WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) today at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He highlighted the importance of ensuring that U.S. legal permanent residents and partners, including SIV applicants, are safely evacuated from Afghanistan. In response to the Senator’s questioning, Secretary Blinken also confirmed that the Taliban’s relationship with Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network “has not been severed,” and acknowledged that in light of renewed terrorist threats, the Administration may have to reevaluate its stance on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.
Excerpts of his exchange with Secretary Blinken can be found below.
Romney: I was one of those that felt that President Trump was wrong to enter into an agreement to withdraw, and that President Biden was wrong to continue with that agreement to withdraw, and I was appalled by the disastrous withdrawal process itself. For us today, however, I would like to focus more on the moral stain of leaving people behind and understand what we can do to make sure that we're not leaving people behind. I understand that we're down to a small number of Americans—it is hard to know exactly how many are left behind. But in terms of legal permanent residents, is your priority just as high to get them out as it is to get out citizens or is there a different level of commitment for a legal permanent resident's return to the United States relative to a citizen?
Blinken: Senator, our number one priority is American citizens and that has long been the case. In this situation, in Afghanistan and this emergency evacuation in Afghanistan, we did everything that we could, as well, to make sure that legal permanent residents, green card holders, would identify themselves to us. We don't know at any given time how many there are at any given country around the world and to make available resources to help them but our number one priority is any remaining American citizens who wish to leave.
Romney: I didn't recognize there is a second level of priority for a legal permanent resident. If that’s the case, we don't know the exact number, but how many legal permanent residents are we convinced are still in Afghanistan?
Blinken: We don't have an exact number, but it is in the thousands.
Romney: Likewise, in terms of SIV holders or applicants or people who have worked with us that have been our partners through the years, how many of them approximately are still in Afghanistan that want to come to the United States
Blinken: So this is what we're doing an accounting of right now, based on two things. Based on the pipeline of applicants as it existed, before the evacuation, and then looking at those who we were able to evacuate. We don't have those numbers yet because as we moved to evacuate people, a number of them are still at transit points around the world.
Romney: But it would be tens of thousands?
Blinken: So, realistically, two things. One, we talked about this a little bit earlier, but of the applicants in the program, and as I said we inherited about 18,000. About half of those, and this remains more or less the case now, are at a point where it is before the chief of mission has given his or her approval that they are eligible for the program.
Romney: I was looking for a number, and the question I was leading to is that given the fact that the SIV process was too slow and not undertaken during the Trump years in a significant way. You sped it up. That is great. You knew that there was no way you were going to get all of these people out in time…Given the rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces, and you said yesterday that you inherited a date, but in fact you didn't inherit the date. The date was May 1st and you pushed it to August 31st. Why didn't you push it much later so we would have been able to process the SIV applicants, as well as those who have worked with us that had not yet applied? I don't understand why a date was actually not inherited and a date was not selected that would be sufficient to actually remove people from the nation in a way that would be in keeping with our moral commitment to honor our citizens, our green card holders, as well as those who have worked with us over the years?
Blinken: Two things if I may. First, we took some risk in terms of what the Taliban would do or not do after May 1st in pushing beyond May 1st, and we of course worked this very hard.
Romney: Well it is a risk with other people we took. The risk was on people we care for.
Blinken: The military told us in order to do the drawdown from Afghanistan in a safe and orderly way, it needed three to four months. That's why we pushed to move beyond May 1st and get to the end of August, early September. Second, to your point, which is an important and good one, our expectation was that beyond August 31st, 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 about 600 military behind to make sure that we could secure the embassy so that it would continue to operate. We had a robust plan to include bringing out anyone who wished to leave, notably SIVs. That was very much the plan and the expectation. What we did not anticipate was that 11-day collapse of the security forces. That’s what changed everything.