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Hala Gorani Tonight

Blinken Testifies On U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan; U.N. Cites More Than $1 Billion In Aid Have Been Pledged For Afghanistan. Secretary Blinken Testifies Over U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan. Aired 2-2:35p ET

Aired September 13, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

LYNDA KINKADE, CNN HOST: Hello and welcome, I'm Lynda Kinkade in for Hala Gorani, good to have you with us. We begin this hour in Washington where

any moment now, America's top diplomat will face questions over his country's messy and chaotic exit from Afghanistan last month. U.S.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He's sure to field some pretty tough questions from both

Democrats and Republicans, and we will bring that to you live when it happens.

Well, in Afghanistan, the Taliban received its highest level diplomatic visit yet with Qatar's Foreign Minister in Kabul for talks with the acting

prime minister. Since the group took over, poverty and hunger are spiraling. The United Nations says the country is facing a major crisis and

has just raised pledges of more than $1 billion for desperate Afghans, far exceeding its target of $600 million. The U.N. has said the Taliban have

given assurances that humanitarian work can be carried out. CNN White House reporter Stephen Collinson and our global affairs analyst Aaron David

Miller join us now from Washington.

Good to have you both with us. I'll start with you first, Stephen, because Tony Blinken certainly will be grilled today not just by Republicans, but

by Democrats as well.

STEPHEN COLLINSON, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, Lynda, there is bipartisan concern about what happened last month during the evacuation,

the chaotic nature of it. There are big questions about why the U.S. was taken so off guard by the collapse of the Afghan army and the Afghan

government. Why it was so slow apparently to process special immigrant visas for Afghans who worked with the U.S. during the 20 years of war, and

what Blinken and other members of the administration are going to do to get those Americans that are still there and Afghan allies out.

But of course, this is also a deeply politicized issue. Republicans are going to try and turn this into something like the Benghazi hearings, to

try and portray the administration as weak and incompetent and out of control and reflect badly on the president. So, especially in the house

where Blinken is testifying today, it's going to be very politicized.

KINKADE: If you can stand by for us, Stephen, because I want to ask you some more about that, but I want to bring in Aaron David Miller to get your

take on what you think are the key questions today for Antony Blinken.

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: You know, he's going to face an emotional and very confrontational hearing. And by the looks of his

prepared statement, I think Secretary of State is not prepared to be defensive and apologetic. He's working for a president who has defended

both the decision to withdraw and the withdrawal process itself without conceding any responsibility or blame for the way it was handled. And you

have a Secretary of State whose nature is not confrontational. Tony Blinken seeks to explain rather than to justify.

But I think here, there's going to be very little daylight between secretary and the president on this issue. And I think the environment here

is very bad. It's not as if, Lynda, the crisis is over. You've got an ongoing crisis with key issues, Afghans at risk, an extrication of Afghans

at risk and Americans. You've got the issue of the return of al Qaeda, commitments on counterterrorism. And you've got a toxic political climate

which comes at a critically important moment for the president's domestic agenda. So, this is what having worked for half a dozen secretaries of

state in both political parties voted for both political parties. I can say that this is what they pay the secretaries of state the big bucks for. It's

going to be extremely challenging for Tony Blinken today.

KINKADE: And Aaron, we are just getting word on some of the things he is expected to say. Certainly defending the evacuation. We are expected to

hear that he will describe it as an extraordinary effort to get 124,000 people out as quickly as they did. But obviously, he's going to get some

pretty tough questions as to why this unraveled as quickly as it did. He certainly relied on Intelligence. And at the time we didn't seem to have

any Intelligence, U.S. or otherwise, indicating that the Taliban would take the country as quickly as it did.

MILLER: Yes, and I think once the tick-tock is -- and the back story here is revealed, it is revealed, I doubt frankly if you'll find any

Intelligence assessment which basically warns the administration. And if, in fact, withdrawal is announced and the extrication of American forces

begin, that the Afghan national security forces would collapse as rapidly as they did and Kabul would be threatened within a matter of days.


I think the real problem here is that the administration did not plan for what could be considered and what was the worst case contingency. And,

again, that's critically important, particularly in this situation where American lives are at stake.

KINKADE: Yes, I want to go back to Stephen Collinson because, Stephen, U.S. President Biden did promise that U.S. troops would stay in Afghanistan

until every U.S. citizen and green card holder were out of the country. That certainly didn't happen. There are still plenty of people in

Afghanistan trying to get out. How will Antony Blinken answer questions with regards to the evacuations that still have to take place?

COLLINSON: I think you'll find him trying to do a balancing act, basically, saying that the evacuations that did take place, 120,000 or

more, were miraculous given the circumstances. And he will argue that the United States is pursuing other measures through its diplomatic partners,

other ways to get Afghans and Americans that are still out there and want to get out, out of the country. It's likely to highlight the departures on

commercial flights, sort of a trickle of Americans and Afghan allies since flights started up at Kabul airport.

I think it will also try to see him put the focus, again, on what the Biden administration wants the American public to hear. That is that the

president, notwithstanding the messy exit from Afghanistan, ended the 20- year war that three previous presidents were unwilling or unable to do. In terms of the politics of that in the United States, I think that is the

issue that the administration would like to talk about, notwithstanding the hugely serious issues that Aaron mentioned, counterterrorism, how to deal

with the Taliban in future, the fate of those who are left behind.

Part of Blinken's responsibility to the administration, as distinct, perhaps, from his duty of Secretary of State, is to try to mend some of the

political damage that was done over the last three or four weeks. As the president on multiple fronts, the pandemic, the economy, trying to pass his

agenda, tries to bounce back from what was a very difficult period in August.

KINKADE: And, Stephen, if you can stand by, I want to go back to Aaron because there is no evidence -- and we are expected to hear Antony Blinken

say this today -- he's -- in justifying the evacuation the way it took place, we are expected to hear him explain that there's no evidence that

this could have been handled any better had it happened further down the track. And that was a key question in the lead-up to this withdrawal, the

timing. The U.S. has already been in Afghanistan for 20 years. If not now, when?

MILLER: Well, once the military was given its orders to withdraw, you know, the prime directive for the Pentagon and for the Joint Chiefs, for

Milley and Austin, was getting our forces out and closing up our bases as quickly as possible, in order to preserve the safety and security. The

president set a deadline of September 11th, which -- and I suspect he probably now regrets doing.

And as far as he was concerned, there were only two options. In following along, the agreement reached by the Trump administration, either he ended

the war or it would have escalated. Tony Blinken, I think said that in his opening statement to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

And therein, I think, lies the problem. You got a president who wanted to get out, a country who wanted him out, a military that wanted to get out,

wanted with minimum casualties or -- and preserving security for its forces. And yet the process of withdrawal and the prospects of evacuating

several hundred thousand, even a 100,000 Afghans at risk and all of the Americans who wanted to leave, who wanted to leave was beyond the capacity

and capability of this administration and this State Department. Whether another administration could have handled it differently is a highly

arguable proposition.

Bottom line here, in my view, the country has moved on from Afghanistan. The issue of this administration is that the inside -- proverbial, inside

the beltway, including Democrats now run the risk of undermining their own president and his domestic agenda, if in fact, the grilling and the

hammering of Antony Blinken is overly aggressive and embarrassing. Inside the beltway has not moved on, and that's a problem for now.

KINKADE: And this is just the start of inquiries, right? Because we are going to see Antony Blinken in front of the Senate Foreign Relations

Committee tomorrow. How will that be different? Aaron, first to you, how will that differ from today?


MILLER: I think it -- I think it actually -- well, the Senate has a reputation of being more deliberative and cooler. But I suspect in many

respects that the senators may be better prepared and willing to dig deeper with more authority. At least, that's the way they self-styled themselves

in relation to the House of Representatives.

The good news for the administration is the next two hearings before the Intelligence Committees and the A

med Services Committees, I believe, will be private. So, these will be two very tough days, particularly against the iconic pictures, which the media

will show of the chaos of the eviction -- of the evacuation -- as well as the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe which now appears to be threatening a

country of almost 40 million people.

KINKADE: And I want to get Stephen Collinson's take on that. What are the risks for the Biden administration if the Democrats go too hard in a

grilling of Antony Blinken?

COLLINSON: I think the Democrats have already started sending signals from this committee, the house committee that Blinken is going to appear before

today. That while they want answers about what happened, there is not going to be an inquisition from the Democratic side. A lot of them are talking

about what responsibility the Trump administration has for its deal with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal, the extent to which the Trump

administration's hardline on immigration slowed the issuance of special immigrant visas for Afghan allies that helped.

So, what you often see in these committees, they're a bit of a show. They're a bit of a show trial. You'll see some Republicans taking a very

hardline, trying to make a deeply political case, trying to wound the administration, trying to make this something that sticks in the mind of

the American voters and adds to a wider picture that they're trying to create of a president and a presidency that is being overtaken by events

not just abroad, but at home.

And then you're going to see Democrats come in and try almost like the defense team in a trial, try and mitigate the damage, allow Blinken to cast

blame on the Trump administration, create the most favorable case for the administration's handling of this chaos, notwithstanding the difficult


So, especially in the house, although these days Washington is so polarized that the Senate is almost as much of a bear pit politically for

administration officials. You're going to see a very politicized atmosphere. Often these situations -- you know, you don't get that many

answers just simply because there are so many people playing to the political gallery.

KINKADE: To you, Aaron. There are a lot of concerns about the amount of weaponry left behind in Afghanistan that could fall into the hands of the

Taliban -- it already has, but also in terror groups. The "Times of London" is reporting that the U.S. left behind billions of dollars worth of

weaponry like humvee vehicles, machine guns, military helicopter, SUVs, various rifles. Who will be held accountable for that?

MILLER: You know, it's like -- it is like the good economy or bad economy, right? I mean, the reality is the current administration -- and, again, I

voted for Republicans and Democrats and worked for Republicans and Democrats. This is not a partisan comment. The administration presided over

this and is going to have to assume responsibility.

The numbers out there are probably exaggerated. That's issue number one. And this is actually not unusual. You remember during the American

evacuation or withdrawal from Iraq, the Islamic State ended up being the beneficiaries and recipients of a lot of military equipment that were --

that is provided by the U.S. military to the Iraqi army when it collapsed in many respects.

This is not uncommon. But, again, it's driven by the reality that this is not a crisis that is over. The fact is the pictures don't lie. And you'll

see some terrible photos -- we already have, particularly if the Taliban end up being trained, including aircraft. Whether or not contractors will

be required or whether or not they can use them is another matter entirely.

But it represents, I think, in part, the excess and waste of -- and the amount of money that was spent in defense of an enterprise that simply was

likely, if we're talking about creating a coherent Afghan government that was inclusive and able to extend its authority over the vast majority of

Afghanistan was probably doomed from the beginning.


And I think it's a critically important point, the one that was made before. Look at the name of this hearing. It's Afghanistan 2001 to 2021.

And presumably, the House Foreign Relations Committee gave it that name in order to -- it's in a broader context.

KINKADE: All right, global affairs analyst Aaron David Miller and White House reporter Stephen Collinson. Good to have you both with us. We are now

going to listen in to the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he prepares to testify to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.


ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE, UNITED STATES: 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've been secretary. And

thank you, and we appreciate your recognition of the important role of this legislative body plays in conducting oversight on the executive.

And I want to start off today by citing some numbers, 800,000. That's the number of Americans who served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan since

2001. Two thousand four hundred and sixty one, that's the number of American military personnel who died in Afghanistan, including the 13 brave

Americans who were killed facilitating the evacuation of 124,000 people over the course of 17 days. Sixty six thousand, the number of Afghan

national security forces killed in the conflict. Forty seven thousand two hundred and forty five, that's the number of Afghan civilians killed since


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. This entangling

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 here what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic, 20- year war looks like. In fact, I've yet to hear the clean withdrawal option because I don't believe one exists. Now, all the 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've 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 were the protests 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 21st, 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, that it was different, that it came with a stronger -- 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're 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 the 11th. In the 20 years since, I've seen how this conflict costs 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 make 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 where we'll 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 26th, 13 American servicemen 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 mourn

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 business- like and professional. So, let's meet a few of these professionals of 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. 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, the acting Interior Minister

Haqqani. He is responsible for overseeing policing and counterterrorism. He's also wanted by the FBI. He is 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. 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 Non-proliferation 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. 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 Afghanistan, U.S. citizens, visa holders along with their parents. And we've got to do everything we

can to get those folks 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've

got those folks out as briefly as possibly to safety. And I look forward to the testimony, and with that, I yield back.

MEEKS: 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 pullout from Afghanistan just may be the

worst foreign affairs disaster in American history. You've 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 us as much, and our enemies may not fear us as much. Yes, the majority of the 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. Chabot. Now, I'll introduce our witness. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was sworn in as the United

States Secretary of State on January 26th, 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 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, UNITED STATES 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' traditional role as a partner in

foreign policy making. I'm committed to working with you on the path forward in Afghanistan, and to advance the interests of the American


On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, as we honor the nearly 3,000 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, 2,641 American lives, 20,000 injuries, $3 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 had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining 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 a relentless march on remote outposts, on check points, 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.

And we had the smallest number of troops on the ground since 2001.