Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced bipartisan criticism Tuesday over the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan — as a top Senate Republican questioned whether President Biden is actually calling the shots in the White House.
Blinken’s second consecutive day of grilling by Capitol Hill lawmakers even saw the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee blast last month’s humiliating exit — which included the killings of 13 American service members — as “clearly and fatally flawed.”
Also during Tuesday’s hearing:
- Blinken admitted that officials were still investigating whether a drone strike at a suspected ISIS-K terrorist accidentally killed an Afghan aid worker and nine family members, including seven kids.
- Blinken tried to downplay the number of child brides being brought to the US by Afghan refugees.
- Blinken’s claim that no one expected Kabul to fall before the US military left was countered by months of intelligence warnings that the situation in Afghanistan was “going to hit the fan.”
Blinken took repeated hits from the committee’s GOP members, including ranking member Sen. James Risch of Idaho, who blasted the withdrawal as a “dismal failure.”
“There’s not enough lipstick in the world to put on this pig to make it look any different than what it actually is,” he said.
Risch also demanded to know who in the White House was in charge of ending the official livestream coverage of Biden’s appearances, as happened mid-sentence Monday during a meeting in Boise, Idaho, about the wildfires plaguing the western US.
When Blinken said that Biden “speaks very clearly and very deliberately for himself,” Risch asked, “Well, are you saying that there is no one in the White House that can cut him off?”
“Because yesterday, that happened, and it’s happened a number of times before that. It’s been widely reported,” Risch said.
“Somebody has the ability to push the button and cut off his sound and stop him from speaking. Who is that person?”
Risch added: “This is a puppeteer act if you would, and we need to know who is in charge and who is making the decisions.”
But unlike during Blinken’s appearance before the House Foreign Relations Committee on Monday — when most Democrats blamed the Afghan chaos on former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban — some key Senate Democrats excoriated the Biden administration for its failures.
“The execution of the US withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed,” Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said.
“This committee expects to receive a full explanation of this administration’s decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January.”
Menendez — who’s one of a handful of Democratic hawks — added: “There has to be accountability.”
Other Democrats who were hard on Blinken and President Biden included Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), meanwhile, pressed Blinken on who exactly was killed in the Aug. 29 American drone strike that followed the deadly ISIS-K suicide bombing outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport three days earlier.
When Blinken said that was still unclear, Paul asked, “So you don’t know or won’t tell us?”
“I don’t — I don’t know, because we’re reviewing it,” Blinken answered.
Paul shot back: “You think you’d kind of know before you off somebody with a Predator drone whether he’s an aid worker or he’s ISIS-K.”
“And the thing is, there is blowback to that,” Paul said.
“I mean, I don’t know if it’s true, but I see these pictures of these beautiful children that were killed in the attack. If that’s true, and not propaganda, if that’s true, guess what? Maybe you’ve created hundreds or thousands of new potential terrorists from bombing the wrong people.”
The New York Times has reported that the retaliatory attack for the Aug. 26 killings of US personnel and scores of Afghans accidentally targeted a vehicle driven by Zemari Ahmadi and carrying nine members of his family.
Ahmadi reportedly worked as a technical engineer for the Pasadena, Calif.-based charity Nutrition and Education International, which had applied for refugee status on his behalf.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked Blinken how many Afghan children now being housed at military bases in the US or at transit points overseas were subjected to sexual abuse by older male evacuees, citing reports of child brides being brought to America.
Blinken maintained that everyone involved in the resettlement effort, both in the US and abroad, has exercised “extreme vigilance to deal with any cases or concerns.”
When pressed for the actual number of such cases, Blinken said there was just “a handful” but said he couldn’t provide a tally.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Blinken that “the most troubling thing” he’d said in his opening statement was the claim that “even the most pessimistic assessment did not predict the government forces in Kabul would collapse while US forces remained.”
“You know, for much of last year I was acting chairman of Intelligence and now I am the vice-chairman of Intelligence. I’ve been tracking this very closely,” he said.
“Just going back to the beginning of this year — obviously, I cannot quote the titles of the pieces — but let me suffice to say that there are numerous pieces that could be categorized as ‘it was going to hit the fan.’”
Rubio added: “I think any analysis of those pieces would have led everyone to that conclusion.”
Rubio also warned that “China and Russia and Iran, they look at this botched withdrawal and what they see as incompetence that they think they might be able to exploit.”
Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) told Blinken that “there must be accountability,” adding: “My office and other congressional offices have heard rumors regarding potential cabinet resignations over the situation in Afghanistan.”
“So, I want to ask you: Have you submitted your resignation regarding this issue?” Hagerty asked.
Blinken answered: “I have not.”