Afghan crisis: Antony Blinken is facing two days of grilling by congressional committees. (File)Washington:
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday insisted that the Biden administration had prepared for worst-case scenarios in Afghanistan as irate lawmakers accused the White House of presiding over a historic disaster.
The famously even-tempered US diplomat is facing two days of grilling by congressional committees, the first opportunity by lawmakers to directly challenge President Joe Biden's administration over his end to the 20-year war that brought a swift victory to the Taliban.
Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Biden administration was "intensely focused" on the safety of Americans and had been "constantly assessing" the staying power of the Western-backed government.
"Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while US forces remained," Blinken said.
"Nonetheless, we planned and exercised a wide range of contingencies," he said.
"The evacuation itself was an extraordinary effort -- under the most difficult conditions imaginable -- by our diplomats, by our military, by our intelligence professionals."
Blinken said that prior planning made it possible to draw down the embassy within 48 hours, and secure the airport and start evacuations within 72 hours.
The United States and its allies ultimately evacuated 124,000 people out of Afghanistan, one of the largest airlifts in history.
The administration says only around 100 US citizens remain and that all had been contacted repeatedly by US diplomats, with some leaving after the withdrawal in line with promises by the Taliban.
Lawmakers of the rival Republican party, seeing a vulnerability for Biden, have portrayed the operation as chaotic and accused the president of abandoning Americans to the fate of the Taliban.
"This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions," said Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the committee.
"I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban," he said.
Former president Donald Trump had agreed in February 2020 to the withdrawal and Blinken's predecessor Mike Pompeo met the Taliban to finalize the deal, which however set conditions for US forces to leave.
"We inherited a deadline; we did not inherit a plan," Blinken said.
But McCaul accused the Biden administration of ignoring US generals and intelligence and accused the United States of a "betrayal" of its Afghan allies.
He pointed out that the Taliban's caretaker government includes figures wanted by the United States including the new interim interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose arrest is sought by Washington on terrorism allegations.
"We are now at the mercy of the Taliban's reign of terror," McCaul said, warning of a "dark veil of sharia law" as the Taliban reinstitute their draconian treatment of women.
Blinken said the Taliban had violated terms of Trump's deal but that Biden faced a choice of carrying out a pullout or sending "substantially more" US troops into harm's way, perpetuating America's longest war.
"There's no evidence that staying longer would have made the Afghan security forces or the Afghan government any more resilient or self-sustaining," Blinken said.
"If 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in support, equipment and training did not suffice, why would another year, another five, another 10?"
Representative Gregory Meeks, the Democrat who led the committee, accused Republicans of having been silent when Trump and Pompeo pursued the same policies on Afghanistan.
"Disentangling ourselves from Afghanistan was never going to be easy," Meeks said.
"I would welcome hearing what exactly a smooth withdrawal from a messy, chaotic 20-year war looks like," he said. "I don't believe one exists."
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