Both Democrats and Republicans offered sharp criticism of the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal on Tuesday, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified for a second day, this time before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Blinken himself gave almost identical opening remarks as he did before House lawmakers on Monday, highlighting what he says was a difficult choice the Biden administration faced: leave Afghanistan to comply with a deadline negotiated with the Taliban or risk putting more American soldiers at risk as the terrorist group gained control in the country.
He also repeated the intelligence community’s evaluation of the Afghanistan situation this summer, testifying that “nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse.”
“The execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” said foreign relations chair Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J., to begin the hearing.
Sen. Menendez also expressed his disdain for Secretary Lloyd Austin’s refusal to testify in the same hearing and threatened to subpoena the defense chief and other top officials involved in the two-decade war. Menendez also said that Austin's refusal to appear before the panel "will affect my personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees."
Blinken on Tuesday said “it would have taken a substantial number” of U.S. service members to retake Kabul and keep Afghanistan stable, another reason why it was imperative to leave.
And he also explained that the Biden administration felt it was already risky to push the withdrawal deadline to Aug. 31, beyond the May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration, though they still did not expect an immediate collapse in August.
“Our expectation was that beyond Aug. 31, beyond the military drawdown, the government security forces were going to remain in control of the capital,” the secretary said. “Our embassy was fully planned to remain up and running.”
Republican senators hit back on that point, highlighting the administration’s own assessment of the Taliban’s strength this summer as evidence that chaos could unfold.
"What did we think was going to happen as that support began to be removed?” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asked. “It doesn't take some exquisite piece of intelligence or some brilliant analysis to read to conclude that if you radically change an already-bad status quo ... the status quo was going to collapse.”
“It's concerning that no one saw all of this and concluded that there was no evidence or no reason to believe that there could be a rapid collapse," he added.
Blinken also said the U.S. is investigating a drone strike carried out by the military on Aug. 27, which the Pentagon said targeted an ISIS-K operative in possession of bombs intended for the airport.
Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., asked the secretary whether the target was indeed an ISIS target or an aid worker, as an investigation by the New York Times suggests.
“I don’t know because we’re reviewing it,” Blinken said.
“We can’t sort of have an investigation after we kill people, we have an investigation before we kill people,” Paul said.
Read highlights of Secretary Blinken's Monday testimony before a House committee here.