WASHINGTON – A top Senate Democrat on Tuesday blasted the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as “fatally flawed” and threatened to subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin if he doesn’t agree to testify “in the near future.”
The sharp rebuke from Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced a second day of intense questioning by lawmakers furious over the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
“The execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” Menendez, D-N.J., told Blinken in opening remarks. “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.”
Blinken strongly defended President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan and the administration’s handling of the evacuation. He said no one in the U.S. government predicted the Afghan security forces would surrender to the Taliban so quickly, a surprise development that paved the way for the militant Islamic group to take over the country within days.
“Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained,” Blinken said. “They were focused on what would happen after the United States withdrew, from September onward.”
After the Afghan forces disintegrated, Blinken said, State Department and the Pentagon officials orchestrated “an extraordinary effort” to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies over the course over two weeks, before the last U.S. forces withdrew from Kabul at the end of last month.
“They worked around the clock to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us, citizens of our allies and partners, and at-risk Afghans on planes (and) out of the country,” Blinken told the committee. “In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety.”
Lawmakers in both parties remain deeply frustrated that the State Department did not begin a mass evacuation earlier, targeting in particular Afghans who worked for the U.S. military during the war and who are now acutely vulnerable to Taliban reprisals. They are also concerned about the estimated 100 U.S. citizens who are still in Afghanistan and seeking to leave.
‘Stop with the hypocrisy’
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she and other senators tried for years to speed up the special immigrant visa (SIV) process for Afghans who served alongside U.S. troops, as translators and in other roles, but those efforts were stymied by Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration. She said it’s hypocritical for GOP lawmakers to express outrage now over their fate and the fate of Afghan women.
A few Republicans in the Senate “blocked us year after year from getting more SIV applicants to the United States,” she said, “and I want to know where that outrage was during the negotiations by the Trump administration and former Secretary (of State Mike) Pompeo when they were giving away the rights of women and girls.”
She was referring to the 2020 agreement that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban, under which the U.S. agreed to a full military withdrawal by May 1, 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking American troops and sever its ties with al-Qaida, the terrorist group that launched the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.
“Sec. Pompeo came before this committee and blew off questions about what they were doing to pressure the Taliban to have women at the negotiating table for that peace treaty,” Shaheen said in a flash of anger. “Let’s stop with the hypocrisy of who’s to blame. There are a lot of people to blame, and we all share in it.”
Menendez called former President Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban a “surrender deal” that was “clearly built on a set of lies.” Under that agreement, he noted, the U.S. agreed to the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom were hardened fighters who quickly returned to the battlefield.
But Menendez, normally a White House ally, made it clear he has no intention of shielding a Democratic administration from scrutiny over Afghanistan. He and the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. James Risch of Idaho, demanded Austin testify about the U.S. exit.
“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,” Menendez said. “His the decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees.”
He said he expects Austin to testify soon, and if he refuses, “I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others.”
Some foreign policy experts said Congress’ demand for “accountability” over the execution of U.S. withdrawal was ludicrous given that lawmakers essentially rubber stamped two decades of a failed U.S. policy in Afghanistan, including massive civilian deaths and rampant government corruption.
“I have a tough time not rolling my eyes at the sudden interest in concern and oversight,” Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for restraint in U.S. military policy, tweeted on Tuesday.
“Did the evacuation process have problems? Obviously,” he wrote. “Did counterinsurgency work? No. Was nation-building a colossal waste of taxpayer money? Yes. Where was the righteous indignation then?”
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department official during multiple administrations, said it’s unlikely there will be any true accountability for a cascade of mistakes over the entire course of the 20-year war. There’s too much partisanship, and it’s too complex, for lawmakers to seriously tackle, Miller said in a tweet Tuesday.