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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken beat back criticism of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on Monday, at a contentious congressional hearing where at least one Republican called on him to resign.
In testy exchanges with lawmakers, Blinken defended President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out and pushed back on accusations that the State Department might have done more to help Americans and at-risk Afghans to be evacuated, blaming the previous administration for lacking a plan.
He repeatedly noted that Republican former President Donald Trump had negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, and said President Joe Biden’s administration did not consider renegotiating because of threats from the group to resume killing Americans.
“There’s no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining,” Blinken said.
“We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan,” Blinken said, referring to the Trump administration’s agreement to remove all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1.
Members of Congress – Biden’s fellow Democrats as well as opposition Republicans — have planned hearings since the Taliban seized control of the country last month after a rapid advance.
Blinken appeared on Monday before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and was to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first Biden administration official to testify publicly to lawmakers since the Islamist militant group’s takeover.
Fireworks had been expected, given the amount of finger-pointing over how the two-decade-long U.S. presence in the country ended. Republicans offered harsh criticism.
“The American people don’t like to lose, especially not to the terrorists. But this is exactly what has happened,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the panel’s top Republican.
McCaul asked why assets like the Bagram Air Base were not maintained and why the administration had not reached surveillance and counterterrorism agreements with neighboring countries.
“This is a national security threat as China moves in. For all I know they may take over Bagram,” McCaul said.
Blinken said the United States was actively working to identify threats.
Members of Congress asked a long list of questions about the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Biden administration’s scramble to evacuate 124,000 people, including Americans and at-risk Afghans.
Democrats expressed concern about Americans and at-risk Afghans still in Afghanistan who wish to leave, but backed the withdrawal as necessary, if painful, after two decades.
“I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy chaotic 20-year war looks like,” said Representative Gregory Meeks, the committee’s chairman.
Blinken praised the evacuation as “a heroic effort” by diplomats, the military and intelligence officers. He pledged that the United States will continue to support humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, but through non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies, not the Taliban.
Afghanistan is at risk of running out of food, as it faces a terrible drought in addition to political upheaval. “We need to do everything we can to make sure the people of Afghanistan don’t suffer any more than is already the case,” Blinken said.
He said he would name a senior official at the State Department to focus solely on the effort to support women, girls and minorities in Afghanistan.
He said that, as of the end of last week, about 100 Americans were still in Afghanistan, who wanted to leave.
Republicans grilled Blinken about what happened at Kabul’s airport during the evacuation ahead of the administration’s Aug. 31 deadline to leave. Thirteen U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing amid the chaos.
Democrats had said they wanted the hearing to address not just the seven months Biden was president before Kabul was captured by the Taliban but all 20 years of U.S. involvement in the country – under presidents from both parties.
A U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks masterminded by al Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan.