September 22, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Jake Tapper of State of the Union on CNN

25 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington D.C.

QUESTION:  Joining us now to discuss, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Secretary Blinken, thanks so much for joining us.  Take a listen to what President Biden was saying less than six weeks ago: 

QUESTION:  “Your own Intelligence Community has assessed that the Afghan Government will likely collapse.”

PRESIDENT BIDEN:  “That is not true.  They do not – they didn’t – did not reach that conclusion.  There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy… The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Secretary Blinken, as you know, the Taliban has closed in on Kabul.  We’re evacuating the embassy, burning documents.  Biden increased troops, deploying to the country twice in three days just to rescue those there.  This is not just about the overall idea of leaving Afghanistan.  This is about leaving hastily and ineptly.  Secretary Blinken, how did President Biden get this so wrong?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, first, let’s put this in context.  And as we’ve discussed before, we were in Afghanistan for one overriding purpose: to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11.  That’s why we went there 20 years ago.  And over those 20 years, we brought bin Ladin to justice, we vastly diminished the threat posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan to the United States to the point where it’s not capable of conducting such an attack again from Afghanistan.  We’re going to keep in place in the region the capacity to see any re-emergence of a terrorist threat and to be able to deal with it.  And on the terms that we went into Afghanistan in the first place, we’ve succeeded in achieving our objectives. 

When the President came to office, he had a decision to make.  The previous administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that said that our forces, our remaining forces, only about 2,500 would be out of the country on May 1st.  And the idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there I think is simply wrong.  The fact of the matter is, had the President decided to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1st, attacks would have resumed on our forces.  The Taliban had not been attacking our forces or NATO during the period from which the agreement was reached to May 1st. 

The offensive you’re seeing across the country now to take these provincial capitals would have commenced, and we would have been back at war with the Taliban, and I’d probably be on this program today explaining why we were sending tens of thousands of American forces back into Afghanistan and back to war, something the American people simply don’t support.

QUESTION:  Yeah.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That is the – that is the reality.  That’s the context that we’re dealing with.

QUESTION:  You cited the May 1st deadline negotiated by the Trump administration.  You did blow back – blow through that deadline.  We did have troops there after May 1st.  But I think, again, the issue here is not just the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  It’s how they were withdrawn – the rapidity, the hastiness.  President Obama’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, he called the way this was done, quote, “a handover to the Taliban,” and, quote, “We have hung them out to dry,” about the Afghan people.  Crocker continued, quote, “I’m left with some grave questions in my mind about Biden’s ability to lead our nation as commander-in-chief to have read this so wrong or, even worse, to have understood what was likely to happen and not care,” unquote. 

Does President Biden not bear the blame for this disastrous exist from Afghanistan?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, we’ve seen two things.  First, we’ve known all along, we’ve said all along, including the President, that the Taliban was at its greatest position of strength at any time since 2001, when it was last in charge of the country.  That is the Taliban that we inherited.  And so we saw that they were very much capable of going on the offensive and beginning to take back the country.

But at the same time, we had invested, over four administrations, billions of dollars, along with the international community, in the Afghan Security and Defense Forces, building a modern military with the most sophisticated equipment, 300,000 forces strong, with an air force that the Taliban didn’t have.  And the fact of the matter is, we’ve seen that that force has been unable to defend the country, and that has happened more quickly than we anticipated.

QUESTION:  Well, the idea of them – the force not being able to defend, I mean, what a lot of experts believe, and you can disagree with this if you want, is that having U.S. air support, having U.S. intelligence here to help the Afghan troops on the ground, is what stiffens their spine, enables them to do what they do.  And that’s part of the larger issue about whether or not the U.S. should have left behind any sort of residual force.

But beyond that is, again, the question of how poorly this was done.  The idea that President Biden ordered 2,500 service members out and now is sending up to 5,000 service members back in, does that not on its face show that the exit was ineptly planned?  And again, look, you told me a few months ago on this program that you thought it was entirely likely that the Taliban would be taking over the country.  But President Biden just last month, quote, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”  It was wrong.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, what we’ve done, what the President has done, is make sure that we were able to adjust to anything happening on the ground.  And the fact that we – that he sent additional forces in, we had those forces at the ready, fully prepared to go in the event that this moved in a direction where we needed forces in place to ensure that our personnel was safe and secure, to ensure also that we could do everything possible to bring out of Afghanistan those Afghans most at risk.  That’s exactly what we’re doing.

QUESTION:  Why didn’t you have the troops in there and then let that happen first before taking them out?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Again, I come back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago, which is that that status quo was not sustainable.  Like it or not, there was an agreement that the forces would come out on May 1st.  Had they not, had we not begun that process, which is what the President did and the Taliban saw, then we would have been back at war with the Taliban.  And we would have been back at war with tens of thousands of troops having to go in because the 2,500 troops we had there and the air power would not have sufficed to deal with the situation, especially as we see, alas, the hollowness of the Afghan Security Forces.

And by the way, from the perspective of our strategic competitors around the world, there’s nothing they would like more than to see us in Afghanistan for another 5, 10, 20 years.  It’s simply not in the national interest.

QUESTION:  You keep changing the subject to whether or not we should be there forever, and I’m not talking about that.  I’m talking about whether or not this exit was done properly, taking out all the service members before those Americans and those Afghan translators could get out.  That’s what I’m talking about.  And then you have to send people back in.  That shows – that’s the definition of, oh, we shouldn’t have taken those troops out because now we have to send twice as many back in.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look.  I think it shows that we were prepared.  The President was prepared, for every contingency as this moved forward.  We had those forces on hand and they were able to deploy very quickly, again, to make sure that we could move out safely and securely as the situation on the ground changed. 

QUESTION:  Let me just ask you:  Is the Biden administration right now offering the Taliban anything in exchange for a promise of safe passage for Americans and others out of Afghanistan?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No, we haven’t asked the Taliban for anything.  We’ve told the Taliban that if they interfere with our personnel, with our operations, as we’re proceeding with this drawdown, there will be a swift and decisive response.  That’s what we’ve told them.

QUESTION:  How many Americans are left in Kabul, do you think, and how long will it take to get them out?  Can you promise that all Americans will get out safely?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That is job number one.  That is our number one mission.  And that’s what we’re working on with a whole-of-government effort, led by the State Department right now.  And so we have our personnel at the embassy.  We have some American citizens who are still – mostly bi-nationals who are left in Afghanistan.  If they want to leave, we’re – we have in place the means to do that. 

And beyond that, Jake, we have men and women who have worked for us, worked for the military, worked for the embassy over the years as interpreters and translators.  We are doubling down on efforts to get them out if they want to leave, and also other Afghans at risk who may not qualify for these so-called special immigrant visas that the folks who worked directly for us quality for, to do everything we possibly can for as long as we can to get them out, if that’s what they want.

QUESTION:  Why now?  Why are just doing that now?  On this show we’ve been talking for months about the need to evacuate these thousands of Afghan translators and others who helped U.S. service members during the war.  President Biden just named an ambassador just a few days ago to run an interagency task force on this.  Thousands of these folks are now trapped in their homes; they cannot even try to get to Kabul.  It’s not safe.  I know two lieutenants, veterans, who are, like, setting up a GoFundMe to save their translators from COP Keating.  Why did President Biden wait so long to set up the interagency task force?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  In fact, that task force has been going for many, many weeks now, and Ambassador Jacobson, who is leading it, has actually been in place for many, many weeks.  And we have been working this from day one.  We had to put in place an entire system to deal with this.  Unfortunately, none of that work was done when we came in, and we had to put that in place.  As you know, the refugee admissions process and support system was decimated in recent years.  We’ve been working to rebuild that, and it’s been – it’s taken time to get all of that in place.  But we have a whole-of-government effort going on right now to do everything we possibly can to get people out of harm’s way if that’s what they want to do.

QUESTION:  People I know who are active in this, veterans say that they only heard from the State Department within the last few days, asking for their lists of people.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The embassy has had lists of people for a long time.  We are doubling down, making sure that we know to the best of our ability everyone who may be at high risk, and trying to find ways to account for them.  So all of this is consistent with the effort to make sure we have the best possible information and we’re doing everything we can to get people out of harm’s way.

QUESTION:  China is reportedly prepared to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government.  Would the Biden administration ever consider doing that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  A future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people and that doesn’t harbor terrorists is a government we can work with and recognize.  Conversely, a government that doesn’t do that – that doesn’t uphold the basic rights of its people, including women and girls; that harbors terrorist groups that have designs on the United States or allies and partners – certainly, that’s not going to happen. 

And beyond that, to the extent that the Taliban has a self-interest if it’s leading the government in Afghanistan of assistance from the international community, support from the international community, none of that will be forthcoming.  Sanctions won’t be lifted, their ability to travel won’t happen if they’re not sustaining the basic rights of the Afghan people and if they revert to supporting or harboring terrorists who might strike us.

QUESTION:  Well, I mean that sounds like a no, you would never recognize them, because based on what we know about the Taliban, they don’t respect the rights of women and girls.  There are reports from Afghanistan right now that they are forcing young girls into sexual slavery.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, this is heart-wrenching stuff.  I’ve met myself, as I know you have, with remarkable women who’ve been leaders in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, who have advanced the rights of women and girls with our very, very strong support.  I met with a number of them just a few months ago the last time I was in Kabul this spring.  I think it’s incumbent on the international community, including the United States, to do everything we can using every tool that we have – economic, diplomatic, political – to work to sustain their rights and at the same time, as I said, to make sure that if the Taliban does not do that if it’s in charge, that it clearly faces the penalties for not upholding those rights.  And we will do everything we can to make sure that’s the case.

QUESTION:  Everything except for use the U.S. military.

President Biden is intent on avoiding a Saigon moment.  That’s a reference, of course, to the hasty and humiliating U.S. evacuation from Vietnam.  But with this troop surge to airlift Americans out of Afghanistan, aren’t we already in the midst of a Saigon moment?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No, we’re not.  Remember, this is not Saigon.  We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11.  And we have succeeded in that mission.  The objective that we set, bringing those who attacked us to justice, making sure that they couldn’t attack us again from Afghanistan – we’ve succeeded in that mission, and in fact, we succeeded a while ago.

And at the same time, remaining in Afghanistan for another one, five, ten years is not in the national interest.  The British were there for a long time in the 19th century.  The Russians were there for a long time in the 20th century.  We’ve now been there twice as long as the Russians, and how that’s in our national interest I don’t see.  And as I mentioned a moment ago, I think most of our strategic competitors around the world would like nothing better than for us to remain in Afghanistan for another year, five years, ten years and have those resources dedicated to being in the midst of a civil war.  It’s simply not in our interest.

QUESTION:  You don’t think that Afghanistan now is going to become a hotbed of terrorism?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Jake, we have tremendously more capacity than we had before 9/11 when it comes to counterterrorism.  In places around the world where we don’t have forces on the ground – in Yemen, in parts of Africa, in parts of Syria – we are able to deal with any potential terrorist threat to our country.  And we’re doing that every single day.  We’re going to retain in the region the over-the-horizon capacity, as we call it, to see and deal with any re-emergence of a terrorist threat.

And look, I can’t tell you what the Taliban is going to do.  But again, in their self-interest, allowing a repeat of what happened before 9/11, which is a terrorist group to re-emerge in Afghanistan that has designs on the United States – well, they know what happened last time, so I don’t think it’s in their self-interest to allow that to happen again.

QUESTION:  All right.  Secretary Antony Blinken, thanks so much in taking our questions today.  We appreciate it.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks for having me, Jake.

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