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Blinken Pushes Back Against Harsh GOP Criticism On Afghan Withdrawal

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is facing more criticism today from lawmakers in Congress about the end of the war in Afghanistan. This morning, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, had this assessment.

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BOB MENENDEZ: Mr. Secretary, the execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed.

MARTINEZ: Yesterday, Republican lawmakers in the House Foreign Affairs Committee described the U.S. withdrawal as an unmitigated disaster. NPR's Michele Kelemen is following these hearings. Michele, things got heated yesterday. How did the secretary of state handle it?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, things are likely to get heated again today with some very tough questions about the administration's decision-making. Yesterday he was virtual. Today he's actually in the room at the - on Capitol Hill.

So far, the secretary is really sticking to his talking points. That is that the Biden administration had no real choice. The Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban that set a deadline for the U.S. withdrawal. But even Menendez, as you heard just there, says the question isn't why the U.S. decided to withdraw. The question is how it was done. Did Blinken try to negotiate a better deal with the Taliban? Did the U.S. do enough to get Afghan allies out before Kabul fell?

Blinken says there was no predicting - no one was predicting that the Afghan government and the Afghan armed forces would fall so quickly. He defended the end of the war and the massive airlift operation that brought 124,000 people out of Kabul under very dangerous circumstances.

MARTINEZ: And obviously, still a lot of concern about those who were left behind. What other concerns has he been hearing from lawmakers?

KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, both Republicans and Democrats have been raising concerns with him about those left behind - the Americans, the green card holders, the Afghan allies. A lot of lawmakers have been working with outside groups on rescue missions, and they've been very critical of Blinken's State Department.

There are also questions about how this administration is going to deal with the Taliban. Another big concern is Pakistan. Blinken points out that Pakistan has a multiplicity of interests in Afghanistan. It's cooperated with the U.S. on counterterrorism, but it has also harbored the Taliban. He says that he's going to be reviewing relations with Pakistan now.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.