US Secretary of State Antony Blinken beat back criticism of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan at a contentious congressional hearing as irate lawmakers accused the White House of presiding over a historic disaster.
In five hours of often testy exchanges with lawmakers, Blinken defended President Joe Biden's decision to pull out of Afghanistan and pushed back on accusations that the State Department should have done more to help Americans and at-risk Afghans to be evacuated, blaming the previous administration for lacking a plan.
He repeatedly noted that Republican former President Donald Trump had negotiated the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, and defended the Biden administration's failure to renegotiate the deal, insisting that threats from the hardline Islamist group to resume killing Americans were a security threat.
"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.
"We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan," Blinken said, referring to the Trump administration's agreement to remove all US forces from Afghanistan by May 1.
Members of Congress - Biden's Democrats as well as opposition Republicans - have pledged to investigate since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last month after a rapid advance.
Blinken appeared on Monday before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and is set to testify on Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the first Biden administration official to testify publicly to lawmakers since the Islamist militant group's takeover.
'Unmitigated disaster of epic proportions'
Republican lawmakers have portrayed the pullout 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 added.
Accusing the administration of "betrayal" of Afghan allies, McCaul pointed out that the Taliban's caretaker government included figures such as 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.
'You can't blame the Trump administration'
Republicans noted that last year's agreement with the Taliban, signed in the presence of Blinken's predecessor Mike Pompeo, had set conditions for the withdrawal.
"You can't blame the Trump administration for your failure," said Representative Greg Steube.
"Your administration in the White House was seeing in real time what was happening in Afghanistan and you did absolutely nothing to stop it," he said.
Blinken, however, suggested that the Taliban violated the accord through their "relentless march," even as the Trump administration pressed the former Afghan government to free battle-hardened militants.
Blinken said that the new administration's planning made it possible to draw down the embassy within 48 hours, and secure the airport and start evacuations within 72 hours.
The US 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.
Blinken said there was "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 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."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)