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Blinken testifies on Afghanistan before House lawmakers angry over chaotic end of war

The senior US diplomat, the first member of the administration to report publicly on events in Afghanistan to Congress, spoke to a virtual hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs and defended the decision of leave the country after Republicans called the withdrawal a “debacle”. “and a” betrayal “.

Blinken suggested that expanding the U.S. presence would have made little difference and pointed out that the Trump administration left little work for the new government other than a deadline to step down by May.

“We inherited a deadline,” Blinken said. “We did not inherit a plan.”

In his opening testimony, the senior US diplomat said that “there is no evidence that a longer stay would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government more resilient or more self-sufficient.” Echoing the arguments President Joe Biden has made publicly and repeatedly, Blinken asked lawmakers a question: “If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment and training weren’t enough, why another year? , or five, or 10, make a difference? ”

Blinken told lawmakers in his prepared remarks that the administration had planned and implemented a series of emergency measures, working with allies to execute the largest airlift in US military history – “a extraordinary effort “which attracted” almost all “US citizens and Afghans who wanted to leave Afghanistan out of the country.

“We planned and implemented a wide range of contingencies. As a result of this planning, we were able to withdraw our embassy and move our remaining staff to the airport within 48 hours. And the military – put on hold by the president – – was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours, “Blinken said in his opening statement, noting that no one expected the collapse of the country to happen so quickly that he did.

Blinken described the situation the administration inherited – the Taliban were in their strongest military position since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Trump administration had negotiated directly with the Taliban, freed 5,000 of its jailed members, including included key military commanders, and had made a commitment to withdraw by May, while reducing the US military presence to its lowest level since September 2001. In addition, Blinken said, the process for granting visas to Afghans who worked with US troops and diplomats “were basically at an impasse.”

“As a result, upon taking office, President Biden was immediately faced with the choice of either ending the war or escalating it,” Blinken said. “After 20 years, 2,641 American lives lost, 20,000 injured and $ 2,000 billion spent, it was time to end America’s longest war.”

Lawmakers demanded answers and condemned the administration’s performance. The leading Republican on the committee, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, called the withdrawal and the end of the war an “absolute disaster of epic proportions”, “debacle” and “betrayal”.

He lambasted the Biden administration for “our unconditional surrender to the Taliban,” the chaotic nature of the evacuation effort and the fact that the Americans were left behind, urging Blinken to work with private groups leading an effort to “Digital Dunkirk” to get Americans, legal permanent residents and vulnerable Afghans out of the country.

The Democratic chairman of the committee, Representative Gregory Meeks of New York, warned against criticism motivated by political partisanship. “It strikes me that a lot of those who criticize the administration’s evacuation efforts are really angry with the president for keeping his promise to end America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan,” he said. Meeks said. “They mask their dissatisfaction with criticism but have not come up with workable alternatives. Once again, we see domestic policy injected into foreign policy.”

Americans still in Afghanistan

But he also voiced his concerns about the Americans still stranded in Afghanistan. “I look forward to hearing the secretary explain how the State Department intends to complete its evacuation of the 100-200 Americans remaining in Afghanistan, who want to return home, as well as evacuating the Afghans who have worked alongside us for the past 20 years, ”Meeks said.

Along with administration officials, lawmakers were taken by surprise as the Taliban quickly crushed Afghan troops, leaving US citizens, legal permanent citizens, and Afghans working with US troops and diplomats struggling to leave. the country during the evacuation effort rushed – or left behind. Many lawmakers were personally trained as they rushed to help voters escape Kabul.

Just before Blinken appeared on the Hill, the Biden administration announced Monday that it would provide nearly $ 64 million in new humanitarian aid to Afghans to provide food, health care, medical supplies and supplies. other relief.

Monday’s hearing is the first of two appearances Blinken is making to Congress this week to testify on Afghanistan.

This story was updated with additional details on Monday.

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman and Sonnet Swire contributed reporting.