On the day when the United Nations warned Afghans were facing starvation in a country on the verge of total collapse, Washington's political rivals were fixated on wringing political gain from the chaotic end to the longest US war.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken became the first senior Biden administration official to testify to Congress about the hurried, bloody and humiliating US final exit from Kabul last month after two decades of conflict.
As an exercise in finding out what went wrong in the war and the withdrawal, the often incoherent and politically charged hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee provided few answers. But it did offer clear pointers to how the Biden administration and its Republican opponents will square off over the war's messy ending in the coming congressional election year.
And it showed -- as was the case during the US withdrawal and years of battle -- that the perception of events in Afghanistan as seen from Washington often differs from the pitiful reality in a failed state again controlled by fundamentalist rulers.
The hearing went ahead after the grave state of Afghanistan following the US withdrawal and failed nation building effort came into sharper focus in a warning from UN Secretary General António Guterres. The secretary general said that Afghans were facing the "collapse of an entire country" and, as a severe drought bites, were already experiencing "one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world."
"Today, one in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. The poverty rate is spiraling, and basic public services are close to collapse," Guterres warned at a UN aid conference in Geneva, a grim a reminder that as US leaders engage in political point scoring over a lost US conflict, Afghans remain cursed by the dire consequences of the US departure and decades of war before that.
The hearing, set to be followed by Blinken's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, represented a test for the secretary of state and his capacity to blunt political criticism of President Joe Biden over the US pullout.
The deaths of 13 US service personnel in a suicide bombing outside Kabul's airport, along with dozens of Afghans, crystalized the spectacle of a retreat from the country. The chaotic withdrawal saw Biden's assurances of a safe and stable departure repeatedly confounded, helping to damage the President's political standing.
Republicans sought to build on that perception of a crisis of competence at the hearing with searing attacks on the administration, as the GOP forges a narrative of a weak White House that surrenders to terrorists -- following the lead of ex-President Donald Trump as he tries to revive his own political fortunes.
Blinken slams Trump's deal with the Taliban
While there was some tepid Democratic criticism of the administration's record, the hearing was mostly an example of how the hyper partisanship of current politics -- whichever party is in control -- is hardly conducive to Congress' role of providing accountability and oversight of the White House.
In many ways, Blinken's performance mirrored that of Biden himself after the fall of Kabul necessitated an emergency evacuation that rescued more than 120,000 US citizens and Afghans who helped US forces over the 20-year war. He apportioned plenty of blame. But he made few admissions that the administration itself erred.
In fact, the secretary of state left the impression that the evacuation could hardly have gone better, terming it "extraordinary." Blinken also rebuked the Trump administration for its deal with the Taliban last year, which he said set the US on an inexorable path to a withdrawal.
"We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan," Blinken said, in a reference to Trump's agreement last year to get all troops out by May 1, a timeline that Biden extended by four months.
Blinken's statements were anchored in fact. But they also ignored the fact that Biden has reversed many other Trump foreign policies and had been in office for seven months when the Afghan evacuation took place.
The secretary of state argued that there had been no indication that the Afghan army, under Taliban assault, would collapse in as little as 11 days. And he said that there was no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces "any more resilient or self-sustaining." Regarding the slow pace of the operation to process Afghan special immigrant visas, he blamed the Trump administration and its hardline immigration policy.
After entering the hearing under heavy political pressure, it appeared Blinken mostly weathered the storm. His experience in a past life as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer prepared him well as he flattered his questioners, even Republicans who denounced the administration's conduct.
Blinken also argued against the idea advanced by some military strategists that the US could have stayed in Afghanistan for longer with a small garrison, saying that such a move would have led to clashes with the Taliban and American troops being killed. Most controversially, Blinken claimed that had Biden extended the mission, he would have effectively "reupped the war in Afghanistan for another five, 10 or 20 years."
The comment was the latest sign of a tactical assumption by the Biden administration that while the American people may not have been impressed by the chaotic end to 20 years of war, there was vast public support for bringing home all troops out of harm's way two decades after the September 11 attacks.
'An unmitigated disaster'
Republicans largely tried to create an impression that everything that went wrong in the evacuation was down to Biden's management, rather than the corrosive impact of a 20-year war that had been going poorly for years.
They also ignored the fact that Trump and ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had set the stage for the US exit with a deal with the Taliban that freed 5,000 Taliban prisoners and in many ways locked in Biden -- a fact that the ex-President has publicly boasted about.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, accused the Biden team of presiding over "an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions." He said later on "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" that some of the US' Afghan allies who were left behind by the evacuation had already been executed by the Taliban.
"The American people don't like to lose, especially not to the terrorists. But this is exactly what has happened," said McCaul, coining a line likely to be heard often during the midterm election campaign next year.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, sought to head off many of the Republican attacks in his opening statement, even while expressing concern for those Americans and Afghan allies of the US armed forces who wanted to leave.
"Are there things the administration could have done differently?" Meeks asked. "Absolutely, yes as always," he said, but added that he had not heard any "clean withdrawal option" that would work in Afghanistan.
At times, the hearing degenerated into the kind of political sideshow that often overtakes such testimony by senior officials, as members of Congress played to the camera.
GOP Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry slammed Blinken for not appearing in person in the hearing room. "Oh, couldn't be bothered to come down here and see Congress, alright, that's great," Perry said.
Meeks said that Blinken -- who testified over a video link from the State Department -- was not obliged to appear in person since the hearing was a hybrid event.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia meanwhile blasted Republican attacks on Blinken as a "salad mix of selective" facts.
Blinken can expect another rough ride when he appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. The Democratic chairman of the panel, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, told CNN's Jake Tapper on Monday that his hearing would be one of a number that would get to the "truth."
"I believe that the exit was poorly executed," Menendez said, though qualified his remark by saying the Biden team was handed a "bad situation" by Trump.
Biden is also set to face an investigation from within his own party over one tragic aspect of the US withdrawal -- an airstrike in Kabul last month -- by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
The strike killed 10 civilian members of the same family including seven children, a relative of the dead told CNN. At the time, US Central Command said that it carried out what it called a defensive airstrike on a car, targeting a suspected ISIS-K suicide bomber who posed an "imminent" threat to the airport.
A House Intelligence Committee official told CNN's Jeremy Herb Monday that Schiff plans to examine the airstrike following investigations by the Washington Post and the New York Times that raised doubt about claims the vehicle contained explosives.
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