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Secretary of State Blinken Testifies on Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 10:00   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN NEWSROOM: Good morning, top of the hour here, I'm Erica Hill.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Jim Sciutto. Any moment now, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will face a second day of hard questions from lawmakers. Blinken was defiant on day one of his testimony. He clashed with Republicans, multiple calls to resign, but also tough questions from fellow Democrats.

HILL: Also refusing to acknowledge any shortcomings in the administration's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, instead placing blame for the chaotic scenes in Kabul squarely on the Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban.

Let's get straight to CNN -- we see Secretary Blinken walking in here, again, arriving as he's set to testify before the Senate.

We're going to go straight to CNN Congressional Correspondent Lauren Fox joining us now from Capitol Hill, as the secretary gets settled there.

So, Lauren, I know you have a little bit more information on what the plan is from lawmakers today in terms of questions for the secretary.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well that is right, Erica. Look, everyone is just entering the room preparing for this high-stakes hearing on Capitol Hill this morning, where this is going to be senators' first opportunity to get to the bottom of what transpired in Afghanistan in those waning days as the U.S. was preparing to leave the country after a 20-year conflict.

And what you are hearing from Democrats going into the hearing is that they're going to have tough and pointed questions for the secretary of state even though they are perceived as being, of course, working with the president closely on this policy in Afghanistan.

But you can expect that it is not just going to be Republicans going after Blinken but the Democrats are going to wonder what exactly was handed to the Biden administration from the Trump administration and what could have the Biden administration done to make the situation easier and smoother on the ground in Afghanistan in those final days. I am told that Democrats are not going to be just lobbing softballs at the secretary of state but instead really trying to get to the bottom of this. You also heard from some Republicans going into this meeting this morning, including Ron Johnson and John Barrasso, saying that they want to get to the truth. That is, of course, their own word, saying that they are trying to get more than just what Barrasso said was excused from the secretary of state yesterday.

We are also learning that the committee wanted to also hear from the defense secretary today, but that they were rebuffed, that he will not be attending, obviously, this hearing today. And instead, they were trying to get a fulsome picture of both the military posture on the ground and what was happening at the State Department, which is why they wanted these two men side by side. Instead, they're just going to hear from the secretary of state this morning. That, of course, frustrating to some Democrats going into this meeting, Erica.

And I should note that one of the things that Democrats are going to be very careful of is, even though they're going to have tough questions, they want to make it clear that this wasn't just the Biden administration handling Afghanistan, this is 20 years of a conflict in that country. And as one aide put it to me, they're not going to let the Republicans just put this entire conflict at the feet of the Biden administration. Erica and Jim?

SCIUTTO: Lauren Fox, thank you. We're seeing Secretary Blinken making the points of shaking the hands of both Democrat and Republican senators, members of that committee just moments ago.

HILL: Also with us now, CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood and CNN International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson. Good to have you both here.

So, we're also following this new reporting, which I imagine will likely come up today with Secretary Blinken when it comes to Afghanistan. Nic, just walk us through a little bit of that and what the impact is right now.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Erica, I think what we've heard from Secretary Blinken speaking yesterday for Afghans, at least that is -- for them, they are sort of moving on from the United States pullout. Of course, many people here are still very afraid, very deeply afraid of what can happen with them. I was sitting with somebody in the house today who hasn't left the house for weeks --

SCIUTTO: I'll have to have you hold that thought there, Nic. Hold that thought there. This is Secretary Antony Blinken about to begin his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Afghanistan. You'll hear the introduction in the background. Let's have a listen.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): It took me into a room and tied my hands with a scarf and started beating with me a cable.

[10:05:00] The horror he experienced was hard to fathom. He described and demonstrated covered in blood after being severely beaten and saw Taliban militants abusing prisoners. One of the colleagues said they were mocking us and saying, you want freedom, what freedom? This is not the Taliban of 2001. This happened last week.

Amid the extensive oversight work planned in Afghanistan, we must not lose sight of people and the courageous women who continue to protest in the streets calling for freedom in the face of violence and threats. A repression of the Afghan people is happening in real-time and the world must bear witness and hold the Taliban accountable.

Let me turn to the focus of today's hearing. Mr. Secretary, the execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed. This committee expects to receive a full explanation of the administration's decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January. There has to be accountability.

We will have other hearings to develop a set of lessons learned over the course of the war to understand the many mistakes made over the course of 20 years, the diversion of attention and resources when the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, despite its irrelevance to the 9/11 attacks, the double-dealing by Pakistan in providing a safe haven to the Taliban and the list goes on.

We need to understand why successive administration made so many of the same mistakes repeatedly. Perhaps most urgently, we need to understand why the Afghan government and military collapsed so precipitously. This rapid collapse laid bare a fundamental fact, that successive administrations lied to the Congress over the years about the durability of Afghan military and governing institutions and we need to understand why.

The chaos of last August is due in large part to the February 2020 surrender deal negotiated by President Trump, a deal that was clearly built on a set of lies, a deal that led to the release of 5,000 hardened Taliban fighters, boosting the militant group on the battlefield this summer. We know now that the Taliban had no intention of pursuing a political path and peace deal with the Afghan government. It had no intention of pursuing a democratic path. It had no intention of breaking ties with Al Qaeda. And it clearly had no intention of allowing women to have their rightful seat at the table and participate fully in society.

To demand the Taliban abide by commitments now expect a different result I think is somewhat absurd. The Taliban rules Afghanistan so we'll have to deal with it in some form. But let's not kid ourselves. There is no such thing as a reformed Taliban. This group is woefully stuck in the 14th century with no will to come out. Their concept of political representation and legitimacy is based squarely on the use of violent force and intimidation.

The administration says that we should judge the Taliban by their actions, and I agree. And their actions since taking over Afghanistan have been pretty horrifying, beating women activists, murdering ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Hazar, separating classrooms by gender, shutting down local media, refusal to break with Al Qaeda, appointing the head of a foreign terrorist organization as designated by our government from the Haqqani Network to lead the ministry of interior and the list goes on.

With this in mind, the United States and the United Nations should maintain existing sanctions on the Taliban. The U.S. should reimpose those sanctions that were waived during the negotiations process. And the U.S. should consider new measures to impose higher costs on the group and its leader while ensuring that life-saving humanitarian aid is able to assist those most vulnerable to hunger, disease and disaster.

Nor should any country be in a rush to unilaterally recognize this regime. A minimum of following criteria must be met before recognition is even considered, absolute repudiation of the Taliban of all cross border terrorism, including Al Qaeda and associated the groups, equality of rights for girls and women, protection of minority ethnic and religious groups, commitment to democratic elections and ending all narcotics-related activity. So, yes, the Taliban now run Afghanistan, but that does not mean we ever accept their behavior.

I supported the decision to eventually withdraw our military from Afghanistan. I have long maintained, however, that how the United States left mattered.


Doing the right thing in the wrong way can end up being the wrong thing. And to get this right, the Biden administration needed to answer two fundamental questions. First, would the withdrawal leave a durable political arrangement in its wake? Second, would the U.S. and our allies maintain an ability to collect intelligence, conduct counterterrorism operations in the regions still rife with groups, including ISIS-K seeking to do us harm? I believe the U.S. clearly fell short on the first measure and time will tell on the second but prospects don't look promising.

So, let me start with some framing questions about the Biden administration's Afghanistan decision-making. First, upon coming into office, how did the Biden administration assess the impact on the ground of President Trump's flawed deal with the Taliban? Did the administration attempt to negotiate better terms with the Taliban upon coming into office?

Second, did the president's April withdrawal announcement set in motion any explicit contingency planning in the event that the Taliban rapidly took over the country? What was the plan to evacuate all Americans? What was plan to evacuate SIVs, P-1, P-2s and other at-risk groups? What was the plan to evacuate staff and those affiliated with Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America, the National Endowment for Democracy and other U.S.-funded organizations?

President Trump with Stephen Miller intentionally blocked SIVs from being processed, which I think is a barbaric and cruel decision which likely resulted in death for some U.S. partners. How did the Biden administration specifically accelerate processing SIVs upon coming into office? And, third, what was the plan to avoid or deal with a refugee and humanitarian crisis?

I expect you'll address some of these issues in your opening remarks.

Let me applaud the efforts of the personnel on the ground from the Departments of State and Defense who worked under horrific circumstances. Their actions and their evacuating over 120,000 individuals were nothing short of heroic and these personnel deserve answers. The American public deserves answers. And the Afghan people certainly deserve answers.

So let me close with three points. First, while communication from the administration has been frequent throughout this crisis, information from state, the Pentagon and the White House has often been vague or contradictory. This was obviously a fluid and difficult situation, frustration among many members was high and this has to improve. And to put this in context, member frustration came on top of years of stonewalling by the Trump administration and its refusal to engage the Senate on the Taliban negotiations.

This is one of the examples why I've been trying to pursue on Case Act to understand what are the written agreements that come between an administration and others. Maybe if we have seen all of the elements of it, we would have been poised in a better position.

Second, I'm very disappointed that Secretary Austin declined our request to testify today. A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S. trained and funded Afghan military. His decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees. I expect the secretary will avail himself to the committee in the near future. And if he does not, I may consider use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others over the course of these last 20 years to testify.

Third, I implore the administration so remain focused on Afghanistan. It is critically important that the world bear witness and take action when possible in response to Taliban abuses. Your visit, Mr. Secretary, to Qatar and Germany sent the right message and I strongly urge sustained attention to Afghanistan in the months and years to come.

I also urge the administration to strengthen its resolve and efforts to secure the relocation of our civil society partners now at grave risk who were left behind in Afghanistan. They include heroic individuals working for organizations on the front lines of U.S. efforts to strengthen democracy and human rights, including the rights of Afghan women and girls.

Finally, I know that Senator Young is not with us today. He is home in Indiana attending the funeral of Marine Corporal Humberto Sanchez. Corporal Sanchez was among those killed in the horrendous terror attack on August 26th at the Kabul airport. I'd like to suggest that we have a moment of silence and pay our respects to all of those brave service Americans who were killed or injured on that day and that we also honor the thousands of American service members, Afghan soldiers and civilians who were casualties of this20-year war.


Please join me in a moment of silence. Thank you.

With that, let me turn to Distinguished Ranking Member Senator Risch for his opening comments.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R-ID): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Secretary Blinken, good morning and welcome back to our committee. You're doing the right thing testifying here today and I thank you. However, like the chairman, I am disappointed some of your colleagues have declined to testify, particularly Secretary Austin. There are questions that we really need to have answered. And it's disheartening that they declined to testify. The debacle in Afghanistan is an interagency failure and the fact that you're the only one stepping up is disheartening.

I agree with the chairman that this was a -- the withdrawal was a dismal failure. One of the things we need to get to the bottom of who is responsible for this, who made the decisions. The real questions right now as to who is making the decisions. We know for a fact that the president of the United States is somewhat disadvantaged here in that someone is calling shots. He can't even speak without someone in the White House censoring it or signing off on it, is recently as yesterday in mid sentence he was cut off by someone in the White House who makes the decision that the president of the United States is not speaking correctly.

So, I'd like to know who this person is. This is a puppeteer act, if you would, and we need to know who is in charge and whose making these decisions. And the only way we're going to get that is when we have people like you come in and answer questions. And when we get to the question, I'm going to have more questions for you in that regard.

While I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, no American thinks we should have left this way. America cannot end wars simply by walking away. It is naive to assume our enemies will lay down their arms, leave us alone and suddenly enshrine human rights if we go home. Indeed, there is a fierce battle of ideas and the ambition on the world station and the U.S. cannot remain neutral.

However, President Biden presented the American people with a false choice in Afghanistan and the rushed and embarrassing retreat is a stain on America's credibility that will have implications for years to come. There were other options that could have protected our national security interest, allowed for a measured reduction in force and preserved American credibility.

I feel this administration is trying to blame the prior administration and contrary to some that have said that the prior administration started this is responsibility, that is simply not true. The prior administration, when they took steps towards withdrawing from Afghanistan, entered into an agreement that had very, very specific conditions. I was privy to those so I have personal knowledge of this. The February of 2020 agreement was contingent, contingent upon the Taliban reducing violence, meeting counterterrorism commitment and engaging in substantive talks with the Afghan government. These were all very important. And most importantly, most importantly, it was telegraphed to the Taliban that failure to meet their commitments would be met with grave, grave circumstances for them. The Taliban failed to meet any of these commitments and yet, yet this administration turned the country over to them.

President Biden chose to withdraw from Afghanistan without conditions and without prudent plans and obviously without most important telegraphing to the Taliban that they would enforce the conditions that the Taliban had agreed to. It didn't happen. It was a strategic, unforced error and he did this against the advice of the commanders the ground.

One of the most embarrassing things I thought was the strike that was made and obviously we can't talk about what we know from an intelligence standpoint, but the kinetic (ph) strike that was made after the Taliban entered the country, this dominimous (ph) strike had dire consequences for civilians but not for the Taliban. These are facts.

And the president's withdrawal led to a Taliban offensive that toppled a democratically elected government, slammed the door on any chance for a final peace agreement, reversed the hard earned rights for women and minorities and will result in a safe haven for terrorists, many of whom wish to attack the United States. The Biden administration left Afghanistan in total disarray and singlehandedly created a humanitarian crisis with thousands of refugees and internally displaced Afghans in need of immediate emergency assistance.


Secretary Blinken, you characterize the evacuation as an extraordinary effort. You've touted over 124,000 evacuees. However, we have abandoned the people we prioritized for departure. The department's efforts were plague by a lack of basic planning, a failure to identify Americans, a failure to energize the SIV process months in advance, ignoring repeated congressional offers to help, and a failure to recognize the Taliban for what it is, a terrorist organization.

The numbers are telling. You evacuated 6,040 Americans and say only a couple of hundred remain. Your own department told this committee in July that there were 10,000 to 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan. There is a huge difference between 6,000 and 15,000. What happened to these other Americans? The situation with the special immigrant visa evacuations was even more disturbing, not counting the SIVs that arrived before Kabul's fall, you evacuated 705 of roughly 20,000 principal SIV applicants. What happened to these people? This committee reached out to the department in April, May and June to help expedite SIV processing. We asked that additional -- we asked what additional authorities or resources you needed. For months, we received contradictory responses or no response at all.

I'll take a minute here to defend the State Department. One of the biggest problems to helping process SIVs was the enormous failure of the Department of Defense to provide the records needed to validate the Afghans who bravely helped our forces. The fact that DOD didn't keep accurate records is irresponsible and a slap in the face to those who fought alongside of us. Obviously, we want to talk to Secretary Austin about this.

Despite the enormous efforts of our troops and diplomats on the ground, the preventable tragedy that unfolded at the airport in Kabul was a disaster of leadership and of the administration's own making. Not only were you unable to ensure that Americans had access to the airport, many were turned away repeatedly after braving Taliban check points, but Americans outside of Kabul had absolutely no chance of evacuation.

Green card holders and SIVs should have been prioritized for access to the airport as well, but there was no mechanism to get inside. It was an informal network of Americans that helped get Americans and Afghans around the bureaucratic wall the administration set up at the airport. It should not have come to that. The administration has paying itself in the back for this evacuation is like an arsonist taking credit for saving people from the burning building he just set on fire.

We know the U.S. military and our diplomats can do so much more than they did if only their political bosses had gotten out of the way. Now, we have an untold Americans and U.S. contractors and SIVs still in Afghanistan despite repeated assurances you'll get them out. You've been unable to do so. Planes are stranded in Northern Afghanistan. Our Voice of America employees and female Afghan students on scholarships have been abandoned and our SIV applicants are in hiding as Taliban death squads hunt them down.

You said you would have mechanisms for continued evacuations after 31 August. Where is your plan? I have not seen it. I don't know that I talked to anyone who has seen it. What I've seen is a rebuke from our European allies. They begged us for help. But we were not helping our own citizens, how could we help them? Instead, we had to rely on the generosity of partners like Qatar.

Well, we have all heard and read that the United States is no longer a reliable ally, and, frankly, the way this evacuation was conducted, I cannot blame them. For years, despite strains in our relations with Europe and other allies, everyone knew the United States was the competent and capable partner. They trusted us to be the steady hand at the wheel that could navigate out of any difficult situation. That confident has been shattered. Now, across the globe, allies doubt our resolve and our competitors like China and Russia see weakness and think they could exploit the situation. The Biden administration alone is responsible for this debacle and its consequences.

Going forward, the challenges become even harder to resolve. U.S. actions must rebuild our credibility and re-establish deterrence. The U.S. will need more proactive policies on counterterrorism and security around the globe to discourage our competitors. Over the weekend, we marked the 20th anniversary of September 11th but we have yet to receive details about how the administration's so-called over- the-horizon counterterrorism plan will succeed. The Taliban's takeover destroyed the bases of that strategy. And despite request from the Hill, we have yet to receive a single piece of information about the administration's revised counterterrorism plan.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues its relationship with Al Qaeda and the new interior minister has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head for killing Americans.


Any hope that the Taliban will protect American security is a fatally flawed assumption. You must redouble efforts with Afghanistan's neighbors to reach C.T. agreements and preserve disappearing intelligence networks.

Additionally, any country that offered support to the Taliban in their recent offensive should risk a strategic downgrade in their relationship with the United States. We also must understand Pakistan's role in this entire matter, as the chairman has alluded to. This is a difficult but important situation.

I also remain concerned that the administration is rushing to normalize ties with the Taliban government. This must not occur without extensive congressional consultations. Your notification that you intended to restart foreign assistance is deeply, deeply concerning. I suspect there are other members of committee that are going to speak to -- to that. That is going to be a heavy lift for you.

On the security front, the United States spent over $80 billion on Afghan security forces. Many of these funds bypass the oversight of the State Department in this committee. We now see the consequences of the Department of Defense that operates security cooperation on its own.

The Taliban is now one of the best armed terrorist organizations on the planet. We have sent repeated requests for the administration's plan to address the captured equipment. We have yet to receive any response. As secretary, I hope you would demand that all DOD assistance programs once again require State Department concurrence.

In closing, I would like to speak directly to our diplomats, our men and women in uniform, our gold star families, our humanitarian workers and our veterans. On behalf of the American people, I'd like to say thank you. The ineptitude of this administration does not tarnish your service. What you did mattered. You served nobly. And you stood on a wall and prevented a taste attack against the United States for over 20 years at enormous cost to you and your families. America will always be indebted to you. Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Senator Risch.

Mr. Secretary, the secretary has agreed to stay with us until each member has an opportunity to answer their questions. As such, and because of the nature of the subject matter, I've agreed the secretary has an extended opening statement. With that, Mr. Secretary, you're recognized. ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. Ranking Member Risch, thank you very much. And to all members, I appreciate the opportunity to be with all of you today to discuss our policy on Afghanistan, including where we are, how we got here 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. And I know from my own time as a staff member here in this room for then-Senator Biden just how invaluable a partner of Congress is. As I said when I was nominated, I believe strongly in Congress' 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 interests of the American people.

On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, as we honor nearly 3,000 men, women and children who lost their lives, we are reminded of why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, to bring justice to those who attacked us, and to ensure it would never happen again. We achieved those objectives a long time ago. Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Al Qaeda's capabilities were degraded significantly, including its ability to plan and conduct external operations. After 20 years, 2,461 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, $2 trillion spent, it was time to end America's longest war.

When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year. As part of that agreement, the previous administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, including some top war commanders. Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2,500 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 this relentless march on remote outposts, checkpoints, villages and districts as well as some of the major roads connecting to the cities. By January of 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 9/11. And we have the smallest number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001.

As a result, upon taking office, President Biden immediately faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it.