US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken faced bipartisan anger and criticism on Tuesday from senators unhappy with the Biden administration’s handling of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The execution of the US withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Blinken during a committee hearing.
Menendez said the committee would pursue a “full explanation” of the administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since US President Joe Biden came into office in January.
“There has to be accountability,” said Menendez, who argued the Biden administration “clearly fell short” of its stated goal of leaving “a durable political arrangement” in Afghanistan.
Nearly 20 years after invading Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks, the US military completed its withdrawal from the country on August 30.
The US evacuation from Kabul after the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital was marked by chaotic scenes as thousands of Afghans converged on the city’s airport, desperate to leave the country amid fears of potential retribution by the group.
At least 175 people, including 13 US service personnel, were killed at the Kabul airport in a suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K).
Afghanistan is currently facing a humanitarian crisis, as supplies of food and medicine are becoming scarce with millions of people at risk.
Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate panel, called the US withdrawal a “dismal failure” and charged the Biden administration with “ineptitude”.
“One of the things we need to get to the bottom of is, who’s responsible for this? Who made the decisions?” said Risch, who had been chairman of the committee when former President Donald Trump negotiated the US withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in 2020.
“While I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, no American thinks we should have left this way. America cannot end a war simply by walking away,” Risch said.
Military officials to be called to testify
The critical tone of the Senate hearing spells trouble ahead for the Biden administration as it seeks to recover from a difficult month in which the president’s poll numbers have dipped.
It also points to future challenges for the administration in negotiating with the Taliban, as well as on its efforts to manage the situation in Afghanistan with US allies.
On Tuesday, Menendez said he intends to call US military officials to testify before the committee and expressed disappointment that US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declined to appear at the hearing.
“A full accounting of the US response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the US-trained and funded Afghan military,” Menendez said.
He also threatened to issue subpoenas to witnesses and to hold back Senate confirmation of Defense Department political nominees. During 20 years of US involvement in Afghanistan, “Congress has been misled”, Menendez said.
Blinken faced more sharp questioning from several members of the Senate committee, including Senator Rand Paul, who demanded to know whether the US military mistakenly targeted an aid worker in a drone attack on August 29.
Blinken was unable to say whether the target was an aid worker pending the results of a US investigation.
The drone attack killed 10 members of the Ahmadi and Nejrabi families, ranging from two to 40 years old. “They were innocent, helpless children,” Aimal Ahmadi, whose nieces and nephews were among those killed, told Al Jazeera last month about the majority of the victims.
“I see these pictures of these beautiful children that were killed in the attack,” said Paul. “You can’t have an investigation after you kill people,” he said. “You have an investigation before you kill people.”
Senator Bill Hagerty, a Republican, suggested Blinken should resign. “We have a very significant failure here, a failure of global proportion,” he said.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat and political ally of President Joe Biden, also challenged Blinken on why the administration had not been better prepared for a collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul.
“The contingency planning for something that was a possibility, wasn’t all that it should have been,” Kaine said.
US diplomats in Afghanistan had warned Blinken in a secret cable in July of a potential fall of the Afghan government in Kabul, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal newspaper.