September 14, 2021

Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Hearing Examining the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing examining the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The committee heard witness testimony from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. 

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you very much Mr. Chairman.

“Secretary Blinken, good morning and welcome back to our committee. You are doing the right thing testifying here today, and I thank you. However, like the chairman, I am disappointed that some of your colleagues have declined to testify. Particularly Secretary Austin. There’s questions that we really need to have answered, and it’s disheartening that they decline to testify. The debacle in Afghanistan is an interagency failure, and the fact that you are the only one stepping up is disheartening. 

“I agree with the chairman that this withdrawal was a dismal failure. One of the things we need to get to the bottom of is who is responsible for this? Who made the decisions? There are real questions right now as to who is making the decisions. We know for a fact that the president of the United Sates is somewhat disadvantaged here and that someone is calling the shots. He can’t even speak without someone in the White House censoring it or signing off on it.

“As recently as yesterday, in mid-sentence, he was cut off by someone in the White House who makes the decision that the president of the United States is not speaking correctly. I would like to know who this person is. This is a puppeteer act, if you would. We need to know who is in charge and who is making these decisions. And the only way we’re going to get that is when we have people like you come in and answer questions. And when we get to questions, I’m going to have more questions for you in that regard.

“While I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, no American thinks we should have left this way. America cannot end wars simply by walking away. It is naïve to assume our enemies will lay down their arms, leave us alone, and suddenly enshrine human rights if we go home.

“Indeed, there is a fierce battle of ideas and ambitions on the world stage, and the U.S. cannot remain neutral. However, President Biden presented the American people with a false choice in Afghanistan, and the rushed and embarrassing retreat is a stain on America’s credibility that will have implications for years.   

“There were other options that could have protected our national security interests, allowed for a more measured reduction in force, and preserved American credibility.

“I feel this administration is trying to blame the prior administration in contrary to some that have said that the prior administration started this and is responsible– that’s simply not true. The prior administration, when they took steps toward withdrawing from Afghanistan, entered into an agreement that had very, very specific conditions. I was privy to those, so I have personal knowledge of this.

“The February 2020 agreement was contingent upon the Taliban reducing violence, meeting counterterrorism commitments, and engaging in substantive talks with the Afghan government. These were all very important, and most importantly, it was telegraphed to the Taliban that failure to meet their commitments would be met with grave circumstances for them. The Taliban failed to meet any of these commitments, and yet, this administration turned the country over to them.

“President Biden chose to withdraw from Afghanistan without conditions and without prudent planning, and obviously, without, most importantly, telegraphing to the Taliban that they would enforce the conditions that the Taliban had agreed to. It didn’t happen. It was a strategic unforced error. And, he did this against the advice of commanders on the ground.

“One of the most embarrassing things I thought was the strike that was made, and obviously we can’t talk about what we know from an intelligence standpoint, but the kinetic strike that was made after the Taliban entered the country, this de minimis strike, had dire consequences for civilians but not for the Taliban.

“These are facts, and the president’s withdrawal led to a Taliban offensive that toppled a democratically-elected government, slammed the door on any chance for a final peace agreement, reversed the hard-earned rights of Afghan women and minorities, and will result in a safe haven for terrorists, many of whom wish to attack the United States.

“The Biden Administration left Afghanistan in total disarray, and single-handedly created a humanitarian crisis with thousands of refugees and internally displaced Afghans in need of immediate emergency assistance.

“Secretary Blinken, you characterized the evacuation as an “extraordinary effort.” You’ve touted over 124,000 evacuees. However, we abandoned the people we prioritized for departure. 

“The Department’s efforts were plagued by a lack of basic planning, a failure to identify Americans, a failure to energize the SIV process months in advance – ignoring repeated congressional offers to help – and a failure to recognize the Taliban for what it is – a terrorist organization. 

“The numbers are telling. You evacuated 6,040 Americans and say only a couple hundred remain. Your own department told this committee in July that there were 10,000 to 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan. There is a huge difference between 6,000 and 15,000. What happened to those other Americans? 

“The situation with Special Immigrant Visa evacuations is even more disturbing. Not counting the SIVs that arrived before Kabul’s fall, you only evacuated 705 of roughly 20,000 principal SIV applicants. What happened to these people?

“This committee reached out to the Department in April, May, and June to help expedite SIV processing. We asked what additional authorities or resources you needed. For months, we received contradictory responses or no responses at all.

“I will take a minute here to defend the State Department. One of the biggest problems to helping process SIVs was the enormous failure of the Department of Defense to provide the records needed to validate the Afghans who bravely helped our forces. The fact that DOD didn’t keep accurate records is irresponsible and a slap in the face to those who fought alongside us. Obviously, we want to talk to Secretary Austin about this.

“Despite the enormous efforts of our troops and diplomats on the ground, the preventable tragedy that unfolded at the airport in Kabul was a disaster of leadership, and of the administration’s own making. 

“Not only were you unable to ensure that Americans had access to the airport – many were turned away repeatedly after braving Taliban checkpoints – but Americans outside of Kabul had absolutely no chance of evacuation. 

“Green card holders and SIVs should have been prioritized for access to the airport as well, but there was no mechanism to get inside. It was an informal network of Americans that helped get Americans and Afghans around the bureaucratic wall the administration set up at the airport. It should not have come to that. 

“The administration patting itself on the back for this evacuation is like an arsonist taking credit for saving people from the burning building he just set on fire. We know the U.S. military and our diplomats can do so much more than they did, if only their political bosses had gotten out of the way.  

“Now, we have an untold number of Americans, U.S. contractors, and SIVs still in Afghanistan. Despite repeated assurances you will get them out, you have been unable to do so.

“Planes are stranded in northern Afghanistan, our Voice of America employees and female Afghan students on scholarships have been abandoned, and our SIV applicants are in hiding as Taliban death squads hunt them down. You said you would have mechanisms for continued evacuations after 31 August. Where is your plan? I have not seen it. I don’t know that I’ve talked to anyone who has seen it.

“What I have seen is rebuke from our European allies. They begged us for help, but when we were not helping our own citizens, how could we help them? Instead, we had to rely on the generosity of partners like Qatar.

“What we have all heard and read is that the United States is no longer a reliable ally. And frankly, the way this evacuation was conducted, I cannot blame them. For years, despite strains in our relations with Europe or other allies, everyone knew the United States was THE competent and capable partner. They trusted us to be the steady hand on the wheel that could navigate out of any difficult situation.

“That confidence has been shattered. Now, across the globe, allies doubt our resolve, and our competitors like China and Russia see weakness and think they can exploit this situation. The Biden Administration alone is responsible for this debacle and its consequences. 

“Going forward the challenges become even harder to resolve. U.S. actions must rebuild our credibility and re-establish deterrence. The U.S. will need more proactive policies on counterterrorism and security around the globe to discourage our competitors.

“Over the weekend, we marked the 20th anniversary of September 11th, but we have yet to receive details about how the administration’s so called over-the-horizon counterterrorism plan will succeed. The Taliban’s takeover destroyed the basis of that strategy, and despite repeated requests from the Hill, we have yet to receive a single piece of information about the administration’s revised counterterrorism plan.  

“Meanwhile, the Taliban continues its relationship with al Qaeda, and the new interior minister has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head for killing Americans. Any hope that the Taliban will protect American security is a fatally flawed assumption.

“You must redouble efforts with Afghanistan’s neighbors to reach CT agreements and preserve disappearing intelligence networks. Additionally, any country that offered support to the Taliban in their recent offensive should risk a strategic downgrade in their relationship with the United States. We also must understand Pakistan’s role in this entire matter, as the chairman has alluded to. This is a difficult, but important situation.

“I also remain concerned that the administration is rushing to normalize ties with the Taliban government. This must not occur without extensive congressional consultations. Your notification that you intended to restart foreign assistance is deeply, deeply concerning. I suspect there’s other members of this committee that are going to speak to that. That’s going to be a heavy lift for you.

“On the security front, the United States spent over $80 billion on Afghan security forces. Many of these funds bypassed the oversight of the State Department and this committee. We now see the consequences of a Department of Defense that operates security cooperation on its own.

“The Taliban is now one of the best armed terrorist organizations on the planet. We have sent repeated requests for the administration’s plan to address the captured equipment. We have yet to receive any response. As secretary, I would hope you would demand that all DOD assistance programs once again require State Department concurrence.  

“In closing, I’d like to speak directly to our diplomats, our men and women in uniform, our Gold Star families, our humanitarian workers, and our veterans. On behalf of the American people, I’d like to say thank you. The ineptitude by this administration does not tarnish your service. What you did mattered. You served nobly. You stood on the wall and prevented a terrorist attack against the United States for over 20 years at enormous cost to you and your families. America will always be indebted to you.

“Thank you.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.

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