WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged to continue humanitarian aid to the Afghan people through United Nations agencies and nongovernment organizations, a day after the United States said it would provide nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance.
The top U.S. diplomat faced another round of tough questioning Tuesday from lawmakers over last month's withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Blinken said the additional funding will "meet critical health and nutrition needs, address the protection concerns of women, children, and minorities, to help more children - including girls - go back to school."
The U.S. assistance, which would bypass the Taliban and distribute directly to Afghans, means the U.S. has provided nearly $330 million in assistance to the Afghan people this fiscal year.
The U.N. is appealing for $606 million for the remainder of this year for food, health care, shelter and other vital needs to assist 11 million people.
As this year's United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) officially opens Tuesday, whether or not the Taliban leadership will represent Afghanistan at this year's international gathering also remains to be seen.
Senate committee chair Bob Menendez said the idea that the Taliban would abide by its commitments and the U.S. would expect a different result "is somewhat absurd." He asked other countries not to recognize the Taliban bilaterally.
"We know now that the Taliban had no intention of pursuing a political path," said Senator Menendez. "They had no intention of breaking ties with al-Qaida. And it clearly had no intention of allowing women to have their rightful seat at the table and to participate fully in society."
Senator James Risch of Idaho, the Senate panel's lead Republican, said "any country that offered support to the Taliban in the recent offensive should risk a strategic downgrade in their relationship with the United States."
In testimony Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken said he had not spoken personally to members of the Taliban leadership. He added on Tuesday that the legitimacy and support the Taliban seeks from the international community will depend on its conduct.
The chief U.S. diplomat also staunchly defended the Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years, during questioning from some lawmakers.
"Conversely, there is nothing that strategic competitors like China and Russia - or adversaries like Iran and North Korea - would have liked more than for the United States to re-up a 20-year war and remain bogged down in Afghanistan for another decade," the secretary of state said Tuesday.
Taliban insurgents took over the country in mid-August as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled to exile in the United Arab Emirates. The United States evacuated 124,000 people, most of them Afghans, along with about 5,500 Americans, from the Kabul airport in the last days of August, leaving behind about 100 Americans.
FILE - Evacuees wait to board a C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2021. (Credit: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara/Handout)
Some Americans have subsequently been able to leave the country, through overland exits or on a handful of flights, with the Taliban's acquiescence. But Blinken said that as of the end of last week, about 100 Americans still remain.
In Monday's five-hour testimony, the secretary of state said U.S. officials did not foresee the downfall of the Afghan government so quickly, even as the Taliban advanced throughout the country.
"Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained," he said.
Even though the main evacuation has ended, the top U.S. diplomat said, "We're continuing our relentless efforts to help any remaining Americans, as well as Afghans and citizens of allied and partner nations, leave Afghanistan if they choose."
"As we've done throughout our history, Americans are now welcoming families from Afghanistan into our communities and helping them resettle as they start their new lives," Blinken said. "That's something to be proud of, too."
Opposition Republican lawmakers and some Democratic colleagues of Biden have criticized the president's handling of the withdrawal of troops, American citizens and thousands of Afghans who worked for U.S. forces as interpreters and advisers during the war.
The House committee chairman, Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York, said, "Disengaging from Afghanistan was never going to be easy."
But he added, "This war should have ended 19 years ago," after the United States successfully ousted the Taliban from power then and overran training grounds for al-Qaida terrorists who attacked the U.S. in 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people.
Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, the House panel's lead Republican, characterized the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan "an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions" and "a betrayal" and noted that many interim officials now controlling Afghanistan were once terrorists the United States held at its Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.
Republican Congressman Steve Chabot of Ohio said Afghanistan was "once again a haven for terrorists."
"Yes, the majority of Americans wanted to leave Afghanistan, but not like this," Chabot said, adding that the administration's actions were "a disgrace."
South Carolina's Joe Wilson was one of a handful of Republicans who demanded Blinken's resignation. Another Republican member of the panel, Florida's Bryan Mast, even went so far as to accuse Blinken of lying when he alleged the administration had manipulated intelligence, which Blinken strongly denied.
One Democratic congressman, Brad Sherman of California, cast blame on former President Donald Trump for agreeing last year to a May 1, 2021, deadline for ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan without sufficient planning. Sherman asked Blinken whether the previous U.S. administration left details about how to carry out the withdrawal.
"We inherited a deadline," Blinken replied. "We did not inherit a plan" for a withdrawal.
Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois placed the blame for the chaotic withdrawal on both Trump and Biden. "The Trump administration failed in the setup and the Biden administration failed in the execution," Kinzinger said.
The criticism of Biden's withdrawal was especially pronounced after 13 U.S. service members died in a suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport in the waning days of the exit. Islamic State-Khorasan, an Afghan offshoot of the terrorist group operating in the Middle East, claimed responsibility.
National polls of U.S. voters show wide support for Biden's decision to end what he has called a "forever war" in Afghanistan, but not the way the withdrawal unfolded.
(Ken Bredemeier, Richard Green contributed to this story.)