Here Are The Tough Questions Congress Asked About Biden's Afghanistan Withdrawal : The NPR Politics Podcast Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared before both the House and the Senate this week, where he met with bipartisan frustration over the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan after the country's government fell to the Taliban.

This episode: White House correspondent Scott Detrow, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and diplomatic correspondent Michele Keleman.

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Here Are The Tough Questions Congress Asked About Biden's Afghanistan Withdrawal

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JUSTIN: Hi. This is Justin (ph).

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JUSTIN: And I'm traveling with my partner across the country with three cats, a dog and a bird. You're listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, which was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

(Laughter) I can hear the cats. It's 2:03 Eastern on Tuesday, September 14.

JUSTIN: Things may have changed by the time you listen to this. Hopefully, our animals have forgiven us for moving them. All right, here's the show.

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DETROW: Mara, do you think the cats and the birds need breaks, too, or just the dog and the people? I don't know.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: No, I think cats need breaks.

DETROW: I don't know. Cats are so much more durable. Maybe they could just drive across the country in one setting. Who knows? They're mysteries to me.

LIASSON: I don't want to find out.

DETROW: (Laughter) Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: And Secretary of State Antony Blinken maybe would have preferred to drive across the country with three cats, a bird and a dog over the past two days. He was testifying before Congress this morning and yesterday on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I say that because it was a tough crowd. Michele Kelemen covers the State Department and diplomacy for NPR. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

DETROW: So usually these things have a very predictable pattern. Your own party gives you softballs to the point where often I will just tune out of a hearing and following when it's the own party asking questions. And you get tough questions from the other side. This one was really different.

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BOB MENENDEZ: Let me turn to the focus of today's hearing. Mr. Secretary, the execution of the U.S. withdrawal was clearly and fatally flawed. This committee expects to receive a full explanation of the administration's decisions on Afghanistan since coming into office last January. There has to be accountability.

DETROW: And, Michele, that was Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, the chair of the committee, setting a very clear tone right off the bat today.

KELEMEN: Yeah. And, I mean, you know, he did face very tough questions from both sides of the aisle about Afghanistan, about the way the war ended and about the evacuation efforts that he led.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: And the bottom line is this. We were right to end the war. We were right not to send a third generation of Americans to Afghanistan to fight and die there.

DETROW: I mean, there's a lot of things to talk about, but I did want to note early on that that Blinken is actually a longtime staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It's a little bit of a different background than recent secretaries of state. Did you see that background, that vantage point kind of play out in any way in the way he's handled himself the last couple of days?

KELEMEN: Yeah, I think so. You know, he was an adviser to then-Senator Joe Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And both in person in that committee and yesterday, when he spoke virtually to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he made clear that - first of all, that he was going to stay until everyone had the chance to speak and ask questions. He let them speak even when they were, you know, hammering him, calling for his resignation as some Republicans did.

You know, and he kind of took it in stride. He repeatedly thanked them, both his critics and his supporters, for their oversight. He talked about the importance of congressional oversight. And he really tried to diffuse the anger that was leveled against him, tried to avoid a political fight. But I'm not really sure critics came away with many satisfying answers from him.

DETROW: Yeah. And, Mara, I wanted to ask you about this. Blinken has mostly been repeating these lines we have heard so much over the past month from the president, from people like Blinken and Jake Sullivan that, on one hand, the administration inherited this deadline but also this idea that a withdrawal would have looked bad, would have been chaotic no matter what. At this point, do you see these arguments convincing anyone in Washington?

LIASSON: No. I think the best the White House can hope for is that there are no more horrible things coming out of Afghanistan - no terrorist attacks that originate there, no pictures of Taliban brutality against the hundred Americans that are still stuck there, et cetera - and that it just fades from the headlines.

But, you know, one of the things that the White House didn't do before the withdrawal, although it tried to do it afterwards, was to explain what had happened in Afghanistan over the course of the Trump administration, how the Taliban started out controlling a small amount of territory but, by the time Biden was inaugurated, they controlled a very large amount of territory and that the Trump administration had made a peace deal with the Taliban, not the Afghan government. So that was not something people were aware of. And I think it's a little late and seems self-serving to talk about it after you've bungled the withdrawal. But they tried.

DETROW: Michele, did you see any other differences in the way that Democrats and Republicans are asking questions about what happened and talking about what happened? - because, you know, as we all know, oftentimes questions in a hearing are just a platform to give a five-minute speech.

KELEMEN: Right. I mean, the Republicans were definitely harsher on him, but some of these arguments were kind of in bad faith, you know? They were talking about, how could you possibly leave people behind, when in fact the Trump administration didn't do much to help bring Afghan allies into the United States when they had the chance to. And also, you know, this idea that the Trump administration did cut this deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops and that the deal did not include the Afghan government - again, you know, the Republicans say, well, they shouldn't have followed through on these commitments, but the Biden administration says it had to.

There was one other point that seemed to frustrate, you know, everybody across the board, and that was kind of the happy talk coming out of Washington in the months leading up to this. I mean, Blinken was really sounding confident earlier this year that he'd even be able to maintain an embassy in Kabul. That, he said, was part of the plan, and he repeated that again today.

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BLINKEN: Our expectation was that, beyond August 31, beyond the military drawdown, the government, the security forces were going to remain in control of Kabul, of the major cities. Our embassy was fully planned to remain up and running. We were leaving...

DETROW: You know, you've heard Blinken and Biden say over and over, no one could have anticipated this. But there has been reporting that there were some blunt warnings directed at D.C., you know, in diplomatic cables. This summer Blinken was asked about one of those cables. Here's what he said.

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BLINKEN: It did not suggest that the government and security forces were going to collapse prior to our departure. It did express real concerns about the durability of that government enforced after our departure.

DETROW: I guess, Mara, I'm thinking through a lot of other, you know, things across the world that have gone wrong and stuck around. And cables like this, warnings like this seem to have a long life. They seem to frequently be brought up by the opposition to make a point.

LIASSON: Sure, after the fact.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: Sure. You know, the theme of the hearing today from the Republicans was, you should have known. That seemed to be the bottom line - that, you know, you should have anticipated it would be chaotic. You should have made a different plan to protect against the chaos. You know, at one point, Marco Rubio said to Blinken, if no one in the military or the intelligence community anticipated this or thought it would happen, then we've got the wrong people.

But the other thing that really struck me is how bipartisan most of the Afghan policy was until it came to the execution of the withdrawal. Don't forget Donald Trump wanted to end the war. So did Joe Biden. So did a big majority of Americans. And what they're focusing on now is why the withdrawal was so bungled and whose fault it is. As a political reporter, I just wonder, you know, what kind of political damage will this inflict over time since there was so much consensus around the policy itself, if not the execution?

DETROW: All right, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to broaden the scope a little bit. We're going to talk more about what comes next in Afghanistan and how this all affects the Biden administration's foreign policy.

And we're back. Michele, I'm going to brag in your behalf. You are one of the best reporters covering the State Department. You've been doing it for a while. You know the moods over there. And I mention that because, you know, I want to ask you - it was so clear over the past month how angry allies were about this withdrawal. About a month later, going back to when this first began, do you see this affecting or changing any U.S. relationships with NATO allies or other countries going forward at this point?

KELEMEN: Yeah, it's hard to know. I mean, you know, Blinken has prided himself with consulting with allies on the way forward in Afghanistan. He said he consulted with them about the withdrawal. But President Biden set the timeline for this departure, and allies that were part of the NATO mission really didn't have much of a say in that. And they, like the U.S., had to scramble to get their people out of Kabul. That said, you know, Afghanistan is going to remain a challenge for everyone going forward. I don't see them taking necessarily a different approach than the U.S. right now. But, you know, it is going to be hard to rally the world to do things that the U.S. wants to do when things end in such a disastrous kind of way.

DETROW: Yeah. Mara, coming up really soon, the U.N. General Assembly - that's one of those moments where world leaders have high-profile meetings. Later this fall, there's going to be a G-20 in Italy that President Biden is going to be at. There's this big climate summit. You know, this summer, when Biden went to Europe for the first time as president, he really kept framing this as this victory lap, this - America is back, reclaiming its role of world leadership. Has this already squandered that moment? Is that window closed already, do you think?

LIASSON: No. I think it might have tarnished the moment. But don't forget America's standing as the world's only superpower has been slipping for a long time with the rise of China. Do European leaders - and Michele can speak to this better than I can. Do they still prefer having a Biden administration to work with than a Trump administration? Of course. And the fact is you just ticked off all those incredible global challenges that Biden wants to work with our allies on. You know, his predecessor didn't really believe in alliances.

DETROW: Yeah.

LIASSON: So I think that the strength of the Western alliance is often underestimated. And you can't count out a global superpower, a continental democracy like the United States. And as it starts to confront these other problems, I think there are many opportunities for Biden to show that America is back as he moves beyond Afghanistan to confront all these other issues that he wants to do with our allies.

DETROW: Yeah. I want to end on one big idea that's been coming up a lot lately, and let's just listen to the secretary of state make this point.

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BLINKEN: One of the lessons is, while we are very effective at dealing with terrorist threats to our country and eliminating them, which we did very successfully in Afghanistan, the idea of using military force to try to remake a society is something that is beyond our means and beyond our capacity.

DETROW: Mara, you made the point again that that broad nation-building idea - spanned Republican and Democratic administrations - was pretty broadly popular with Congress even when the results were very clearly not panning out. Biden had talked about the fact that the mission in Afghanistan was always limited. But Tom Bowman's been on this podcast, saying that's not true. It ballooned in its scope. Do you think this lesson has really been learned?

LIASSON: I think the lesson has been learned. I don't know if the U.S. will fall into this trap again. But don't forget; what Joe Biden says when he says this wasn't supposed to be the mission - I don't think he says, this never was the mission. I think what he said is, we went in there to respond to 9/11.

DETROW: Right.

LIASSON: And as far as he's concerned, when we got Osama bin Laden, that was mission accomplished. And we shouldn't have stayed there to try to build a democracy in Afghanistan. What I think was so interesting about that comment is the 9/11 era is over. Donald Trump tried to end it, but Joe Biden really did. Now, he did it in a messy, shambolic way. But this is a very big idea - that the U.S. is out of the nation-building business while still standing for democratic values and human rights.

We're going to see how he threads that needle, but there's no doubt that we've - just as you said, we used to have a consensus that it was fine to have our military go into countries and try to make them better or more like us. Now there's a consensus that's just the opposite - that we have to confront China, that the terrorist threat has metastasized and is in different countries. And nation-building is just something we shouldn't be involved in, especially when we have so many pressing problems at home. And that's Joe Biden's big idea, and he's doing it - trying to do it in domestic and foreign policy.

DETROW: Michele, always love having you on the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

DETROW: All right, that's it for today. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

DETROW: We'll talk to you tomorrow. Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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