April 27, 2021

Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at Committee Hearing on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan

“The choice for the Taliban is clear. The only path to international legitimacy is through the democratic process and a peace deal that serves the interests of the Afghan people.”

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening statement at this afternoon’s full Committee hearing on United States policy toward Afghanistan. Today’s hearing follows a classified Committee briefing with representatives from the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community on negotiations and the security situation in Afghanistan in advance of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Testifying before the Committee today was Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, U.S. Department of State.

“The Biden administration has made its decision to draw down from Afghanistan by September 11th of this year, bringing to a close the U.S. military presence in the country. I believe that it is the responsibility of this Committee to examine the implications of this decision for U.S. national security interests in the region and what it means for the people of Afghanistan,” Chairman Menendez said, adding that troop withdrawal does not signal the end of U.S. engagement. “The issues confronting the future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan fall squarely in the jurisdiction of this Committee, and I urge my colleagues to remain focused on Afghanistan, especially after the last U.S. servicemember leaves.”

In addition to questioning how the U.S. may effectively conduct critical counterterrorism operations without a presence in Afghanistan and whether the U.S. has substantive leverage to ensure that a power sharing agreement broadly reflects the will of the people, Chairman Menendez also raised concerns regarding the future and security of Afghan women and girls should the Taliban regain power.

“I don’t believe under any circumstances that the United States Senate will support assistance for Afghanistan, especially under the World Bank’s program which provides budget support, if the Taliban has taken a governing role that ends civil society advances and rolls back women’s rights,” Chairman Menendez continued. “The choice for the Taliban is clear. The only path to international legitimacy is through the democratic process and a peace deal that serves the interests of the Afghan people.”

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s full remarks as delivered below.

“This hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will come to order.

Ambassador Khalilzad, thank you for joining us today. Thank you for your service to our country. We appreciate your being here today.

The Biden administration has made its decision to draw down from Afghanistan by September 11th of this year, bringing to a close the U.S. military presence in the country. I believe that it is the responsibility of this Committee to examine the implications of this decision for U.S. national security interests in the region and what it means for the people of Afghanistan. 

The issues confronting the future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan fall squarely in the jurisdiction of this Committee, and I urge my colleagues to remain focused on Afghanistan, especially after the last U.S. servicemember leaves.

The departure of U.S. troops does not mean the end of U.S. engagement. In fact, it may require even more attention from the State Department, aid workers and U.S. policymakers. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the international community largely moved on. Afghanistan fell into civil war in the years that followed and Al Qaeda and other terror groups gained traction. Addressing these problems was not a priority for the United States, and the result was 9/11. I urge us and the international community not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Fulsome engagement by the United States will be necessary in the years ahead to ensure that our interests are met.

I appreciate the desire to get our troops out of Afghanistan. It is something that I support. But as I have said all along, how we withdraw and what political arrangement is left in our wake matters deeply. The messaging from the Administration since the announcement has been limited. Our troops are leaving at some point before September 11th.  I got that. But what is the plan for the path forward? For me, there are two fundamental questions at play. 

First, can we effectively conduct counterterrorism operations without a presence inside Afghanistan? The power of terror groups has eroded significantly over the past 20 years, but the terrorism landscape is not static. How will we gather the intelligence necessary to keep these groups at bay?

Second, do we have leverage to ensure that a power sharing agreement in Afghanistan broadly reflects the will of all of the Afghan people, including women, youth, and minority groups? Our leverage seems quite limited to me at this point, but we must do everything we can to ensure that the Afghan government is in the best position possible to succeed in these negotiations.

Third, given the uncertain security situation in the country, I think we also need to consider contingency planning. If the Taliban were to come back to power, the reality for Afghanistan’s women and girls I think would be devastating.

In that regard, I want to submit for the record a joint statement from the Afghan Parliament Standing Commission for Human Rights, Civil Society, and Women’s Affairs, and the Parliamentary Caucus on Women’s Role in the Peace Process. The statement urges continued U.S. diplomatic and assistance support post the drawdown of troops. I ask unanimous consent that this important statement from those women be included in the record of this hearing. Without objection, it is so included.

On top of the challenge of the reality for Afghanistan’s women and girls, my question is what is the Administration’s plan to address that?

Many Afghans who worked for the U.S. will face pressure and attacks from the Taliban. Does the Administration have a robust Special Immigrant Visa and refugee asylum plan in place to rapidly process what I think may be thousands of Afghans who may need to leave the country? 

This Committee has played a leading role in conducting oversight with respect to the Afghan peace process. I led a legislative effort to enhance congressional oversight of the peace process, a framework that is now law. The Biden administration has blown through a certification deadline and a reporting deadline established under the law. We don’t write laws and expect that they will be ignored. The February 29th arrangement with the Taliban, however flawed, is still the only arrangement on record with this group. Its implementation should still matter, especially in relation to the Taliban’s counterterrorism commitments. This missing certification and report are necessary for Congress to conduct oversight of this issue, and the Administration needs to deliver them immediately. 

As the Taliban plans its strategy with respect to negotiation with the government, I want to be crystal clear. I don’t believe under any circumstances that the United States Senate will support assistance for Afghanistan, especially under the World Bank’s program which provides budget support, if the Taliban has taken a governing role that ends civil society advances and rolls back women’s rights. I think the Congress of the United States – is rather clear – controls the appropriations of assistance abroad. And I don’t believe we will bend on this point. Moreover, I want to personally advocate for the UN and U.S. to maintain sanctions on the Taliban if women’s rights are trampled under their leadership.

The choice for the Taliban is clear. The only path to international legitimacy is through the democratic process and a peace deal that serves the interests of the Afghan people. My message to the Taliban is this – if you want to play a role in governance and avoid international pariah status, then seriously pursue a peace deal, participate in the democratic process and treat women as equal members of society. This is the only way that the world will see you as legitimate.

In closing, these are very difficult issues and there are no good options. But now that the president has made this decision, we need to come together to focus on the implications and chart a path forward that is in our interests. I want this committee to be deeply engaged in that process, and I expect consistent and substantial consultation by the Administration at every step along the way. With that, I recognize the Ranking Member, Senator Risch.” 

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