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Senators seeking answers on Afghanistan express frustration with Biden administration

<i>Drew Angerer/AP</i><br/>
Drew Angerer/AP

By Nicole Gaouette and Ellie Kaufman, CNN

Senate Republicans and Democrats expressed deep frustration with the Biden administration Tuesday, complaining that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is the only official to testify on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as both sides tried to lay blame for the chaotic exit.

Blinken, appearing a day after testifying before a House committee for more than six hours, again fielded questions about why the administration was unprepared for the Afghan army’s sudden collapse; why planning to evacuate American citizens and vulnerable Afghans didn’t happen sooner; and who made the decisions that resulted in the frenzied scenes broadcast from Kabul airport as thousands tried to flee the Taliban.

Political battle lines were quickly drawn in the hearing, meant to examine the war’s messy end after nearly two decades, more than $2 trillion in US taxpayer funds and the deaths of more than 6,000 Americans and 100,000 Afghans.

Many Republicans sought to lay the blame entirely at the feet of the Biden administration, portraying the withdrawal as a profound strategic error and the evacuation effort as the “worst foreign policy catastrophe in a generation.”

Others, like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, methodically laid out the multiple missteps they saw, including the decision to abandon Bagram Air Base without alerting many allies, the move to pull the military out before civilians, and a lack of interagency planning for the evacuation.

“Many of us said what we do there needs to be based on conditions on the ground,” Portman said. “Quite frankly, the President’s decision was not based on conditions on the ground, that’s why it was a disastrous withdrawal.”

“It became extremely dangerous and chaotic, and we left a lot of people behind,” Portman said.

“We think about 30,000 at-risk Afghans were evacuated out of an estimated 60,000,” Portman continued. “That’s the best numbers we can come up with because we can’t get good numbers from the administration, but that’s the best estimate. So, that’s true, that we left people behind, who had stood with us and helped us.”

Democrats expressed careful disappointment, focused on steps the administration is now taking to help US citizens and vulnerable Afghans and emphasized that problems in Afghanistan were nearly 20 years in the making.

They also pointed to steps the Trump administration took that, they said, contributed to the current situation, including the decision to negotiate directly with the Taliban, arrange the release of thousands of Taliban prisoners, including military commanders and reach an agreement with the militant group that did not prevent them from mercilessly attacking Afghan troops.

More than once, Democratic lawmakers decried what they saw as hypocrisy when Republicans expressed concern about Afghan women and girls, Afghan applicants for Special Immigrant Visas who were left behind or the administration’s contacts with the Taliban.

“I want to know where that outrage was, where year after year, for ten years, starting with Sen. McCain, I and others in the Senate tried to get more special immigrant visa applicants through the process so that they can leave Afghanistan, leave the threat and come to the United States,” said Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. “There were a few Republicans in the Senate who blocked us year after year from getting more SIV applicants to the United States.”

“And I want to know where that outrage was during the negotiations by the Trump administration and former Secretary [Mike] Pompeo when they were giving away the rights of women and girls,” Shaheen continued, “when Secretary Pompeo came before this committee and blew off questions about what they were doing to pressure the Taliban to have women at the negotiating for that peace treaty.”

New military authorities

Blinken, who had told House lawmakers Monday there are about 100 Americans left in Afghanistan, told Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, that the State Department doesn’t have a count of the number of Legal Permanent Residents, or Green Card holders, in the country, but estimates it’s in the thousands.

Blinken also told Romney that links between the Taliban and al Qaeda remain and that it might be worth reconsidering the authorizations the President has to use military force to counter a potential re-emergence of al Qaeda or ISIS. “The relationship has not been severed and it’s a very open question as to whether their views and the relationship has changed in any kind of definitive way,” the secretary said.

When Romney asked whether the State Department should revisit its recommendation that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force or AUMF be scrapped.

“I think senator, we need to look to make sure that we have all the authorities that we would need for any potential contingency including the reemergence as a threat of al Qaeda or the further emergence of ISIS directed threat,” Blinken said. “If we don’t have those authorities, we should we should get them whether that means we looking at those authorizations or writing new ones, which I think would be the most appropriate thing to do if necessary.”

Sen. Rand Paul asked about an August 29 drone strike that the administration said was necessary to prevent an attack on American troops, but has raised questions with some reports saying the driver worked for a US aid organization. The strike killed 10 members of a family, including seven children.

“The guy the Biden administration droned, was he an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative,” Paul asked.

Blinken said the administration is reviewing that strike, that a full assessment will be forthcoming and that he couldn’t speak to whether the man targeted was an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative.

“So you don’t know or won’t tell us,” Paul said.

“I don’t know because we’re reviewing it,” Blinken said.

“You’d think you’d kind of know before you off somebody with a Predator drone, whether he’s an aid worker or he’s an ISIS-K,” Paul shot back. “We can’t have an investigation after we kill people, we have an investigation before we kill people.”

In many of the exchanges with lawmakers, Blinken said military leaders would be the more appropriate people to ask — touching on a sore point with both Republican and Democratic senators.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned why the Biden administration wouldn’t make Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin available to answer questions, an absence that led Democratic Chairman Robert Menendez to threaten to reconsider Pentagon nominees and issue subpoenas for Austin and others.

‘Very disappointed’

“I’m very disappointed that Secretary Austin declined our request to testify today,” Menendez said. “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.

“His decision not to appear before the committee will affect my personal judgement on Department of Defense nominees,” Menendez went on. “I expect the Secretary will avail himself to the committee in the near future, and if he does not, I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others over the course of these last 20 years to testify.”

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. James Risch, said he was “disappointed that some of your colleagues have declined to testify, particularly Secretary Austin. There’s questions that we really need to have answered, and it’s disheartening that they declined to testify.”

A source familiar told CNN that Austin’s move to decline the invitation from the Foreign Relations committee frustrated both Republicans and Democrats on the committee. Austin is set to testify before the Armed Services Committee later this month, which may explain why he declined this invitation.

This story has been updated with more details.

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CNN’s Lauren Fox, Kylie Atwood and Haley Burton contributed to this report.



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