Secretary of state testifies on Afghanistan withdrawal

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Melissa Mahtani and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 6:24 PM ET, Mon September 13, 2021
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2:43 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken: Even the most "pessimistic assessments" did not predict the collapse of Afghan forces in Kabul

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said even the most "pessimistic assessments" of the situation on the ground in Kabul, Afghanistan, did not predict that "government forces in the city would collapse while US forces remained," during his congressional testimony.

"As General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, 'Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days,'" Blinken noted.

Blinken continued: "Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies. Because of that planning, we were able to draw down our embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours. And the military – placed on stand-by by President Biden – was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours."

2:43 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Top Democrat defends Afghanistan withdrawal: It was "never going to be easy"

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

(Pool)
(Pool)

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying he saw no scenario in which such a pullout would have been smooth.

"Disentangling ourselves from the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy," he said, speaking on Capitol Hill today as he and members of the committee prepared to question Secretary of State Tony Blinken. 

Meeks challenged lawmakers who have been critical of the disorderly pullout to describe how they could have managed the operation better.

"For my friends who presume a clean solution for the withdrawal existed, I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic 20-year war looks like," he said. "In fact, I've yet to hear the clean withdrawal option because I don't believe one exists."

But Meeks later acknowledge that some of the elements of the operation could have been "done differently."

"Are there things the administration could have done differently?" he asked. "Absolutely. Yes. As always. Foremost for me is for the State Department to evaluate how it could better evacuate Americans when events unravelled quickly."

2:36 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken: If Biden didn't pull out US troops, Taliban attacks on US forces and allies "would have resumed"

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his opening remarks that when President Biden took office "he inherited an agreement" made by Trump with the Taliban that his "to remove all remaining US troops by May 1 of this year."

He continued: "As part of that agreement, the previous Administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners – including some top war commanders. Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2,500 troops. In return, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking U.S. and partner forces and to refrain from threatening Afghanistan’s major cities."

Blinken said that after making the agreement, the Taliban "continued its relentless march on remote outposts, checkpoints, villages, and districts, as well as the major roads connecting" the cities. He said that by January 2021, the Taliban "was in its strongest military position since 9/11."

"Had he not followed through on his predecessor’s commitment, attacks on our forces and those of our allies would have resumed and the Taliban’s nationwide assault on Afghanistan’s major cities would have commenced," Blinken said.

His testimony before the House Foreign Affair Committee is ongoing.

2:35 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

NOW: Blinken grilled by House lawmakers about chaotic end of Afghanistan war

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette

(Pool)
(Pool)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is testifying in what is expected to be a confrontational and emotional hearing about Afghanistan and the chaotic withdrawal that ended America's longest war.

Monday's hearing will be the first of two appearances Blinken makes before Congress this week.

The top US diplomat – the first Biden administration official to publicly account for the events in Afghanistan before Congress – will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is expected to face a grilling from lawmakers in both parties who have been furious about the outcome.

After nearly two decades, more than $2 trillion in US taxpayer funds, the deaths of more than 6,000 Americans and 100,000 Afghans, and a frenzied US airlift effort, Afghanistan has returned to Taliban control.

Along with administration officials, lawmakers were taken by surprise as the Taliban swiftly trounced Afghan troops, leaving US citizens, legal permanent citizens and Afghans who worked with US troops and diplomats scrambling to leave the country during the rushed evacuation effort — or get left behind. Many lawmakers were personally drawn in as they struggled to help constituents escape Kabul.

Blinken, usually steady and unruffled in his public appearances, will encounter angry demands for answers about the true number of US citizens still inside the country, ongoing efforts to help them leave, whether the US plans to formally recognize the Taliban, the fate of US military equipment and why 13 US service members died at Kabul airport in a terrorist attack that the administration knew was coming.

Read more about today's hearing here.

2:21 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Blinken defends Biden administration's Afghanistan withdrawal in prepared statement to Congress

From CNN's Michael K. Callahan

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during an event on September 10.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during an event on September 10. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AP)

As the Biden administration faces criticism for the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, Secretary of State Tony Blinken will defend the way the evacuation was carried out – including the pre-planning that took place – in his prepared opening remarks before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this afternoon. 

“We planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies. Because of that planning, we were able to draw down our embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours. And the military – placed on stand-by by the President – was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours,” Blinken will say, noting that no one expected the collapse to happen as quickly as it did.

The nation’s top diplomat will describe the evacuation of 124,000 people as “an extraordinary effort – under the most difficult conditions imaginable – by our diplomats, military, and intelligence professionals.” 

He will say that by the end of August, the US government got out “almost all” of the Afghans and Americans who were still in Afghanistan and wanted to get out.

Blinken will detail how the vast effort to get those Americans and Afghans out of the country – alongside US allies – began in the spring as President Biden made his decision to withdraw US troops from the country. 

“In advance of the President’s decision, I was in constant contact with our Allies and partners to hear their views and factor them into our thinking. When the President announced the withdrawal, NATO immediately and unanimously embraced it. We all set to work – together – on the drawdown,” Blinken plans to say.

“Similarly, we were intensely focused on the safety of Americans in Afghanistan. In March, we began urging them to leave the country. In total, between March and August, we sent 19 specific messages with that warning – and with offers of help, including financial assistance to pay for plane tickets," he will continue.

Blinken will also echo President Biden in saying that the emergency evacuation “was sparked by the collapse of the Afghan security forces and government.” 

Read more about today's hearing here.

1:33 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

White House previews Blinken's upcoming testimony

From CNN's Kevin Liptak and Kyle Blaine

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre offered a preview of the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that is set to start soon and is expected to be contentious.

“I’ll let him directly respond to any questions members tend to ask, anything specific on the hearing,” she said, going on to add that Blinken will be outlining the situation the administration inherited from the Trump administration, the evacuation efforts, and ongoing work.

Jean-Pierre also said that US-bound flights from Afghanistan “remain paused” due to a measles outbreak and will be paused “at the request of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for at least seven additional days.”

She was unsure whether it will be seven additional days from Monday or seven days from the initial pause.

Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One the individuals found with measles were being housed separately and CDC had begun contact tracing.

Afghans have been administered measles vaccines at military bases in the United States. Doses will soon be administered at overseas bases, Jean-Pierre said.

Last week, the White House said flights carrying Afghan refugees into the US had been halted after four measles cases were identified.

Fort McCoy, an army base in Wisconsin that has been taking in Afghan refugees, said in a statement Friday that "Operation Allies Welcome identified a single guest who had arrived" last Saturday and "who presented with symptoms consistent with measles." A measles diagnosis was confirmed the following day. 

Jean-Pierre spoke to reporters today during an in-flight gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Boise, Idaho.

2:04 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Afghanistan is facing the "collapse of entire country," UN secretary general says

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

Traffic flows through Herat, Afghanistan, on August 29.
Traffic flows through Herat, Afghanistan, on August 29. (Mir Ahmad Firooz Mashoof/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The people of Afghanistan are facing the “collapse of an entire country" as the poverty rate continues to spiral, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned in opening remarks to a United Nations aid conference for Afghanistan in Geneva Monday. 

According to the Secretary General, even before the Taliban takeover Afghans were already “experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”

“Today one in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. The poverty rate is spiraling, and basic public services are close to collapse," he said.

The exodus of Afghans following the Taliban victory and recent drought have also contributed to this perfect storm, Guterres added.

Guterres warned the audience that many Afghans “could run out of food by the end of these months just as winter approaches.”  

He consequently implored the international community to support the UN’s flash appeal which aims to raise $606 million to help 11 million people over the next four months. 

Guterres also called on countries to “boost humanitarian access” to the country including the air bridge with Kabul Airport. 

Despite UN Humanitarian Air Service flights from Kabul to Islamabad resuming on Sunday Guterres said “much more” flights of this nature are needed to get aid workers and humanitarian supplies in and out of the country.  

Finally, the international community must bolster the flailing Afghan economy by making cash available Guterres said. 

“A total collapse will have devastating consequences to the people, and risk to destabilize the neighboring countries, with a massive outflow”.

Guterres concluded by reminding the audience that “time is short, and events move quickly in Afghanistan”, emphasizing the importance of extending a “lifeline” to the struggling country. 

1:41 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

How the final days of the US withdrawal in Afghanistan unfolded

From CNN's Nicole Gaouette, Jennifer Hansler, Barbara Starr and Oren Liebermann

A C-17 aircraft takes off from the Kabul airport on August 29.
A C-17 aircraft takes off from the Kabul airport on August 29. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, announced on Aug. 30 that the last US military planes had left Afghanistan. The US departure marked the end of a fraught, chaotic and bloody exit from the United States' longest war.

President Biden weighed in with a statement later that day and thanked the final US forces serving in Afghanistan for executing the "dangerous retrograde from Afghanistan as scheduled," with no further loss of American lives.

The airlift, which started as a seemingly haphazard and hastily organized effort, was scarred by the deaths of 13 service members and the death sentence hanging over Afghan translators who helped US troops and diplomats but were unable to escape the country.

In addition, Biden's decision to leave will be shadowed by questions about whether and how well the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan has really been addressed.

In the 24 hours leading up to that Monday morning, 26 military C-17 aircraft lifted off from Kabul carrying 1,200 evacuees, according to Gen. Hank Taylor, the deputy director of regional operations for the Joint Staff, who spoke alongside Pentagon press secretary Kirby at a Pentagon briefing earlier Monday.

In total, 28 flights departed from Kabul airport in that 24-hour window, Taylor said.

In the same 24-hour period, the US conducted a drone strike that killed multiple civilians, including children, the Kabul airport was targeted by rocket fire, and military officials continued to warn of active, specific threats to the evacuation effort.

The "threat stream is still real. It's still active, and, in many cases, it's still specific," Kirby said at the Monday morning briefing when asked if another attack on the airport was still likely. Taylor added that military operations were continuing with a focus on the security of the US troops in Kabul, and the military would have the capability to evacuate Afghans until the very end.

"We're taking it very seriously and we will right up until the end," Kirby said.

Along with the military exit, the US pulled out all diplomatic representation, leaving open the question of whether it will formally recognize the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan.

The President has already committed to prolonging some US engagement with Afghanistan, telling his military commanders that they should "stop at nothing" to make ISIS pay for the service members' deaths, Psaki said Monday.

Read more about the US withdrawal in Afghanistan here.

1:33 p.m. ET, September 13, 2021

Ahead of today's hearing, House Democrats pressed Blinken for more details about Afghan evacuation effort

From CNN's Zachary Cohen, Manu Raju and Jennifer Hansler

Rep. Jason Crow arrives at the US Capitol on August 24.
Rep. Jason Crow arrives at the US Capitol on August 24. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

An ideologically diverse group of Democrats is pushing Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take specific steps toward helping thousands of individuals still seeking to leave Afghanistan, underscoring the widespread concern still lingering in Congress over the evacuation effort from the war-torn country.

In a letter provided to CNN earlier this month, more than three dozen House Democrats — ranging from some of the most liberal to some of the most moderate — also want additional information about the more than 116,000 people who were evacuated from the country.

"Our immediate goal is ensuring the safety of the thousands of individuals that have contacted our offices seeking to leave Afghanistan, starting first with American citizens and U.S. legal permanent residents as well as SIVs, refugees eligible for P-2 and P-1 status, and other designated Afghans," the letter states.

"These are our people, partners, and friends, countless of whom aided the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and protected our servicemembers," it adds.

The letter was led by Reps. Jason Crow of Colorado as well as three Democrats in some of the most competitive districts in the country — Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Tom Malinowski and Andy Kim, both of New Jersey. But its signatories span the gamut — from progressive leaders like Pramila Jayapal of Washington to moderate Blue Dog Democrats like Jim Cooper of Tennessee.

The pressure on the Biden administration comes as the White House has sought to move past the chaotic last few weeks in Afghanistan and pivot onto the domestic agenda. But the concerns from the Democratic lawmakers suggest that the issue won't be off the table.

Several Democrats have been very vocal in their criticism of Biden's handling of the withdrawal process and chaotic evacuation of Kabul, which, by the President's own admission, failed to get every American out of the country.

In the letter, the Democrats call for a "breakdown of the more than 116,000 individuals evacuated," including how many were US citizens and how many were special visa holders.