Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s long-awaited testimony on Afghanistan before Congress on Monday largely devolved into a partisan food fight over the consequences of the hasty US military drawdown from Afghanistan.
Democrats blamed former president Donald Trump for empowering the Taliban during negotiations for last year's US withdrawal deal, while Republicans attacked President Joe Biden and Mr Blinken over the chaotic final days of the 20-year occupation.
Mr Blinken himself was quick to pin the blame on Mr Trump for the rapid Taliban takeover and the frenetic rush to fly out American citizens and US visa holders during the final withdrawal.
“When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining US troops by May of this year,” said Mr Blinken.
“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.”
The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces collapsed in August in the face of Taliban advances and as the US withdrew its remaining troops.
But Mr Blinken argued that retaining a US troop presence in Afghanistan would have necessitated another troop surge, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks and many of his fellow Democrats eagerly defending that position.
“The choice before President Biden was between full withdrawal and the surging of thousands of Americans to Afghanistan for an undefined time,” Mr Meeks said.
“To argue that there was a third option, a limited troop presence, where the safety of our personnel could be preserved, in my mind is a fantasy.”
For their part, Republicans opted to focus on Mr Biden’s execution of the US withdrawal, with multiple conservative members of the party calling on Mr Blinken to resign.
Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, characterised the withdrawal as “an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions” and “an unconditional surrender to the Taliban".
“This did not have to happen,” said Mr McCaul. “But the president refused to listen to his own generals and the intelligence community, who warned him precisely what would happen when we withdrew.”
US intelligence agencies did assess that the Kabul-based government was at risk of collapsing following the withdrawal — an assessment Mr Biden emphatically denied while answering a question from a reporter following a speech on Afghanistan in July.
But even the grimmest intelligence assessments did not envision the Taliban taking over the entire country so quickly.
“We abandoned Americans behind enemy lines,” said Mr McCaul. “We left behind the interpreters, who you, Mr Secretary, and the president both promised to protect. I can summarise this in one word: betrayal.”
During a friendly round of questioning from a fellow Democrat, Mr Blinken again blamed the Trump administration, using fewer words than in his opening remarks, stating: “We inherited a deadline, but we did not inherit a plan.”
The secretary also played down the Taliban seizure of US military equipment as they swept across Afghanistan, reassuring Congress it does not pose any “strategic value".
“What we see now is much of the equipment that was left behind, including in the hands of the Afghan forces that then fell to the Taliban, much of it — based on what I understand my from my colleagues at the [Defence Department] — is inoperable or soon will become inoperable because it has to be maintained,” Mr Blinken said.
“It’s not of any great strategic value in terms of threatening us or in terms of threatening any of Afghanistan’s neighbours. But it does give the Taliban, as we’ve seen in pictures all of us, uniforms and guns and some other equipment that is now in their hands.”
He also reiterated the criteria the Taliban would need to meet for sustained engagement with the Biden administration’s, noting the new Afghan government “falls very short of the mark that was set by the international community for inclusivity".
“We’ve been very clear that when it comes to engaging with that government or any government to be named on a permanent basis that we’re going to do so on the basis of whether or not it advances our interests,” Mr Blinken said.
“We have ongoing freedom of travel for a government that makes good on the Taliban’s commitments to combat terrorism, not allow Afghanistan to be used as a haven for launching attacks against other countries, to support the basic rights of the Afghan people, including women and minorities, and to allow humanitarian assistance to get to people that’s so desperately needed.”