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Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Capitol Hill. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired September 13, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, . Welcome to NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.


Any moment, America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee over the deadly and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Now, we expect tough questions, frankly, from both parties over how the U.S. failed to foresee how quickly Afghanistan would collapse into the hands of the Taliban.

According to a preview of his prepared remarks, Secretary Blinken will say that there was no intelligence predicting that it would happen in the 11 days that it did.

CAMEROTA: As of today, the State Department believes about 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan. We are awaiting numbers of how many Afghan allies are still stuck there.

The United Nations today warned that Afghanistan is on the verge of famine. Secretary Blinken is expected to call the U.S. evacuation effort of more than 124,000 people a -- quote -- "historic success" and the largest military evacuation in American history.

BLACKWELL: With us is CNN anchor and chief national affairs analyst Kasie Hunt, CNN national correspondent Kylie Atwood, CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, and Army Reserve Captain Matt Zeller, who served in Afghanistan and co-founded No One Left Behind. That's an organization that has been helping to rescue Afghan families.

Kylie, let me start with you and what we should expect to hear from Secretary Blinken right at the top.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: He's going to defend the conduct of this evacuation from Afghanistan.

Of course, it has faced much criticism, but he will call this evacuation extraordinary, and he will discuss the pre-planning that went into making sure that this could happen. Of course, as you guys said, he's going to point to the fact that no one predicted that the collapse of Afghanistan was going to happen as quickly as it did, and he will say the reason that that happened is because the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces collapsed much more rapidly than expected.

But then he will say that the United States went into action and put their pre-plans into place. He will talk about getting out U.S. diplomats from the embassy quickly, taking control of the airport there. Of course, he is in a position -- he's in a hot seat right now. He is putting out his version, the Biden administration's version of what they did right, not what they did wrong.

Of course, we have heard much of the latter from administration officials quietly, and also from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, who are going to have a lot of specific questions for the secretary of state, not just kind of these broad actions that they took, but the smaller actions that they took.

Why didn't they do certain things sooner? I also want to point out that he is going to discuss what things look like going forward, getting out the remaining Americans. There are about a hundred of them still in Afghanistan. Trying to get out those Afghans at risk, and also on counterterrorism.

Now, the Biden administration says that the Taliban is not going to be harboring ISIS-K, but he says that they are going to have to validate that, really hone in to make sure that the Taliban keep up their promise on that front. That is a key area. There are a lot of questions going forth on counterterrorism in Afghanistan.

CAMEROTA: Matt Zeller to you.

You have been critical of the U.S. exit, the way it was conducted from Afghanistan. And you have been laser-focused on still trying to get the Afghan allies and Americans out of Afghanistan. And, as you know, the numbers that have been provided sometimes from the administration have been a bit of a moving target.

If you were on this committee today, what would you ask the secretary?

MATT ZELLER, CO-FOUNDER, NO ONE LEFT BEHIND: I would ask exactly that. How many Americans and Afghans are you actually tracking?

I know that our private organizations are tracking orders of magnitude more people than the government is admitting to. At least 1,000 other Americans that we know of are still inside Afghanistan. We're tracking tens of thousands of SIVs left behind. Our fear is that we actually left upwards of 90 percent of the interpreters and their families behind.

And we know now that the Taliban are conducting a campaign that's hunting them down. So the other question I would be asking the secretary is, what is the U.S. government's official policy to protect these people?

The president made it abundantly clear in his remarks over the summer that any Afghan who wanted to seek refuge because they served with us would be provided that opportunity. I hope we plan to keep that commitment.

But I will also say another thing. This hearing is just a first step. What ultimately is probably needed is a 9/11-style commission. I mean, let's be clear. We don't just need to investigate why the Afghan government collapsed. We need to investigate why the Special Immigration Visa failed through successive administrations.

We need to investigate why the Biden administration opted not to evacuate these people when they were warned publicly by our coalition as early as February. We need to investigate every single decision that was made during the evacuation, just like it was done at the end of the Vietnam War.


And then, ultimately, we need to come up with legislation to ensure that this never happens again.

BLACKWELL: Kasie, let's talk about what this will not be. This will not be one of those stark hearings where a department head comes in and one party is giving hard-hitting questions on topic, the other is tossing up supportive softballs off-topic.

I mean, there are Republicans who are calling for resignations, but the disappointment and, frankly, anger is bipartisan here.


And my question going into this hearing is how Secretary Blinken is going to handle that and whether he's going to get pressed by Democrats, by people in President Biden's party about what role he personally, his State Department played in all of this and whether or not he's willing to acknowledge any mistakes that might have been made by his agency.

I mean, I'm picking up some serious concerns among Democrats who maybe aren't willing to come out and criticize Blinken directly quite yet, but they're angry enough about what happened in Afghanistan. And people have been willing to say that publicly.

And they're trying to figure out exactly how it happened and who should be held accountable. And I know that Blinken has some work to do, based on my reporting, with Democrats on the Hill, who are concerned about how all of this unfolded.

And I have to say, in the lead-up to this, I was asking officials questions about the SIV program months in advance, when we were first facing this may deadline that, yes, was set by the Trump administration. When that passed and it was clear that America was going to leave Afghanistan, officials didn't have good answers for why they hadn't figured out yet how to get those special visa recipients out of the country, why they hadn't yet figured out an agreement with Guam, for example, which was one of the places perhaps that they were going to send them. And then, of course, the intelligence itself, the administration now

saying, well, we didn't believe that this collapse was going to happen as quickly as it did. It does appear -- and when I speak to members of Congress who want to ask these kinds of questions that we didn't have any backup plans in place for even the possibility that that would happen.

I mean, I want to see who's going to ask the secretary, why did we close Bagram Air Force Base when we did? That is something I have heard repeatedly from members of Congress and their aides as we head into this hearing.

So, while, yes, this is not necessarily going to be one of those situations where you have very fiery exchanges from one side and not from the other, I think the significant question here is, how is Blinken himself going to handle this high-profile hearing and real test for him in his capacity as secretary of state?

CAMEROTA: Nic Robertson, we have here the secretary of state's opening statement.

We got a little preview of it, in which he talks about the international allies, and he says: "I was in constant contact with our allies and partners to hear their views and factor them into our thinking."

That was before the exit. So, now what do you think the allies want to hear the secretary of state say?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I would think that they'd want to hear a more candid accounting of why it came to this, of why it came to this miscalculation and misunderstanding that the Taliban would not be able to sort of roll through the country as quickly as they did in the end, in the last 11 days in particular.

The allies would like an acknowledgment of the cost to their national security interests of the United States' miscalculation here and also the potential impact to them more than the United States, because refugees that will flee Afghanistan if the economy here collapses are more likely to end up in allies' countries, creating political problems for them, European partners in particular.

I think there's going to be -- they would like to see a candid accounting that says, look, if we understood from our intelligence sources and from reporting that we had from understanding and knowing what the Taliban were telling their ground forces while they were negotiating with the United States, while they were telling the United States that they were going to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government for an interim government, that that would be done through negotiation, and not by fighting.

But, at the same time, they're telling their ground troops that they're going to continue to fight, why that intelligence was not available or not heeded or understood by negotiators in Doha with the Taliban and why they continued to push ahead. I think there's a sense that this was coming, it was visible, it

should have been taken into account. I take another example here. If sources in Pakistan are telling me less than a month before the Taliban get and take Kabul that the Taliban will take Kabul within a month, it seems to me incongruous that that information could not have been available to agencies, intelligence agencies in the United States.


So I think allies are going to want -- it doesn't sound like they're going to get -- but they would want that level of candid answering, which fundamentally comes down to the position, knowing what the Taliban were doing, which was being essentially duplicitous in their talks, why continue on that track and create this chaotic endgame scenario?

BLACKWELL: Again, we are waiting for the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the policy moving forward.

Kylie Atwood, let me come to you.

We just saw Congressman Gerry Connolly there speaking with Congressman Gregory Meeks. And Congressman Connolly was on with our colleague Ana Cabrera last hour and said that he wants to hear a degree of self- reflection, self-criticism.

When you read this opening statement, is there any in there?

ATWOOD: With regard to the opening statement, no, not really.


ATWOOD: I mean, it is very much a bold defense of the Biden administration and, as I said, what they did right, because there's been so much focus on what they did wrong.

But I think it is noteworthy that the first time that Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke with reporters as this evacuation was under way in late August, he was asked about responsibility and if the Biden administration takes responsibility for the way in which this chaotic and awfully dreadful evacuation had gone, and he did say, I take responsibility.

He said that President Biden takes responsibility, though we have seen a bit of a different tone from the president and from the White House. But, significantly, he also said that we need to look back on the last 20 years with regard to Afghanistan policy, and we need to look at all of that.

So, there was a hint there in his first remarks that he was prepared to take some responsibility, but rest assured the secretary of state isn't prepared to put the entire weight of all of this on his shoulders and on the shoulders of the State Department that has worked around the clock in the face of what they said was a surprise and rapid evacuation that they needed to do, because it's clear that he thinks that the diplomats in this building did a really good job with the hand that they were dealt.

I think there will be questions, however, about how he and those around him made decisions about what the policy looked like in the months that led up to this evacuation.

BLACKWELL: All right, Kylie, thank you.

We're going to go now to the chairman of House Foreign Affairs, Gregory Meeks.


REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D-NY): And all members will have five days to submit statements, extraneous material and questions for the record, subject to the length and the limitation of the rules.

To insert something into the record, please have your staff e-mail the previously mentioned address or contact full committee staff.

As a reminder to all members, please keep your video function on at all times, even when you are not recognized by the chair. Members are responsible for muting and unmuting themselves. Consistent with House rules, staff will only mute members as appropriate when they are not under recognition to eliminate background noise.

CAMEROTA: OK. You are watching the committee right now, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that is about to begin interviewing, questioning Secretary of State Tony Blinken. We are expecting him to appear virtually.


CAMEROTA: So we're not waiting for him to walk into this room. We're waiting for him to dial up his Zoom connection, basically.

BLACKWELL: And there are also some members who are attending virtually too, yes.



CAMEROTA: So, it's hard to know exactly when it's getting under way, although I can sort of see that screen on the wall and it looks like that is Secretary of State Tony Blinken there. So let's see if we have connection. We're listening.

MEEKS: ... for being here.

And this is an -- the importance -- given this topic and the importance of this topic, and this committee's constitutional responsibility of oversight, I wanted to ask you whether or not you would be willing to stay to answer all member questions.


We want here all members to have the opportunity, knowing that it is -- this is the first time that we are having some testimony in regards to pulling out since the -- August 31 of this year.

Can you -- would you have the ability to stay to answer all members' questions?

ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. Chairman, I'm prepared to stay until every member has had an opportunity to ask a question, yes.

MEEKS: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. We thank you for that.

And I see that we have a quorum. And I now will recognize myself for opening remarks.

Pursuant to notice, we meet today to evaluate the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan and the series of policies from the past 20 years that led to the events of August 2021.

Mr. Secretary, it is good to have you back here before our committee, a third time since you have been secretary. And thank you, and we appreciate your recognition of the important role this legislative body plays in conducting oversight on the executive.

And I want to start off the day by citing some numbers; 800,000, that's the number of Americans who serve with the U.S. military in Afghanistan since 2001; 2, 461, that's the number of American military personnel who died in Afghanistan, including the 13 brave Americans who were killed facilitating the evacuation on 124,000 people over the course of 17 days; 66,000, the number of Afghan national security forces killed in the conflict; 47, 245, that's the number of Afghan civilians killed since 2001.

Twenty, that's the number of years we have been fighting in Afghanistan. A war that has gone on for almost 20 years is a disaster. Disentangling ourselves from the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy.

And 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. In fact, I have yet to hear the clean withdrawal option, because I don't believe one exists.

Now, are there things the administration could have done differently? Absolutely yes, as always. Foremost for me is for the State Department to evaluate how it could better evacuate Americans when events unraveled quickly.

And 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. However, it is important to separate fair criticism from criticism

that isn't made in good faith and divorced from the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. We have heard some criticize the decision to close Bagram, which they claim would have been better suited for evacuations, as though it would have been easier to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from an airfield 40 miles outside of Kabul.

Others criticized the decision to not keep a small counterterrorism force in the country. I ask, where was this protest when the Trump administration sidelined the Afghan government in order to cut a deal with the Taliban?

Where was the protest when the Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban just one month after the abduction of Navy veteran Mark Frerichs? And where was this protest when then-President Trump and Secretary Pompeo agreed to withdraw all troops by May 21, 2020?

And let me remind everyone that Trump's deal forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 prisoners and offered international legitimacy to the Taliban. It was a deal that failed to require the Taliban to separate from al Qaeda terrorists and did not require the Taliban to stop attacking the Afghan government. The deal altered the political order of the country.


Now, some may say Trump's agreement was conditions-based, but it was different, that it came with stronger conditions, but that's simply not true.

The choice before President Biden was between a full withdrawal and the surging of thousands of Americans to Afghanistan for an undefined time. To argue that there was a third option, a limited troop presence, where the safety of our personnel could be preserved, in my mind, is a fantasy.

We had not -- had we not removed American troops from Afghanistan, we would have left them in the middle of a rapidly deteriorating war zone, with no assurances that they would be spared by the Taliban. And it strikes me that many of those critical of the administration's evacuation efforts are really just angry that the president made good on his pledge to end America's involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

They are masking their displeasure with criticism, but fail to offer feasible alternatives. Once again, we are seeing domestic politics injected into foreign policy.

The Taliban's quick takeover of provinces, Afghan security forces laying down their arms, and President Ghani's abrupt departure from the country he led, watching 20 years of effort crumble in only a matter of days has made it all the more clear that we could no longer occupy Afghanistan and that the president's decision to bring our troops home was the right one.

And, for me, as I close, closing this chapter of the U.S.-Afghanistan book is a difficult one. I voted to authorize the war back in 2001 after the terrorist attack on September 11. In the 20 years since, I have seen how this conflict cost the lives of countless Americans, Afghans, and our NATO partners.

And what makes this all the more difficult is, this is a war that should have ended 19 years ago with a different outcome. But our hubris, our own desire to remake Afghanistan, our own willingness to negotiate got in the way of that victory.

These are hard truths, but only by examining these hard truths will we be able to understand what went wrong in Afghanistan. The task before us on this committee, one that I'm committed to making, will explore the past 20 years, but we will be talking to individuals from the Bush administration, from the Obama administration, from the Trump administration, as well as the Biden administration.

And I now recognize Mr. McCaul for his opening statement.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to thank the secretary also for agreeing to stay until every member has been heard. I believe every member has a right to ask questions on such an important topic.

Over the last several weeks, we witnessed Afghanistan rapidly fall to the Taliban and the chaotic aftermath that followed. This did not have to happen. But the president refused to listen to his own generals and the intelligence community, who warned him precisely what would happen when we withdrew.

This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. I never thought, in my lifetime, that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban. For weeks, our offices were flooded with requests to help people get out of Afghanistan, requests that were coming to us because the State Department failed to provide help.

And then the unimaginable happened. On August 26, 13 American service men and women were brutally murdered by ISIS-K trying to help American citizens and our Afghan partners escape from the Taliban.

Two days ago, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And while we mourned the loss of almost 3,000 innocent people, the Taliban at the same time celebrated by raising their flag over the presidential palace. Days before, they emblazoned their flag on the wall of our United States Embassy, proclaiming the defeat of the United States of America.

Shockingly, the White House has described this Taliban regime as businesslike and professional.

So let's meet a few of these professionals, the so-called new and improved Taliban. The acting prime minister, Mullah Hassan Akhund, one of the Taliban's founding leaders, he's also sanctioned by the United Nations and sheltered Osama bin Laden for years.

[14:25:04] The infamous members of the Taliban Five released from Guantanamo

under the Obama administration also all hold senior positions in the new government.

And, finally, the worst, acting Interior Minister Haqqani, he is responsible for overseeing policing and counterterrorism. He's also wanted by the FBI. He's the head of the brutal Haqqani Network with close ties to al Qaeda and is currently sanctioned by the United States.

Most of the new and improved Taliban leaders hold the same or similar positions they held prior to 9/11. And we are now at the mercy of the Taliban's reign of terror, all while a dark veil of Sharia law covers Afghanistan.

The freedoms our troops helped secure for Afghan women and girls have been stripped away in a matter of weeks. This, in my judgment, is not only disgraceful. It also dishonors the men and women who served our nation so bravely.

Mr. Secretary, the American people don't like to lose, especially not to the terrorists. But that is exactly what has happened. This has emboldened the Taliban and our adversaries, the Taliban, a designated terrorist group, now equipped with American weapons that most countries in the world -- just a few weeks ago, thousands of terrorists, the worst of the worst, were all released from prisons as the Taliban overran the country.

The situation we find ourselves in is far worse, in my judgment, as a former chairman of Homeland Security Committee, far worse than pre- 9/11. To make matters worse, we abandoned Americans behind enemy lines. We left behind the interpreters who you, Mr. Secretary, and the president both promised to protect.

I can summarize this in one word, betrayal. The America I know keeps its promises. The most important promise in our military is no man left behind, no one left behind. But you broke this promise.

And, unfortunately, it wasn't the only promise this administration broke. In April, President Biden promised -- quote -- "We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit and we will do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely."

But that promise was broken. And then, in July, the president said -- quote -- "There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the United States Embassy in Afghanistan." That promise was also broken. Our standing on the world stage has been greatly diminished.

Our enemies no longer fear us and our allies no longer trust us. And our Afghan veterans are questioning if their sacrifice was worth it.

For those veterans who are watching this today, I have a message for you. Your service was not in vain. It is because of your heroism that we have not witnessed a large-scale attack by the terrorists since 9/11 in the last 20 years. And for that, I say to all of you, thank you. And so we are here today

to better understand how this administration got it so wrong, and I hope you will directly answer our questions, Mr. Secretary, succinctly because we have quite a few.

And with that, Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

MEEKS: The gentleman yields back.

I now turn to the chair of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, Ami Bera, for one minute.

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 an easy hearing. There will 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 so forth that decisions were made on.

I want to focus, though, on the mission that's still at hand. My district has the largest Afghan refugee population in the country. We have submitted over 10,000 names of U.S. citizens, visa holders, family members, et cetera. And that mission still remains.

I have got close to 30 school-age kids that are still in Afghanistan, U.S. citizens, visa holders, along with their parents.