US

Blinken faces questions on Afghanistan from senators, a day after a House panel grilling.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken appeared again on Tuesday before lawmakers, defending the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and insisting that the State Department did its best to plan for the chaotic evacuation as American troops prepared to depart last month.

After more than five hours of virtual testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday, Mr. Blinken appeared in person before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making no new concessions of fault even as Republicans denounced President Biden’s troop withdrawal from the country as “disastrous,” in the words of Senator Rob Portman of Ohio.

As he did on Monday, Mr. Blinken argued that the State Department had added more staff earlier this year to rapidly expedite processing of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who had worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and noted that the Trump administration had halted the processing of such visas for months.

But committee members focused on whether the Biden administration should have done more contingency planning to prepare for the possibility of the sudden fall of the Afghan government, which occurred last month, and if the administration should have delayed the exit of U.S. troops until more Americans and at-risk Afghans could be relocated from the country.

Mr. Blinken said that the administration’s worst-case planning began “in the spring and summer” with interagency meetings coordinated by the White House.

Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, challenged Mr. Blinken’s frequent refrain that the Biden administration was obliged to withdraw rapidly because of an agreement the Trump administration struck in 2020 with the Taliban, setting a May 1 exit date from the country. Mr. Biden ordered all troops to leave by Aug. 31 — after initially announcing a withdrawal by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks — and has said that staying longer would have invited attacks by the Taliban, which agreed under the deal with Mr. Trump not to attack withdrawing American forces.

Mr. Romney asked Mr. Blinken why, if the Biden administration was willing to break the May 1 exit deadline, it could not have stayed longer than Aug. 31 to ensure a more orderly evacuation.

“The date was May 1, and you pushed it to Aug. 31. Why didn’t you push it much later?” Mr. Romney asked.

Mr. Blinken said that the military had told Mr. Biden that it needed three to four months to withdraw from the country “in a safe and orderly way,” and he added that the Biden administration had incurred some risk of Taliban attacks by staying as long as it did.

“We took some risk in terms of what the Taliban would do or not do after May 1,” he said.

Mr. Blinken also told Mr. Romney that he was open to a new congressional authorization for the use of military force to govern actions to combat a possible resurgence of international terrorist activity in Afghanistan.

Asked by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, about longstanding ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which U.S. officials said Tuesday could rebuild in Afghanistan within one to two years, Mr. Blinken conceded that “the relationship has not been severed, and it’s a very open question as to whether their views and the relationship has changed in any kind of definitive way.”

House Republicans hammered Mr. Blinken on Monday, calling for his resignation and accusing the Biden administration of incompetence and obfuscation. Mr. Blinken conceded little fault, saying the Trump administration had dealt the Biden team an impossible hand by striking the deal in 2020. “We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Mr. Blinken said.

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