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Secretary of State Blinken Testifies on Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired September 14, 2021 - 10:30   ET


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: 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 of our allies would have resumed and the Taliban's nationwide assault on Afghanistan's major cities would have commenced. That would have required sending substantially more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to defend ourselves and to prevent a Taliban takeover, taking casualties, and with at best, the prospect of restoring a stalemate and remaining stuck in Afghanistan under fire indefinitely.

There is 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, hundreds of billion dollars in support, equipment, training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another ten?

Conversely, there is nothing that 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 our views and factor them into our thinking. When the president announced the withdrawal NATO immediately and unanimously embraced the withdrawal. We all set to work together on the drawdown.

Similarly, we were intensely focused on the 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, as well as offers of help, including financial assistance to pay for plane tickets.

Despite this efforts, at the time of the evacuation began, there were still thousands of Americans in Afghanistan, almost all of whom were evacuated by August 31st. Many were dual citizens living in Afghanistan for years, decades, generations. Deciding whether or not to leave the place that they know is home is a wrenching decision.

In April, we began drawing down our embassy ordering nonessential personnel to depart. We also used this time to significantly speed up the processing of special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked for us. When we took office, we inherited a program with a 14-step process based on a statutory framework enacted by Congress involving multiple agencies and a backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants. There had not been a single SIV applicant interview in Kabul in 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 process in Kabul. On February 4th, one of the first executive orders issued by President Biden directed us to immediately review the SIV program to identify causes of undue delay and find ways to process SIV applications more quickly.

This spring, I directed significant addition at resources to the program, expanding the people in Washington processing applications from 10 to 50, doubling the number of SIV adjudicators in Kabul in our embassy there. Even as many embassy personnel began to return 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, especially this committee, Senator Shaheen and others, by May, we have reduced the average processing time for special immigrant visas by more than one year. Even amid a COVID surge in Kabul, we continued to issue visas and we went from issuing about 100 special immigrant visas per week in March to more than 1,000 per week in August when our evacuation and relocation effort 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 that the government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained. They were focused on what would happen after the United States withdrew from September onward.

As General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff said, nothing we saw indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days. 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 by President Biden was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours.


And, yes, that evacuation 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 Americans citizens, Afghans who helped, 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 have arranged or negotiated in multiple countries.

Our consular team worked 24/7 to reach out to Americans who could still in the country, making 55,000 phone calls, sending 33,000 emails by August 31st, 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, wounded 20 others, killed and wounded scores of Afghans. Our service members gave their lives so that others can continue to live theirs.

In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history with 124,000 people evacuated safety. And on August 31st 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 serving as transit hubs, some welcoming refugees for longer periods of time. And as the 9/11 report suggested, it is essential that we accelerate the appointment process for national security officials since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice.

Today, there are nearly 80 State Department nominees pending before the Senate. Nearly two dozen have already been voted out of this committee on a strong bipartisan basis and simply await a vote in the Senate. For our national security, I respectfully urge the Senate and this committee to move as swiftly as possible to consider and confirm all pending nominees and to address what is a significant disruption in our national security policymaking.

Now, let me briefly outline what the State Department has done in the last couple of weeks and where we're going in the weeks ahead. First, as you know, 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 done the same thing. They've joined us there in Doha.

Second, we've continued our relentless efforts to help any remaining Americans, as well as Afghans and citizens of allied and partner nations leave Afghanistan if they choose. Last week on Thursday, a 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 Afghanistan. These flights were the result of coordinated efforts by the United States, Qatar and Turkey to reopen the airport and intense diplomacy to start the flights.

In addition to those flights, half a dozen American citizens, a dozen permanent residents of the United States have also left Afghanistan via over land routes with our assistance. We're in constant contact with American citizens still in Afghanistan who have told us they wish to leave. Each has been assigned a case management team to offer specific guidance and instructions. 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 will continue to help Americans and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment depart Afghanistan if they choose, just as we've done in other countries, where we have evacuated our embassy and hundreds or even thousands of Americans remain behind, for example, in Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, Somalia, there is no deadline to this effort. Third, we're focused on counterterrorism. Taliban is committed to prevent 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 that we will rely on them. We'll maintain a vigilant effort to monitor threats, robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize if necessary, and as we do in places around the world where we do not have military forces on ground.

Fourth, we continue our intensive diplomacy with allies and partners. We initiated a statement joined by more than 100 countries and a 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 counterterrorism commitments, to uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women, girls, minorities, to name a broadly representative permanent government, to force swear reprisals. The legitimacy and support that it seeks from the international community will depend entirely on its conduct.

We've organized contact groups of key countries to ensure that the international community continues to speak and act together on Afghanistan and to leverage our combined influence. Last week, I led a ministerial meeting of 22 countries plus NATO, the E.U., the United Nations, to align our efforts.

And fifth, we'll continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people consistent with sanctions. This aid will not flow through the government but rather through independent organizations, like NGOs and U.N. agencies.

Yesterday, we announced that the United States has provided nearly 64 million in new humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan to meet critical health and nutrition needs to address the protection, concerns of women and 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, toward the facilities, where Afghans that we evacuated, are being processed before moving on to the next destinations. Here at home, I spent time at the Dulles expo center, where more than 45,000 Afghans have been processed after arriving in the United States. It is remarkable to see what our diplomats, our military, employees from many 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've coordinated food, water, sanitation for thousands people. They're arranging medical care, including the delivery of babies. They're reuniting families that were separated, caring for unaccompanied minors.

It is an extraordinary interagency effort, a powerful testament to the skill, the dedication, the humanity of our people. And I think we can all be deeply proud of what they're doing and as we've done throughout our history, Americans are now welcoming families from Afghanistan into our communities, helping them re-settle as they are start new lives, and that is something to be proud of as well.

With that, I thank the members of this committee and look forward to your questions.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Let me first begin by asking unanimous consent to the hearing record a letter by the U.S. Afghan Women's Council calling on the Biden administration to take immediate action at the United Nations to protect Afghan civilians, particularly women and girls. Without objection, it is so ordered.

All right, let's start a series of seven-minute rounds. I'm going to hold the time tight so that every member can get their opportunity. And I'll start off by making sure that I don't exceed my seven minutes.

So, prior to the final flight out, we heard from both American citizens and Afghan partners seeking to access the airport, but they were either not being allowed through the gates being sent back home or simply abandoned. While we understand and appreciate the security issues that were at play, it is confounding that such a chaotic process arose to begin with. So, when did the administration begin to plan for a worst case scenario contingency?

BLINKEN: In the spring and summer.

MENENDEZ: In the spring and summer of this year?

BLINKEN: Yes, Multiple interagency meetings, exercises, looking at different contingencies.

MENENDEZ: And so what was the specific planning put into the likely scenario that American citizens were going to have to evacuate under hostile conditions?

BLINKEN: Well, planning went to a number of things, including the ability to move our embassy quickly, as we did in 48 hours, including the effort to make sure that we could control the airport, bring flights in and evacuate people out.

One of the things that happened, as you know, Mr. Chairman, is that the situation outside of the airport became incredibly chaotic with thousands of people massing at the airport, massing at the gates of the airport. And that created among other things a very, very challenging situation.

MENENDEZ: Should we not have started earlier so there would not have been a bigger surgeon the SIV issue? I recognize, I think it is only fair to put in context, that your own testimony suggested that there was a 17,000 SIV backlog that hadn't -- nine months had passed by without a single interview.


So, obviously, you inherited a significant backlog. But how many SIVs were awarded during the Trump administration?

BLINKEN: I don't have the numbers in front of me. But I think over the course of the administration, there must have been several thousand issued.

MENENDEZ: Okay. So the question is then should we not have surged more significantly -- I know you said you put up to 50 individuals, but knowing that you were preparing for a contingency of the worst case scenario, should not back in March, there had been a more significant surge to process SIVs and determine the entire universe of who needed to be taken out?

BLINKEN: Well, I believe we did surge those resources. As I said, we quadrupled the number of people in Washington doing processing of SIVs, and this is at a critical stage in the processing, as I think many members know.

The most important stage in many ways is the so-called chief administration approval. That's the stage at which SIV applicants are actually deemed eligible under the criteria established by Congress for the program. And, by the way, those who apply, those who actually get chief administration approval, the washout rate is about 40 percent, historically. That is because it turns out that many people who apply don't qualify under the criteria set by Congress or they're unable to get the documentation, I think this was alluded to, to prove they have worked faithfully and loyally for the United States. There are some situations where people are committing fraud in order to get into the program, maybe for understandable reasons.

But the point is, we have a very lengthy process, 14 steps, multiple agencies involved. We worked to try to stream line that. I think there is more work we'd like to do going forward to do that. But the bottom line is we did significantly surge our resources to that particularly to the chief admission approval process, quadrupling them. And, ultimately, we went from 10 to 50 to now I believe 61 or 62 working on that stage of things. We doubled the resources we had in Kabul all in an effort to expedite, and we did. We went if 100 to 1,000 visas a week. But what was not anticipated was 11 days of the Afghan government and the Afghan military.

MENENDEZ: Let me ask you this. There have been numerous press reports over the past week about a new or refined process for the State Department to lead efforts in coordination with the Department of Defense to work with outside groups to evacuate American citizens and allies left behind in Afghanistan. Can you tell us exactly what these new U.S. government-led efforts are, how coordination with outside groups and individuals being handled by who, what is the nature of the state DOD cooperation? Give us a sense of that.

BLINKEN: Sure. We have, within the department, led by our former ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, who went back to Kabul, to the airport to help lead the evacuation efforts. He is leading an effort to manage, coordinate all of the ongoing efforts to bring people who wish to leave Afghanistan out. And that includes among other things a coordination with the many outside groups, as well as members of Congress who are working themselves heroically to help in this effort.

I met myself with about 75 veterans organizations a couple of weeks ago given the extraordinary efforts that veterans either individually or as groups are doing to help and we want to make sure that we are as coordinated as we possibly can be on these efforts to make sure that we know who is doing what, what assistance we can provide and to make sure that we're working together going forward.

We have many other people working on this task force, some dedicated to American citizens, others focused on SIVs and other Afghans at risk, others focused on coordinating with different groups, including members of Congress.

MENENDEZ: Let me give you one of my final minute. I would like to give you an opportunity to set the record straight on one point. Several commentators have suggested that had the department moved forward with a crisis contingency and response bureau proposed by the Trump administration as it was walking out of the door, it would have responded better to the Afghan situation. But it is my understanding that that bureau had not been stood up yet when you decided to curtail the proposal, nor as proposed did it actually add any additional resources or capabilities to those that state already had. It was a bureaucratic movement, not creating or getting rid of actual capabilities, just a new organizational chart, and in that bureaucratic result (ph) potentially creating damage to the department's operations, not solving them.


Is that a fair statement?

BLINKEN: That is a fair statement Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Okay. If it is not the CCR, then what is the answer?

BLINKEN: Well, here, again, to your point with regard to the CCR, whether it became a bureau or not, there was no change in the assets that we already had at hand to work on these efforts. And the focus of this group, either in its existing organizational structure or how to become a bureau, which among other things it didn't because there were congressional holds across the aisle on this effort.

The previous administration, nonetheless, went through and tried to move it forward. We decided that we needed to review it. We did the review. And as you described very accurately, we found that this would add no assets to what we already had at hand. It would simply create a different bureaucratic structure.

But having said that, again, this is something designed primarily for individual extractions, medical emergencies, these men and women who are part of our operational medical unit are remarkable and do incredible work, but not the kind of work that would have been applicable to the larger evacuation that we had to conduct in Afghanistan. Thank you. MENENDEZ: Senator Risch?

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

Mr. Secretary, I can tell you, I've listened to you and a handful of other people tried to put the best face on this possible. And I can tell you that the temperature of the American people is not there with you, and that -- I'm not talking from a partisan basis, this goes both ways. There is not enough lipstick in the world to put on this to make it look any different than what it actually is. So, somebody needs -- we need -- the American people want to know who is responsible for this.

So, let's start with this. Who is responsible, who made the decisions on this? Was it the president of the United States?

BLINKEN: Ultimately the president makes the decisions. That is correct.

RISCH: Did he in this case?

BLINKEN: As in every case, ultimately, decisions that can only be decided by the president are decided by the president.

RISCH: Well --

BLINKEN: Now, of course, to be specific, Senator, there are hundreds, thousands of decisions every single day that go into a situation as complex as this one. The big strategic decisions, those are decided by the president. The tactical operational decisions are made by different agencies, agency heads, agency officials.

RISCH: Well I'm more interested in the top decision-making.

Look, we've all seen this. We saw it as recently as yesterday, somebody in the White House has authority to press the button and stop the president -- cut off the president's speaking ability and sound. Who is that person?

BLINKEN: I think anyone who knows the president, including members of this committee knows that he speaks very clearly and very deliberately for himself. No one else does.

RISCH: Well, are you saying that there is no one in the White House that can cut him off, because, yesterday, that happened and it is happened a number of times before that. It is been widely reported that somebody has the ability to push the button and cut off his sound and stop him from speaking. Who is that person?

BLINKEN: There is -- there is no such person. Again, the president speaks for himself, makes all of the strategic decisions, informed by the best advice that he can get from the people around him.

RISCH: So, are you unaware that this is actually happening, because it happened yesterday at the interagency fire center? It was widely reported, the media has reported on it and it is not the first time it happened. It is happened several times. Are you telling this committee that this does not happened, that there's no one in the White House who pushes the button and cuts him off in mid sentence?

BLINKEN: That is correct.

RISCH: So this didn't happen yesterday nor on the other occasions where the media showed the American people that his sentence was cut off in mid sentence? Are you saying that didn't happen?

BLINKEN: Senator, I really don't know what you're referring to. All I can tell you is having worked with the president for now 20 years, both here on this committee and in over the last nine months at the White House, the president very much speaks for himself.

RISCH: Well, let's take a different attack. He does speak for himself, but what happens when somebody doesn't want him speaking? You're telling us you don't know anything about this, that somebody cuts him off in mid sentence.


Is that what you're trying to tell this committee, because everybody here has seen it?

BLINKEN: Senator, I'm telling you based on my own experience with the president over the last 20 years, nip who tried to stop him from saying what he wanted to say, speaking his mind would probably not be longed for their job.

RISCH: Let's turn to the dissent cable that you received in July. Are you willing to give a copy of this dissent cable that you got from two dozen diplomats regarding the imminent, catastrophic collapse in Afghanistan, are you willing to give a copy of that to this committee?

BLINKEN: Senator, this dissent channel is something that I place tremendous value and importance on. It is a way for people in the State Department to speak the truth as they see it to power. And these cables, I've read every single one of the dissent channel cables that we've gotten during this administration. I've responded to every single one. I factored what I read and heard into my thinking and into my actions.

But the legitimacy of the channel, the ability for people to be able to, with confidence, share their thoughts, share their views, even when they run counter to what their seniors have said or the policies being prescribed, it is vitally important that we protect that channel, protect its integrity. And it is designed by its very regulations only to be shared with senior officials in the department.

And what I don't want to see is some kind of chilling effect to going forward that says to those who would think of writing a cable in the future that, oh, this will get out widely, be distributed in ways that would have that chilling effect.

RISCH: Do you admit that you received a dissent cable in July signed by two dozen diplomats that warned about the imminent, catastrophic collapse that was coming in Afghanistan?

BLINKEN: Senator, I certainly received the cable and in mid-July. I read it. I responded to it. I factored its contents into my thinking. And what the cable said broadly was two things. It did not suggest that the government and security forces were going to collapse prior to our departure. It did express real concerns about the durability of that government enforce after our departure and it focused on the efforts that we were making particularly on the SIV front, to try to expedite moving them out.

And, in fact, a number of recommendations, the very good recommendations were already in train, others were not. But one of the ones that was in train was the establishment of operation, allies, refugee, we received cable on July 13th. That operation was put into force on July 14th. It had already been planned for some time.

And this was an effort to expedite the identification and relocation of SIVs, actually putting them on planes, which, as you know, is not part of the program. Actually relocating them and working to establish transit sites so that we would put them there while we finish processing them.

RISCH: Well, you see, that is the problem with us not having access to that cable. You're telling us that we have been told by others that it was significantly different than what you are saying. Also, we really would like to see the response to that because I think history is going to be interested in that particular cable and your response to it.

I'll save my next question for the next round. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Senator Cardin, I've asked Cardin to -- in addition to his questions preside for a few minutes since I have a hearing that I have to just go to. Thank you.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD): Thank you Mr. Chairman. Secretary Blinken, thank you so much for being with us today. And thank you during the Afghan evacuations for almost the daily briefings you had for all members of the United States Senate and keeping us totally informed as to the events unfolding.

I contrast that to what happened during the Trump years where we were not kept informed at all about the negotiations between the Trump administration and the Taliban, that we had no briefings or information at all in regards to the summit meetings between the United States and North Korea, or the United States and Russia, where our committee could not conduct oversight that is so important, as you have pointed out, working with the executive branch in the check and balance for the unity of our country. So, I thank you very much for the way that you have kept us engaged and informed as decisions have been made.

As you as you pointed out, the Biden administration was dealt a very difficult hand on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. We all recognized we needed to withdraw. [11:00:01]

The options were extremely limited. The mistakes made by previous administrations, we've talked about it, but I think we --