Sep 12, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Inside the preparations to grill Blinken on Afghanistan

Secretary of State Tony Blinken looks down before speaking agains a dark curtained backdrop

Photo: Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken can expect the most aggressive questioning of his career when he testifies Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and on Tuesday before Senate Foreign Relations.

Why it matters: Republicans see the hearings as their first chance to directly confront a top-ranking Biden official about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Democrats see it as a moment in which they must reject GOP efforts to blame President Biden for 20 years of bipartisan mistakes.

The big picture: We spoke to lawmakers and staff about what they plan to ask.

Republicans say they'll demand to know exactly how many Americans and allies remain stranded in Afghanistan, following the latest evacuations and persistent obstacles — and how specifically the U.S. plans to get them out.

  • They want to know the specific breakdown of those who have gotten out (special visa holders, "at risk" individuals, etc.) and the vetting process for the crush of evacuees who were airlifted.
  • Expect them to raise concerns about convicted criminals or members of terrorist watch lists among the evacuees — and to cite a particularly harrowing AP story about "child brides" trafficked to the U.S. during the chaos.
  • They'll use viral images of Taliban fighters donning U.S. military gear and flying Black Hawk helicopters to hammer Blinken on how the U.S. will deal with an arsenal now controlled by the Taliban. The Pentagon insists equipment left at Kabul airport was "demilitarized" and "unusable," but it's clear that's not the case across the country.

If and how the U.S. recognizes the Taliban government is a key question now that an acting Cabinet in Afghanistan has been formed — one with the leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and an FBI-wanted terrorist as interior minister.

  • GOP members will highlight the administration's downplaying of the Taliban's links to terrorist networks and reliance on the Taliban for security cooperation. They will pressure Blinken to prevent the Taliban from ever accessing more than $9 billion in frozen Afghan assets in the U.S. financial system.

The other side: Democrats will point to the peace deal the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban and cite Donald Trump's own boast in June: "I started the process, all the troops are coming home. [Biden] couldn’t stop the process."

  • "My No. 1 question for Secretary Blinken: Can you describe for us now the detailed and well-considered plan prepared by the Trump administration for how we would get out of Afghanistan in an orderly way?" Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told Axios in an interview.
  • "Let's face it, this mission was fraught with peril, because there's no way to flee without causing a stampede, and there's no way to have a stampede that's orderly and meritorious," he added.
  • One Democratic source told Axios that Republicans "are making this as much of a Benghazi as they possibly can." The source said that as Democrats see it, "this is not Jan. 6. This is an examination into U.S. policy toward a country in a 20-year war."

For the record: State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement that Blinken "has prioritized engagement with Congress from his first days" in office, including in recent Afghanistan briefings and calls, and that he "appreciates the opportunity to testify."

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