countries that have stood up and agreed to do that. SIRES: Thank you. I don't have any more questions, Chairman.
MEEKS: The gentleman yields back.
I now recognize Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who's a ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism, for five minutes.
REP. JOE WILSON (R-SC): Thank you very much, chairman Greg Meeks.
And I'm glad to join with our dear colleague Albio Sires in thanking our great ally of Colombia of helping the Afghan refugees.
Sir, in my service on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Global Terrorism Subcommittee, the Armed Services Committee, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the Helsinki Commission, I have always been impressed by American Foreign Service diplomats worldwide.
Their dedication to service is inspiring. That is why I am shocked at your action superseding military advice leading to the surrender in Afghanistan to be a safe haven for murderous terrorists.
Biden/Harris have also opened the Southern border, stopping the wall of President Donald Trump. This allows identified terrorists of the terror watch list to enter American neighborhoods as lone wolf suicide bombers to murder as many Americans as possible.
In American history, American families have never been at greater risk of attack at home than today, as the global war on terrorism is not over. It has been moved from abroad to American homes.
As the grateful father of an Afghanistan veteran, I especially see your actions as indefensible. With 12 visits by me across Afghanistan to thank the South Carolina Army National Guard troops, the 218th Brigade commanded by General Bob Livingston, I know firsthand they appreciated serving with their Afghan brothers.
I saw the United States Agency for International Development's success in building schools, agricultural projects, hospitals and bridges and roads.
My beliefs have been actually expressed by "The New York Post" editorial board on September the 1st, and that is -- quote -- "Six lies Joe Biden told about Afghanistan."
How can any American believe anything Biden says after he's lied so blatantly? Lie, if there are American citizens left, we're going to stay until we get them out. Truth, Biden himself admits Americans remain stranded in Afghanistan.
Lie, we're making the same commitment, Biden said, to Afghanistans (sic) who assisted America. Truth, a senior State Department official confessed to NBC News that the majority of Afghans didn't make it out of Kabul. Lie, the United States stands by its commitment that we have made to
vulnerable Afghans, such as women leaders and journalists. Truth, team Biden didn't even ensure American-employed journalists made it to safety.
Lie, asked by a reporter you see parallels between what happened in Vietnam, none whatsoever. Zero. True, not even a month later, pictures came from Kabul of a helicopter flying over the American Embassy. Lie, Biden vowed to continue to provide Afghan army with air support. Truth, in the wake of Biden's withdrawal decision, he pulled the air support, intelligence and contractors. The Afghan military couldn't operate.
Lie, July 8, Biden added that the likelihood there's going to be a Taliban overrunning everything is highly unlikely. Truth, in fact, Biden knew the Taliban were overtaking the Afghan government and asked President Ghani to lie about it, whether it's true or not.
"Sadly, the advanced military equipment left to the terrorists" -- and I end the quote of that article. "Sadly, the advanced military equipment left to the terrorists is comparable to all of the military equipment that we have provided to Israel since 1948."
The countries who have suffered most from Islamic extremist terrorist attacks, India, Israel, and America, are in danger. They chant death to Israel, death to America. We must never forget the May 8 bombing in Kabul, where Islamic extremist terrorists slaughtered over 80 innocent young girls. You should have changed course then because of this gruesome revealing fact.
The murderers of that attack now will have a safe haven to attack American families at home. Your bizarre abandoning of Bagram Airfield led directly to 13 Marines murdered in Kabul. You should resign.
I yield back.
MEEKS: Mr. Secretary, we only had 43 seconds left of the five minutes.
So your response? I know you will not be able to answer many of the questions that was put forward by Representative Wilson. But, if you choose, you have 43 seconds of which to respond for whichever questions were asked to you.
BLINKEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Let me simply thank the member for his support for the men and women of the State Department. I appreciated that part of the statement.
MEEKS: I now Recognize Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who is the president of the NATO Parliamentarian Assembly, for five minutes.
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Mr. Chairman, thank you. I guess I would say to my friend from South Carolina, if I were the
member of Congress who committed one of the most grievous acts in a State of the Union address, when the president of the United States, Mr. Obama, was our guest to shout out "You lie," I might take more care about a numerating other alleged lies in a hearing with the secretary of state.
Mr. Secretary, what we're listening to on the other side of the aisle, sadly, is sort of a salad mix of selective facts and a lot of amnesia in the salad dressing.
The history of instability in Afghanistan didn't begin on August 14 of this year, did it?
BLINKEN: It did not.
CONNOLLY: Am I correct in remembering that, in fact, you could trace direct routes to 1977-1978, when there was a communist coup and the president of Afghanistan was assassinated in the presidential palace. Is that correct?
BLINKEN: It is.
CONNOLLY: And one year later, the Soviet Union, because of that instability, decided to invade Afghanistan. Is that correct?
BLINKEN: It is.
CONNOLLY: And 10 years later, the Soviets left Afghanistan because they had mounting and maybe really unsustainable military casualties and felt that they were engaged in a process that could not be won. Is that correct?
BLINKEN: It is.
CONNOLLY: And, meanwhile, because the United States decided, once that happened, it would disengage primarily from Afghanistan, groups like the Taliban had 12 years in which to create political power.
Is that correct?
BLINKEN: It is.
CONNOLLY: And, in 2001, we reentered Afghanistan in response to the tragedy we just remembered, 20-year remembrance this week. And we rolled up the Taliban by making alliances with various militia groups in the north and moved south, until they lost control of the country in that year in 2001. Is that correct?
BLINKEN: Yes, it is.
CONNOLLY: And the purpose of our involvement was to defeat al Qaeda, because the Taliban were harboring this virulent terrorist group that had attacked America. Is that correct? BLINKEN: That's correct.
CONNOLLY: Would it be fair to say that we achieve that objective?
BLINKEN: It would.
CONNOLLY: Would it be fair to say that, in fact, 10 years later, the leader of that group who masterminded the attacks of 9/11 was in fact killed by a United States specially trained military unit?
BLINKEN: That's correct.
CONNOLLY: So, what happened ultimately on August 14 has lots of history. I know it's convenient to pretend that didn't happen.
And I know that we want to give ourselves sort of the pleasure of attacking a political leader of the other party.
And so let me engage in that too. I'm going to assert that the events of August 14 had their direct antecedent with a bad decision by President Trump and Secretary Pompeo in 2018 to elevate and legitimize the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, by agreeing to have face-to-face negotiations.
That tragedy was compounded exponentially by an unbelievable decision to exclude the government of Afghanistan, ostensibly, we were defending, from those very negotiations.
Is that an accurate statement, Mr. Secretary?
BLINKEN: Certainly, that's what we inherited.
CONNOLLY: But Afghan was -- the Afghan government was in fact excluded from the negotiating table in Doha by the Trump administration. Is that not correct?
BLINKEN: That's essentially correct, yes.
CONNOLLY: And when those 5,000 people were released from prison, since the ranking members are concerned, and correctly so, about two Haqqani members in the current Cabinet of the Taliban, were there any known terrorists or declared terrorists by the United States among those 5,000 people released with the consent and negotiated agreement of the Trump administration?
BLINKEN: Almost certainly, yes.
CONNOLLY: Ah. I guess our concern about terrorists is pretty selective and limited to partisanship.
I yield back.
MEEKS: The gentleman yields back his time.
I now represent -- I now recognize Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, who is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, for five minutes.
REP. STEVE CHABOT (R-OH): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
On August 16, Mr. Secretary, President Biden said that the administration had considered every contingency and was executing the evacuation according to your plan.
Was it part of your plan to rely on the Taliban to ensure the safety of Americans trying to flee the country? Because that's what happened.
BLINKEN: We put -- we, through the course of the spring and summer, did, indeed, as the president said, look at every contingency for dealing with our drawdown.
And as part of that...
CHABOT: And we relied upon the -- we relied upon the Taliban to be our security.
In essence, we ended up getting 13 of our military personnel and over 150 African civilians killed by relying upon the Taliban. They didn't provide very good security. We never should have relied upon them.
But let me move on.
BLINKEN: No, we were not relying upon the Taliban.
As you know, what happened was, the Afghan security forces and the government collapsed within the space of 11 days. We then executed the plans that we had in place to safely draw down our embassy, move it to the airport. The military came in, took over the airport, and started getting evacuation flights out within 72 hours.
Those were the plans that were in place.
CHABOT: We certainly relied upon it at the airport. It didn't work out so well.
Mr. Secretary, President Biden has laid the blame for the evacuation debacle in Afghanistan on others, rather than on himself, where it really belongs. He blamed President Trump, as we have discussed already, to some degree here, basically claiming that he was just following Trump's policy.
But he hasn't hesitated to disregard every other major Trump policy, our Southern border, the Keystone pipeline, the Paris climate accord, the Iran deal, Mexico City policy, and on and on.