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Menendez fails to show up in Austin during Afghan testimony

“I expect the secretary to use the committee in the near future,” he added. “If he doesn’t, I might consider using the subpoena power of the committee to compel him and others to testify.

In a statement, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Austin “regrets that conflicting commitments made this appearance impractical.” Austin is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 28. This panel, along with its House counterpart, is the committee with primary jurisdiction over the Pentagon on Capitol Hill, while the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs panels oversee the State Department.

Yet Menendez’s threat of subpoena reflects his frustration with the chaotic and murderous US exit from Afghanistan, which he described on Tuesday as “clearly and fatally flawed” in its execution and which demands accountability. .

“I supported the decision to eventually withdraw our army from Afghanistan,” he said. “However, I have long argued that how the United States left matters. Doing the right thing in the wrong way can end up being the wrong thing. “

Menendez has long been hawkish on foreign policy, often putting him at odds with those in his own party, including President Joe Biden. For example, Menendez and Blinken clashed during Obama’s presidency when Blinken was involved in crafting the Iran nuclear deal and detente with Cuba, which Menendez opposed.

The New Jersey Democrat sought to use Tuesday’s hearing as a way to examine not only the State Department’s missteps, but also the fundamental decisions made by the Pentagon in the weeks and months leading up to it. rapid collapse of the Afghan government in the hands of the Taliban.

This rapid collapse laid bare a fundamental fact: Successive administrations have lied to Congress over the years about the sustainability of the Afghan army and government institutions, ”Menendez said. “And we have to understand why. “

During Tuesday’s hearing, Blinken told Menendez that the Biden administration began to prepare for the potential worst-case scenario in Afghanistan in the spring and summer of this year – an effort that included an “influx of resources. To the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which allows Afghans who have assisted the US military to apply for entry into the United States

“Shouldn’t we have started earlier, shouldn’t there have been a bigger push?” Menendez asked.

Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s position that no one believed the Afghan government would collapse within days. He also said the administration believed that the United States Embassy in Kabul could continue to operate after the August 31 military withdrawal date to ensure that all Americans, legal permanent residents of the United States and SIV candidates can leave the country.

“What we didn’t anticipate was this 11-day collapse of the Afghan security forces. That’s what changed everything, ”said Blinken.

The State Department has previously acknowledged that thousands of SIV candidates and SIV-eligible Afghans have been left behind in Afghanistan – an issue that has stirred lawmakers who have raised concerns about Taliban fighters seeking to take revenge on these vulnerable Afghans.

Blinken said the department is “still calculating” the exact number of SIV candidates who have yet to leave the country, and that number depends on how many 124,000 people the United States evacuated from the country in August were SIV candidates. The number of lawful permanent residents of the United States still in Afghanistan is “in the thousands,” Blinken added, and about 100 Americans remain in the country and wish to leave.

In testimony Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken defended Biden from bipartisan criticism of the withdrawal, insisting the president “inherited” a predicament from the administration of the United States. former President Donald Trump.

This included a diplomatic deal Trump brokered with the Taliban that set withdrawal deadlines, included troop caps and resulted in the release of 5,000 prisoners in Afghanistan. As a result, Blinken said, Biden had a choice between stepping up the war or reducing it.

“We inherited a deadline. We didn’t inherit a plan, ”Blinken said.

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.