September 28, 2021

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Top Democrat threatens to subpoena Biden officials as Blinken testifies on Afghanistan – Axios

3 min read

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is testifying Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he’ll face a second day of interrogation from Republican lawmakers highly critical of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Driving the news: The committee’s chair, the hawkish New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, pulled no punches in his opening statement, threatening to subpoena Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other Biden officials who decline to voluntarily appear before the committee.

  • “Mr. Secretary, the execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” Menendez told Blinken.
  • Menendez promised accountability for the multiple administrations who “lied” about the stability of the Afghan government, and said Austin’s refusal to testify “will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees.”

Highlights: Blinken testified that the administration began planning for a “worst-case scenario” in Afghanistan in the spring and summer, including contingencies for evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 48 hours and establishing control over the airport.

  • The secretary declined to give the committee a copy of a July 13 State Department dissent cable that warned of the imminent collapse of the Afghan government soon after the U.S. withdrawal, saying those cables are designed “only to be shared with senior officials in the department.”
  • Blinken said the State Department is “still tabulating” the number of Special Immigrant Visa applicants who need to leave Afghanistan, and that “thousands” of American green-card holders remain in the country.
  • Pressed by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on why the administration could not push the withdrawal date past Aug. 31 in order to process SIV applicants, Blinken said “we took some risks” by delaying beyond May 1 and that the timing was ultimately a military consideration. He added that the U.S. had anticipated the Afghan government would still be in control at that point.
  • Blinken told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that while the Taliban now controls some of the $80 billion in military equipment provided to Afghan security forces, much of it is “inoperable” and “none of it” poses a strategic threat to the U.S. or Afghanistan’s neighbors.
  • Under questioning from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a key Biden ally on the withdrawal decision, Blinken said 2,400 U.S. troops would not have been enough to keep the country from falling to the Taliban and that a significant surge would have been required.

The big picture: In more than five hours of testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Monday, Blinken calmly defended nearly every aspect of the withdrawal and evacuation effort — refusing to concede it could have been handled differently even as he faced intense criticism and calls to resign from furious Republicans.

Catch up quick: “We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Blinken told members of the committee, repeatedly blaming former President Trump for forcing the Biden administration’s hand with the peace deal he struck with the Taliban.

  • He praised Biden’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan as righteous and the evacuation effort as “extraordinary,” while acknowledging that about 100 U.S. citizens and possibly “thousands” of green card holders remain in the country.
  • Blinken also disputed Republicans’ claims that Biden ignored or “manipulated” intelligence about the pending collapse of the Afghan government, insisting that the administration performed as well as it could have under conditions no one predicted.

What to watch: Democrats, with Menendez as a notable exception, are broadly expected to defend the withdrawal and push back against GOP efforts to pin 20 years of bipartisan mistakes in Afghanistan on Biden.

  • Republican senators, meanwhile, will grill Blinken on the administration’s posture toward the Taliban and demand to know how he will get the remaining U.S. citizens and green card holders out of Afghanistan.
  • Republicans are also expected to press the secretary on the challenges posed by Biden’s “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy, though Blinken was reluctant to discuss those issues in an unclassified setting during his House testimony.

Meanwhile: Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will testify behind closed doors before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 3:30pm ET.

Go deeper: Highlights from Blinken’s appearance before the House

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.

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