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U.S. Secretary Of State Blinken Testifies Before The House Committee On Foreign Affairs On Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 2:30-3p ET
Aired September 13, 2021 - 14:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
REP. AMI BERA (D-CA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And thank you, Mr. Secretary, for coming before the subcommittee. Obviously, this is not going to be easy hearing; there'll be a lot of questions back and forth. And we certainly, over the course of the next few months at the subcommittee and full committee level, will do some more oversight on the information and -- and so forth, that decisions were made on.
I want to focus, though, on the mission that's still at hand. You know, my district has the largest Afghan refugee population in the country. We've submitted over 10,000 names of U.S. citizens, visa holders, family members, et cetera. And you know, that mission still remains. I've got close to 30 school-aged kids that are still in -- in Afghanistan, U.S. citizens visa holders along with their parents.
And we've got to do everything we can to get those folks to -- to safety. And I look forward to working with you, your staff, and others to make sure we don't leave folks behind and we get those folks out as reasonably as possible to safety. And I look forward to the testimony.
And with that, I yield back.
REP. GREGORY W. MEEKS (D-NY): Thank you, chair Bera. I now turn to the ranking member. Mr. Chabot, for one minute.
REP. STEVE CHABOT (R-OH): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, the -- this administration's bungled pull out from Afghanistan just may be the worst foreign affairs disaster in American history. You have essentially surrendered that country and its people to the good graces of the Taliban. And the Taliban doesn't have good graces. Afghanistan is, once again, a haven for terrorists. And those terrorists now have our weapons and equipment to use against us.
As Mr. McCaul correctly stated, our allies may -- will not trust this as much as our enemies may not fear us as much. Yes, the majority of American people wanted to leave Afghanistan, but not like this. Pulling our troops out before civilians, abandoning Americans behind enemy lines, as well as thousands of Afghans who worked with us and fought with us and their families. And leaving half the population, about 20 million women and girls, to be brutalized once again by the Taliban. This is a disgrace.
And I yield back.
MEEKS: Thank you. I will -- thank you, Mr. Chatbot.
Now, I'll introduce our witness. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken was sworn in as the United States Secretary of State on January 26, 2021. And as I mentioned in my opening statement, this will be the third time Secretary Blinken testified before this committee, and we are grateful for his appearance before us today.
I'll now recognize the witness for his testimony, which I understand will be a little longer than five minutes. But being that he's going to be here for all of our questions, I think it's important for his statement to be heard in its entirety. Secretary Blinken, I now recognize you.
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. And Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member McCaul, thank you for today. I welcome this opportunity to discuss our policy on Afghanistan, including where we are, how, and where we're going in the weeks and months ahead.
For 20 years, Congress has conducted oversight and provided funding for the mission in Afghanistan. I know from my own time, as a staff member for then-Senator Biden, how invaluable a partner Congress is. As I said when I was nominated, I believe strongly in Congress's traditional role as a partner in foreign policymaking. I'm committed to working with you on the path forward in Afghanistan and to advance the interest of the American people.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, as we honor the nearly 3000 men, women, and children who lost their lives, we're reminded why we went to Afghanistan in the first place. To bring justice to those who attacked us and to ensure that it would not happen again.
We achieved those objectives long ago. Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, a decade ago. Al-Qaeda's capabilities were degraded significantly, including its ability to plan and conduct external operations. After 20 years, 2641 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, $2 trillion (ph) spent, it was time to end America's longest war.
When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining forces from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. As part of that agreement, the previous administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5000 Taliban prisoners, including some top war commanders.
Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2500 troops. In return, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking U.S. and partner forces and to refrain from threatening Afghanistan's major cities. But the Taliban continued a relentless march on remote outposts, on checkpoints, on villages and districts, as well as the major roads connecting them. By January 2021, the Taliban was in the strongest military position it had been in since 9/11.
[14:35:00] And we have the smallest number of troops on the ground since 2001.
As a result, upon taking office, President Biden immediately faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it. Had he not followed through on his predecessor's commitment, attacks on our forces and those are our allies would've resumed, and the Taliban's nationwide assaults on Afghanistan's major cities would have commenced.
That would have required sending substantially more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to defend themselves and prevent a Taliban takeover taking casualties and with at best the prospect of restoring a stalemate and the remaining stuck in Afghanistan under fire indefinitely.
There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self- sustaining. If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, another 5, another 10? Conversely, there is nothing that our strategic competitors like China and Russia or adversaries like Iran and North Korea would have liked more than for the United States to re-up a 20-year war and remain bogged down in Afghanistan for another decade.
In advance of the President's decision, I was in constant contact with our allies and partners to hear their views and factor them into our thinking. When the President announced the withdraw, NATO immediately and unanimously embraced it. We all set (ph) together on the drawdown. Similarly, we weren't intensely focused on the safety of Americans in Afghanistan.
In March, we began urging them to leave the country. In total, between March and August, we sent 19 specific messages with that warning and with offers to help, including financial assistance to pay for plane tickets.
Despite this effort, at the time the evacuation began, there were still thousands of American citizens in Afghanistan. Almost all of them 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 was an incredibly wrenching decision.
In April, we began drawing down our Embassy ordering non-essential personnel to depart. We also use this time to significantly speed up the processing of the Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who have worked for us and by our side these past 20 years.
When we took office, we inherited a program with a 14-step process based on a statutory framework enacted by Congress and involving multiple government agencies and a backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants. There had not been a single interview in the SIV program in Kabul for nine months, going back to March of 2020. The program was basically in a stall.
Within two weeks of taking office, we restarted the SIV interview process in Kabul. On February 4, one of the very first executive orders issued by President Biden directed us to immediately review the SIV program to identify causes of undue delay and to find ways to process SIV applications more quickly.
This spring, I directed significant additional resources to the program. Expanding the team in Washington of people processing applications from 10 to 50 and doubling the number of SIV adjudicators at our Embassy in Kabul. Even as many embassy personnel returned to the United States under ordered departure, we sent more consular officers to Kabul to process SIV applications.
As a result of these and other steps, including working with Congress, by May, we had reduced the average processing time for Special Immigrant Visas by more than a year. Even amid a COVID surge at Embassy Kabul in June, we continued to issue visas. And we went from issuing about 100 Special Immigrant Visas per week in March to more than 1000 per week in August when our evacuation and relocation efforts began.
That emergency evacuation was sparked by the collapse of the Afghan security forces and government. Throughout the year, we were constantly assessing their staying power and considering multiple scenarios. Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict the government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained. 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 (inaudible).
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 standby for President Biden was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours.
The evacuation itself was an extraordinary effort under the most difficult conditions imaginable, by our diplomats, by our military, by our intelligence professionals. They worked around the clock to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us, citizens of our allies and partners, and at-risk Afghans on planes out of the country and off to the United States or to transit locations that our diplomats had arranged and negotiated in multiple countries.
Our consular team worked 24/7 to reach out to Americans who could still be in the country, making in those couple of weeks 55,000 phone calls, sending 33,000 emails. And they're still at it.
In the midst of this heroic effort, an ISIS-K attack killed 13 service members working the gates at HKIA, wounding 20 others, and killing and wounding scores of Afghans. These American service members gave their lives so that other lives could continue. In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety. And on August 31 in Kabul, the military mission in Afghanistan officially ended, and a new diplomatic mission began. I want to acknowledge the more than two dozen countries that have helped with the relocation effort. Some served as transit hubs, some welcoming Afghan evacuees for longer periods of time. And I want to recognize the extraordinary efforts by Congress as well. To name just a few examples, Congressman Fitzpatrick worked with the State Department to reunite an Afghan family in New Jersey.
Congressman Keating worked with our folks on the ground to help a Voice of America reporter and his family get to the airport. Congresswoman Jacobs and Congressman Issa worked across party lines to draw attention to cases of legal permanent residents and Afghans at risk.
Please know, your emails, your calls made a real difference in getting people out. And we continue to use the lists and information you're providing in the next phase of the mission. Let me now just briefly outline what the State Department has done over the next -- over the last couple of weeks, and where we're going in the days and weeks ahead.
First, we moved our diplomatic operations from Kabul to Doha, where our new Afghan affairs team is hard at work. Many of our key partners have joined us there. Second, we're continuing our relentless efforts to help any remaining Americans, as well as Afghans and citizens of allied and partner countries, leave Afghanistan if they so choose.
This past Thursday, Qatar Airways charter flight with U.S. citizens and others on board departed Kabul and landed in Doha. On Friday, a second flight carrying U.S. citizens and others departed of Afghanistan. These flights were the coordinates -- were the results of a coordinated effort by the United States, Qatar, and Turkey, to reopen the airport and intense diplomacy to start the flights. In addition to those flights, a half dozen American citizens, about a dozen permanent residents of the United States, have also left Afghanistan via an overland route with our help.
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. Some declined to be on the first flights on Thursday and Friday for reasons including needing more time to make arrangements, wanting to remain with extended family for now, or medical issues that precluded traveling last week.
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 remain behind. For example, in Libya, in Syria, in Venezuela, in Yemen, and in Somalia. There is no deadline for this mission.
Third, we're focused on counterterrorism. The Taliban is committed to preventing terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including al Qaeda and ISIS-K. We'll hold them accountable for that. That does not mean we will rely on them. We want to main a vigilant and monitoring threats; we'll maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize those threats, if necessary. And we do that in places around the world where we do not have military forces on the ground.
Fourth, we continue our intensive diplomacy with allies and partners.
We initiated a statement joined by more than half the world's countries, over 100 countries, as well as the United Nations Security Council resolution, setting out the international community's expectations of a Taliban-led government. We expect the Taliban to ensure freedom of travel, to make good on its commitments on counterterrorism, to uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women, girls, and minorities, to name a broadly representative permanent government to force a way (ph) with reprisals.
Full legitimacy and support the Taliban seeks from the international community will depend on its conduct. We organize contact groups of key countries to ensure the international community continues to speak with one voice on Afghanistan and to leverage our combined influence. Last week, I led a ministerial meeting of 22 countries, NATO, the EU, the United Nations, to continue to align our efforts.
And fifth, we'll continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. Consistent with sanctions of this able (ph) not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations like NGOs and UN agencies. Just today, we announced that the United States is providing nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
To meet critical (inaudible) and nutrition needs, addressed the protection concerns of women, children, and minorities, to help more children, including girls, go back to school. This additional funding means the United States has provided nearly $330 million in assistance to the Afghan people this fiscal year.
In Doha and Ramstein, I toured the facilities where Afghans that were evacuated were being processed before moving on to their next destinations. Here at home, I spent some time at the Dulles Expo Center, where more than 45,000 Afghans have been processed after arriving in the United States. It's remarkable -- remarkable to see what our diplomats, our military, and employees from other civilian agencies across the U.S. government have been able to achieve in a very short time. They've met an enormous human need.
They coordinated food, water, sanitation for thousands, tens of thousands of people. They're arranging medical care, including the delivery of babies. They're reuniting families who are separated and caring for unaccompanied minors. It's an extraordinary interagency effort and a powerful testament to the skill, the compassion, and the dedication of our people.
We should all be proud of what they're doing. And as we've done throughout our history, Americans are now welcoming families from Afghanistan into our communities and helping them resettle as they start their new lives. That's something to be proud of as well.
Thanks very much for -- for listening. And with that, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member McCaul, I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
MEEKS: Thank you, Secretary Blinken, for your testimony.
I will now recognize members for five minutes, and pursuant to house rules, all-time yielded is for the purposes of questioning our witness. I'll recognize members by committee seniority, alternating between Democrats and Republicans.
Please note that I will be strict and enforcing the five-minute time limitation for questioning. What do I mean? I don't want members to ask questions for five minutes and then not leave the secretary time to respond. So, when addressing your questions, please keep in mind that the five minutes is for questions and answers.
I'll start by recognizing myself. Mr. Secretary, you've mentioned in an area of concern that I know is shared by all. Is the status of American citizens, green card holders, and our SIV heroes who are yet to be evacuated. Can you tell us how many of them remain in the -- in- country, and what is our plan to facilitate their evacuation now?
BLINKEN: Yes, thank you, Mr. Chairman. So, 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. It's a -- it's a more accurately, a moving picture, as you know, stepping back for a minute. 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.
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.
We've also benefited greatly from information provided by Congress to help us fill out this picture.
But as of last week, there were about 100 who had -- we were in contact with who continued to express an interest to leave. We offered seats on the planes that got out last week to about 60. Thirty came forward and -- and -- and used those seats. What happens in any -- at any given moment, is that people are making decisions, hour by hour, if not day by day, about whether to leave or not.
And as I said earlier, these are incredibly wrenching decisions because, for the most part, this is a community of people who've been living, residing in Afghanistan, for all their lives. Afghanistan is their home; they have extended families. And it's very, very hard for them, understandably, to make that decision. But that is the -- the group that we're working with. Now, what also happens is, as people will identify themselves, including since the end of the evacuation, as American citizens in Afghanistan who wish to leave, so they get added to the picture. We get information from you, from NGOs, from other groups, Veteran's groups about people purporting to be Americans in Afghanistan. We immediately seek to contact them, to engage with them. To find out if, in fact, they're in Afghanistan and if, in fact, they want to leave.
So, this is a picture that will continue to change over time. But that is the -- the rough population that we're working with right now.
MEEKS: Thank you. Let me ask the next question. I know that the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban meant that they were 2500 troops remaining with less than five months to complete the withdrawal. At any time, did you -- did the Biden administration consider whether to renegotiate the deal with the Taliban?
BLINKEN: The Taliban made abundantly clear in many public statements, private statements, to us, to others around the world, that it was going to hold us to the deadline that the previous administration negotiated in terms of withdrawing the remaining American forces.
It made very clear that if we move past that deadline, it will resume the attacks that it had stopped, on our forces and on our allies and partners. As well as to commence the onslaught on the cities that we've -- we've seen in recent months.
And so, that was exactly the -- the choice that President Biden faced. Whether to go forward with the agreement and the commitments that his predecessor had made in terms of withdrawing all forces by May 1 or return to war with the Taliban and escalate, not end the war.
Now, Mr. Chairman, as you know, what the President did do was to take some risk in extending past May 1, the time we would use to actually withdraw our forces so that we could do it in the safest and most orderly way possible. And so...
MEEKS: Let me try to get in one more question.
BLINKEN: ... that -- that deadline till September.
MEEKS: So, also, we know that there are was appointed recently in the government hardliners in the new Taliban group; the Taliban's commitments to share power with other Afghan political and social groups exclude women and minorities. How does the -- this -- does the important -- appointment of this new government factor into the administration's strategy to engage with the Taliban or assumptions that the Taliban may have changed?
BLINKEN: So, the -- the interim government named by the Taliban falls very short of the mark that was set by the international community for inclusivity. That is to have a government that was broadly representative of the Afghan people, not just the Taliban and its constituency. To include women, which this interim government does not. And, as has been noted, it includes many key members who have very challenging track records. We've been very clear that when it comes to engaging with that government, or any government to be named on a more permanent basis, we're going to do so on the basis of whether or not it advances our interests. And those interests are very clear. They're the expectations that we've set, and the international community has set for the ongoing freedom of travel, for a government that makes good on the Taliban's commitments to combat terrorism.
Not allow Afghanistan to be used as a haven for launching attacks directed against other countries. To support the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities, and to allow humanitarian assistance to get to people who so desperately need it.
That will be the basis upon which we engage any Taliban-led government, whether it's the (inaudible) government or one they may name in the days and weeks ahead.
MEEKS: I now yield for questions to the Ranking Member McCaul.
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): ... Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, in the weeks before the fall to Kabul, the surrender to the Taliban, I was on the phone with very high-ranking officials at state, DOD, White House, trying to save lives. We had Americans that couldn't get out. We had interpreters that couldn't get through the perimeter of the Taliban. They are left behind; they will be executed. They do have a bullseye on their back.
We had four buses of Afghan girls, orphans at the American University School of Music that sat there for 17 hours. When I was finally told, the State Department would not lift the gate to let them into safety, even though they had an aircraft waiting.
Will you guarantee to this committee? Now, we are at the mercy of the Taliban, though. Can you guarantee to this committee that we will get them out?
BLINKEN: First, Ranking Member McCaul, thank you for every effort that you made, as well as other members of this committee made to help people in need. To try to help them get out. Those are deeply appreciated. And going forward, we continue to look (inaudible).
Now, I have men and women in my department, the State Department, who raised their hands from around the world and ran into the building. They went from posts around the world into that airport to help people get out. They were serving at the gates right alongside our brothers and sisters in uniform, including the 13, who gave their lives.
Literally, trying to pull people in as necessary, or to walk them in, to talk them in, to do everything they possibly could to bring American citizens, to bring Afghans at risk, to bring the nationals of our partners and others into the airport...
MCCAUL: ... if I could reclaim on time because it's limited. And we thank...
BLINKEN: It's important, sir, for you to recognize.
MCCAUL: We thank the service. We also thank the service. And we also thank the service of people like that who worked in Operation Pineapple and Dunkirk. I would ask that the State Department work with them. Those are heroes as well as the State Department officials you're talking about.
My last question is very important. Bagram went down, the Embassy went down, and we went dark. We have no eyes and ears on the ground. We've lost intelligence capability in the region. That includes Russia, China, and Iran, as you know. This is a national security threat as China moves in. For all I know, they may take over Bagram airbase.
But this over-the-horizon capability, I believe, is exaggerated. It's not a viable option. It's too far away. Did you negotiate with countries like Uzbekistan or -- or Tajikistan to put an ISR capability there?
And my last question is it true that President Putin threatened the President of the United States, saying he could not build intelligence capabilities in the region?
BLINKEN: This is an -- this is an important question and one that, in its detail and substance, I think we need to take up in another setting. (inaudible), I know that you -- you very much appreciate.
Let me just say this very broadly. And you -- you -- you know this very well, given your -- your focus and expertise on these issues. The terrorist threat has metastasized dramatically over the last 20 years. And it's most acute in places like Yemen, like Libya, like Iraq, like Syria, like Somalia.
And, of course, we have much greater and different capabilities than we did (ph) 20 years ago in terms of dealing with that threat. And in many countries around the world, we deal with it effectively with no U.S. boots on the ground.
We lost some capacity for sure in not having those boots on the ground in Afghanistan. But we have ways, and we are very actively working on that to -- to make up for that, to mitigate for that. To make sure that we have eyes on the problem, to see if it reemerges in Afghanistan...
BLINKEN: And to do something about it. But what I would propose...
MCCAUL: And if I could reclaim, sir. I would -- I would like to work with you. Because if we can't see what's happening on the ground, we can't see the threat, we can't respond to it; the threat's only going to grow. It's going to get worse, not better. And we have to have that capability.
You know, let me ask you one last question. We had these planes grounded at Mazar-i-Sharif. And the Taliban seems to be holding these planes up. What -- are you currently negotiating with the Taliban, with respect to these Americans who are trying to get out on these planes?
And also, are you negotiating with the Taliban on the issue of legitimizing them as a real government?
BLINKEN: Not only us but virtually the entire international community, including the 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.