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Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered an unwavering defense of the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan on Monday, insisting it was "time to end America's longest war" and praising the evacuation from Kabul as "extraordinary."

Why it matters: Blinken, who is appearing Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Tuesday before Senate Foreign Relations, is the first senior Biden official to testify on Afghanistan in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal. Tempers flared in the first session, with House Republicans accusing Blinken of lying and demanding his resignation.

Highlights: Blinken was pressed on how the U.S. would conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan now that it no longer has a local partner, extensive intelligence capabilities or a regional air base. Blinken declined to go into detail and proposed discussing the matter with the committee in closed session.

  • On the Taliban government: Blinken acknowledged that the acting Cabinet includes members with "very challenging track records," such as FBI-wanted interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. He said that when it comes to engaging with the Afghan government, the U.S. will do so "on the basis of whether or not it advances our interests."
  • On Trump's Taliban peace deal: "We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan," Blinken said in response to a question about the Trump administration's guidance for getting Americans out of the country and keeping military equipment out of the hands of the Taliban.
  • On al-Qaeda: "The current assessment of the intelligence community is that long ago, al-Qaeda was so significantly degraded that it's not in a position to conduct externally directed attacks. But we will remain hyper vigilant about any reemergence of that threat," Blinken said, while stressing that the terrorism threat has "metastasized" beyond Afghanistan.
  • On who's left in Afghanistan: Blinken said there are roughly 100 U.S. citizens and likely "thousands" of American green-card holders in Afghanistan, but the latter is not something the State Department actively keeps track of. He was unable to provide an exact number of SIV applicants who have been evacuated but said the "overwhelming majority" of Afghans who have been brought out are at-risk.
  • On humanitarian aid: Blinken announced the U.S. is providing an additional $64 million in new humanitarian assistance, which will flow through independent organizations. He also said he plans to appoint a senior State Department official to "focus entirely" on supporting women and girls whose rights have been threatened by the Taliban regime.
  • On lessons from 20 years of war: "One of the lessons is while we are very effective in dealing with terrorist threats to our country and eliminating them, which we did very successfully in Afghanistan, the idea of using military force to remake a society is something that is beyond our means and capacity," Blinken said.
  • On intelligence assessments: Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) accused Biden of manipulating intelligence about the weakness of the Afghan government, repeatedly calling Blinken a liar. Blinken, when he was finally allowed to respond, said Mast was "simply wrong" — stressing that nobody believed Afghanistan would collapse in just 11 days.
  • On U.S. drone strikes: A New York Times investigation found that an Aug. 29 drone strike mistakenly killed 10 civilians. Blinken told Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.): "That is being looked at very, very, very carefully by others in the administration. No country on earth takes more precautions to ensure that no one other than the terrorist target is struck by a drone."
  • On President Ashraf Ghani: Blinken said that Ghani, whose decision to flee precipitated the collapse of the Afghan government, told him on Aug. 14 that he would "fight to the death" if the Taliban chose not to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power. He fled the next day.

The big picture: Blinken has been the target of blistering criticism by Republicans. GOP lawmakers berated him and refused to let him respond to questions several times during the hearing, accusing him of "betrayal" and incompetence.

  • Democrats are viewed as less united when it comes to their defense of Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan, but largely believe Republicans are exploiting the situation for political purposes.
  • Sources say Democrats intend to use the hearings to raise broader issues concerning Afghanistan and post-9/11 interventions, while preventing Republicans from laying 20 years of mistakes at the feet of one president.

Go deeper

As Afghanistan envoy departs, tens of thousands remain in limbo

Afghans listen to a lesson in an Afghan refugee camp on Nov. 4 in Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

As President Biden's point person for Afghan refugee resettlement steps aside, advocacy groups are pressing the Biden administration to accelerate its efforts to help the tens of thousands of people still stuck in limbo.

Why it matters: Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) is leaving the envoy role after being confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The transition comes amid criticism that there hasn't been enough high-level, sustained engagement to ease the backlog of applications nearly four months after the U.S. military and diplomatic withdrawal from Kabul.

Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults

A vaccination center installed at the Barbara Chapel of St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images

Austria's lower house of parliament voted on Thursday in favor of making COVID-19 vaccinations compulsory for most adults from next month.

Why it matters: The bill is expected to soon pass the upper house and be signed by President Alexander Van der Bellen in order for the law to take effect Feb. 1, per Reuters. It'd make Austria the first EU nation to impose such a sweeping mandate.

Hope King, author of Closer
Updated 6 hours ago - Economy & Business

Peloton pumps its brakes

Data: FactSet; Chart: Axios Visuals

Peloton’s popularity is falling as swiftly as it shot up.

Why it matters: Not all pandemic habits stick around. Peloton's trajectory over the past two years exemplifies how challenging it's been for companies to gauge shifts in consumer demand — particularly in sectors heavily altered by the pandemic.