September 13, 2021
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. And Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member McCaul, thank you for today. I welcome this opportunity to discuss our policy on Afghanistan, including where we are, how (inaudible), and where we’re going in the weeks and months ahead.
For 20 years, Congress has conducted oversight and provided funding for the mission in Afghanistan. I know from my own time as a staff member for then-Senator Biden how invaluable a partner Congress is. As I said when I was nominated, I believe strongly in Congress’s traditional role as a partner in foreign policy making. I’m committed to working with you on the path forward in Afghanistan and to advance the interests of the American people.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, as we honor the nearly 3,000 men, women, and children who lost their lives, we are reminded why we went to Afghanistan in the first place: to bring justice to those who attacked us and to ensure that it would not happen again. We achieved those objectives long ago. Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 – a decade ago. Al-Qaida’s capabilities were degraded significantly, including its ability to plan and conduct external operations. After 20 years, 2,641 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, $2 trillion spent, it was time to end America’s longest war.
When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining forces from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year. As part of that agreement, the previous administration pressed the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners – including some top war commanders. Meanwhile, it reduced our own force presence to 2,500 troops.
In return, the Taliban agreed to stop attacking U.S. and partner forces and to refrain from threatening Afghanistan’s major cities. But the Taliban continued a relentless march on remote outposts, on checkpoints, on villages and districts, as well as the major roads connecting them.
By January 2021, the Taliban was in the strongest military position it had been in since 9/11 – and we had the smallest number of troops on the ground since 2001.
As a result, upon taking office, President Biden immediately faced the choice between ending the war or escalating it. Had he not followed through on his predecessor’s commitment, attacks on our forces and those of our allies would have resumed and the Taliban’s nationwide assault on Afghanistan’s major cities would have commenced. That would have required sending substantially more U.S. forces into Afghanistan to defend ourselves and prevent a Taliban takeover, taking casualties – and with at best the prospect of restoring a stalemate and remaining stuck in Afghanistan, under fire, indefinitely.
There is no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining. If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment, and training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another ten?
Conversely, there is nothing that our strategic competitors like China and Russia – or adversaries like Iran and North Korea – would have liked more than for the United States to re-up a 20-year war and remain bogged down in Afghanistan for another decade.
In advance of the President’s decision, I was in constant contact with our allies and partners to hear their views and factor them into our thinking. When the President announced the withdrawal, NATO immediately and unanimously embraced it. We all set (inaudible) – together – on the drawdown.
Similarly, we were intensely focused on the safety of Americans in Afghanistan. In March, we began urging them to leave the country. In total, between March and August, we sent 19 specific messages with that warning – and with offers to help, including financial assistance to pay for plane tickets.
Despite this effort, at the time the evacuation began, there were still thousands of American citizens in Afghanistan, almost all of whom we evacuated by August 31st. Many were dual citizens living in Afghanistan for years, decades, generations. Deciding whether or not to leave the place they know as home was an incredibly wrenching decision.
In April, we began drawing down our embassy, ordering non-essential personnel to depart.
We also used this time to significantly speed up the processing of the Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who had worked for us and by our side these past 20 years. When we took office, we inherited a program with a 14-step process based on a statutory framework enacted by Congress and involving multiple government agencies – and a backlog of more than 17,000 SIV applicants. There had not been a single interview in the SIV program in Kabul for nine months, going back to March of 2020. The program was basically in a stall.
Within two weeks of taking office, we restarted the SIV interview process in Kabul. On February 4th, one of the first executive orders issued by President Biden directed us to immediately review the SIV program to identify causes of undue delay and to find ways to process SIV applications more quickly.
This spring, I directed significant additional resources to the program, expanding the team in Washington of people processing applications from 10 to 50 and doubling the number of SIV adjudicators at our embassy in Kabul. Even as many embassy personnel returned to the United States under ordered departure, we sent more consular officers to Kabul to process SIV applications.
As a result of these and other steps, including working with Congress, by May we had reduced the average processing time for Special Immigrant Visas by more than a year. Even amid a COVID surge at Embassy Kabul in June, we continued to issue visas. And we went from issuing about 100 Special Immigrant Visas per week in March to more than 1,000 per week in August – when our evacuation and relocation efforts began.
That emergency evacuation was sparked by the collapse of the Afghan security forces and government. Throughout the year, we were constantly assessing their staying power and considering multiple scenarios. Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained. As General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said, “Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.”
Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies. Because of that planning, we were able to draw down our embassy and move our remaining personnel to the airport within 48 hours. And the military – placed on standby by President Biden – was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours.
The evacuation itself was an extraordinary effort – under the most difficult conditions imaginable – by our diplomats, by our military, by our intelligence professionals. They worked around the clock to get American citizens, Afghans who helped us, citizens of our allies and partners, and at-risk Afghans on planes, out of the country, and off to the United States or to transit locations that our diplomats had arranged and negotiated in multiple countries. Our consular team worked 24/7 to reach out to Americans who could still be in the country, making in those couple of weeks 55,000 phone calls, sending 33,000 emails – and they’re still at it. In the midst of this heroic effort, an ISIS-K attack killed 13 service members working the gates at HKIA, wounding 20 others, and killing and wounding scores of Afghans. These American service members gave their lives so that other lives could continue.
In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety.
And on August 31st in Kabul, the military mission in Afghanistan officially ended, and a new diplomatic mission began.
I want to acknowledge the more than two dozen countries that have helped with the relocation effort – some served as transit hubs, some welcoming Afghan evacuees for longer periods of time.
And I want to recognize the extraordinary efforts by Congress as well. To name just a few examples: Congressman Fitzpatrick worked with the State Department to reunite an Afghan family in New Jersey. Congressman Keating worked with our folks on the ground to help a Voice of America reporter and his family get to the airport. Congresswoman Jacobs and Congressman Issa worked across party lines to draw attention to cases of legal permanent residents and Afghans at risk. Please know your emails, your calls made a real difference in getting people out, and we continue to use the lists and information you’re providing in the next phase of the mission.
Let me now just briefly outline what the State Department has done over the next – over the last couple of weeks, and where we’re going in the days and weeks ahead.
First, we moved our diplomatic operations from Kabul to Doha, where our new Afghan affairs team is hard at work. Many of our key partners have joined us there.
Second, we’re continuing our relentless efforts to help any remaining Americans, as well as Afghans and citizens of allied and partner countries, leave Afghanistan if they so choose.
This past Thursday, Qatar Airways charter flight with U.S. citizens and others onboard departed Kabul and landed in Doha. On Friday, a second flight carrying U.S. citizens and others departed Afghanistan. These flights were the result of a coordinated effort by the United States, Qatar, and Turkey to reopen the airport, and intense diplomacy to start the flights.
In addition to those flights, a half-dozen American citizens, about a dozen permanent residents of the United States have also left Afghanistan via an overland route, with our help.
We’re in constant contact with American citizens still in Afghanistan who have told us that they wish to leave. Each has been assigned a case management team to offer specific guidance and instruction. Some declined to be on the first flights on Thursday and Friday for reasons including needing more time to make arrangements, wanting to remain with extended family for now, or medical issues that precluded traveling last week.
We’ll continue to help them and we’ll continue to help any American who still wants to leave, and Afghans to whom we have a special commitment – just as we’ve done in other countries where we’ve evacuated our embassy and hundreds or even thousands of Americans remaining behind – for example, in Libya, in Syria, in Venezuela, in Yemen, in Somalia. There is no deadline to this mission.
Third, we’re focused on counterterrorism.
The Taliban has committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including al-Qaida and ISIS-K. We’ll hold them accountable for that. That does not mean we will rely on them. We will remain vigilant in monitoring threats, we’ll maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region to neutralize those threats if necessary – and we do that in places around the world where we do not have military forces on the ground.
Fourth, we continue our intensive diplomacy with allies and partners.
We initiated a statement joined by more than half the world’s countries – over a hundred countries – as well as a United Nations Security Council resolution setting out the international community’s expectations of a Taliban-led government. We expect the Taliban to ensure freedom of travel; to make good on its commitments on counterterrorism; to uphold the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women, girls, and minorities; to name a broadly representative permanent government; to forswear reprisals. The legitimacy and support the Taliban seeks from the international community will depend on its conduct.
We’ve organized contact groups of key countries to ensure the international community continues to speak with one voice on Afghanistan and to leverage our combined influence.
Last week, I led a ministerial meeting of 22 countries, NATO, the EU, the United Nations, to continue to align our efforts.
And fifth, we’ll continue to support humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. Consistent with sanctions, this aid will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations like NGOs and UN agencies.
Just today, we announced that the United States is providing nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan to meet critical health and nutrition needs; address the protection concerns of women, children, and minorities; to help more children – including girls – go back to school. This additional funding means the United States has provided nearly $330 million in assistance to the Afghan people this fiscal year.
In Doha and Ramstein, I toured the facilities where Afghans that we evacuated are being processed before moving on to their next destinations. Here at home, I spent some time at the Dulles Expo Center, where more than 45,000 Afghans have been processed after arriving in the United States. It’s remarkable – remarkable to see what our diplomats, our military, and employees from other civilian agencies across the U.S. Government have been able to achieve in a very short time.
They’ve met an enormous human need. They’ve coordinated food, water, sanitation for thousands, tens of thousands of people. They’re arranging medical care, including the delivery of babies. They’re reuniting families who were separated and caring for unaccompanied minors. It’s an extraordinary interagency effort – and a powerful testament to the skill, the compassion, and the dedication of our people.
We should all be proud of what they’re doing. And as we’ve done throughout our history, Americans are now welcoming families from Afghanistan into our communities and helping them resettle as they start their new lives. That’s something to be proud of as well.
Thanks very much for listening. And with that, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member McCaul, I look forward to your questions. Thank you.