Afghan crisis puts Blinken in a rare position: The hot seat

On Monday and Tuesday, the US chief diplomat will be on Capitol Hill to face irritated lawmakers from both parties, many eager to blame someone for the still-unfolding crisis. Like Blinken, a first cabinet official to handle the Crucible, could dramatically affect his standing in Washington.

Tom Shannon, a former senior US diplomat, attributed the situation to “Washington’s tough, militant policies”. “Tony is pretty tough for this town. He’ll do just fine, ”Shannon said.

Others were less charitable.

“He’s not doing well,” said Kelley Currie, who served as ambassador for global women’s issues during the Trump administration and helped evacuate vulnerable Afghans. “He is overwhelmed, should never have been in this job and should probably step down and take everyone involved in this debacle with him.”

The rapid turn of events in Afghanistan last month surprised Blinken like almost everyone else: He visited his elderly father in the Hamptons, just hours before the Afghan capital Kabul fell victim to the militants. Even though Blinken wasn’t in Washington, his schedule was still full of work-related calls and meetings about the situation on the ground, a senior State Department official said.

Much of the frustration in the days since then came from his own building.

During a City Hall Blinken held earlier this month with State Department officials, attendees got emotional and complained of a tangled, confusing response to the chaos in a country where many of them had served. A platform that allowed anonymous comments during the event was filled with harsh statements.

“When will the department finally take the crisis response seriously …? That was worse than the blind leading the blind, ”wrote one person, according to pictures received by POLITICO.

Another comment asked why there was no better planning, especially for worst-case scenarios as opposed to the most likely scenarios: “There is a lot of trouble. So much suffering didn’t have to occur. ”

Many at State don’t blinken Blinken alone for the longstanding problems, especially when it comes to the department’s crisis response infrastructure. But he’s still disappointed because he’s a seasoned man – a man who has held top positions everywhere, from the Senate Committee to the National Security Council.

“There was a kind of expectation that he would make the process run better,” said a State Department official, who, like many others mentioned in this story, requested anonymity in order to speak openly.

Blinken has kept a cool head in the midst of the vortex and has focused more on the task at hand in Afghanistan than on the political drama in Washington, State Department officials said.

Its immediate primary focus is on evacuating remaining US citizens, as well as legal US permanent residents, Afghan translators, and other Afghans eligible for US visas. Overall, it is assumed that the number of those who remained behind who are theoretically eligible for an evacuation runs into the thousands.

Although he seems balanced, he is mainly committed to refugees, one reason he’s long been a champion partly because of his own family historyState Department officials said.

The secretary said publicly he takes responsibility for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ response and, according to the senior official, said the same to his senior staff in private. He has also publicly promised to review how his department handled the situation.

“He’s been in this city long enough to know that if such a momentous decision is made, there will of course be some criticism. And a lot of it will be unfair, ”said the senior foreign ministerial official. “The way to face this is to be armed with the facts.”

An adviser to Blinken declined to say whether at any point the secretary disagreed with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and whether he raised concerns and said these talks were private. When asked whether Blinken had at any point considered resigning because of the crisis, the consultant said “no”.

Despite being on the defensive, Blinken intends to use this week’s hearings to explain what circumstances he and his department faced in the run-up to the collapse of the Afghan state and why they made the decisions.

This statement is likely to include all too rosy assessments by the intelligence services of how long the Afghan army and government could remain in power after the US troops have withdrawn. Blinken is also likely to point to the backward and dysfunctional special visa for Afghan interpreters and translators that the Biden government inherited in January.

The Blinken adviser stressed that the secretary saw Congress as a partner in foreign policy and would likely outline possible future steps that would include consultation with lawmakers.

Critics argue that many of the challenges during the evacuation were due to differences between the Pentagon and the State Department over the Afghan government’s chances of survival.

Military leaders warned the country could collapse within weeks to months of the withdrawal, although few, if anyone, had correctly predicted the fall would come in days. The State Department thought it had more time.

State officials also feared that evacuating too quickly and reducing the US diplomatic presence too quickly could publicly undermine the Afghan government and cause it to fall apart even more quickly. The department waited until mid-July to set up a task force to expedite the evacuation of Afghan translators and interpreters applying for SIV approval.

“My working hypothesis was that most of the dysfunctions we saw were due to – or lack of – the State Department leadership, rather than the Pentagon. But I don’t think the Pentagon will let the Congressional investigation through, ”said Wisconsin GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher, a former Navy intelligence officer and a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

A senior defense official told POLITICO that there appeared to be “a clear discrepancy between the military’s assessment and what the state believed”.

If this is investigated, I believe we will find that the state has overestimated its ability to maintain a diplomatic presence and underestimated the demand that a collapse of the government would bring [SIV applicants] want to flee, ”said the defense attorney.

The Blinken advisor dismissed such criticism, saying Blinken worked closely with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley throughout the process.

Flashing has acknowledged an error in the SIV programthat has been plagued by bureaucracy and delays for years. When he took office almost eight months ago, so Blinken, the SIV program had a backlog of more than 17,000 applicants and was “basically in a dead end”. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated processing delays but also had resistance to immigration within President Donald Trump’s previous administration.

“We have now learned from hard experience that the SIV process was not designed for an evacuation emergency,” said Blinken in public statements earlier this month.

Blinken said the Biden government immediately tried to speed up the program, allocate more resources, and resume the SIV interview process in Kabul within weeks. By May, the State Department had cut the average processing time for SIVs by more than a year, rising from around 100 visas per week in March to more than 1,000 per week in August, Blinken said.

The senior foreign ministry official noted separately that the embassy staff in Kabul had been reduced to a minimum as early as July and the majority of the local staff were either security officers or people handling visa applications. Further cuts would have meant cutting either the security quota or the consular quota, the official said.

Blinkens performance elicited eye rolls every now and then, not least because it can come across as overly calm and diplomatic.

For example, when the Taliban unveiled an all-male transitional government with seasoned fighters and people on US terrorist lists, Blinken noted, “That includes people with very challenging track records.”

But his supporters say that’s just Blinken’s style and a clear contrast to his predecessor from the Donald Trump years, Mike Pompeo, who was more combative.

“I’ve never seen him angry,” a former senior US official said of Blinken. “He doesn’t think anger is a particularly useful feeling to get things done.”

Also, Blinken, like others in the Biden administration, is aware that the United States will have to deal with the Taliban for the time being as it tries to evacuate Americans and others who are still in Afghanistan. Verbal whipping the group is unlikely to help this process.

The former senior US official, who is generally a Blinken fan, nonetheless questioned a lack of diplomatic coordination with US allies who also had troops in Afghanistan.

Some European countries felt taken by surprise by President Joe Biden’s announcement in April the withdrawal of troops, the former official stated. That was a strategic mistake by Blinken, said the former official.

However, his defenders insisted that Blinken is the very type of strategic thinker, and they dismissed claims that Allied countries were not given enough guidance or preparation, citing calls, visits, and other contacts from Blinken and other U.S. Officials.

“He’s someone who’s always looking around the corner, thinking about the next step, taking a step back,” said the senior foreign ministry official.

Blinken’s defenders find that he is acting at a disadvantage because so many top positions that report to him remain vacant. This is mainly due to the efforts of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to block Foreign Ministry candidates for speaking out against the Biden government’s handling of a German-Russian energy pipeline.

The key vacancies include the assistant secretaries overseeing the offices dealing with Afghanistan, human rights and refugees.

Blinken, who grew up in a wealthy family that includes ambassadors and famous lawyers, has sent several messages to State Department officials in the past few weeks praising their tireless actions.

He also traveled to Europe and the Middle East, meeting with Afghans who fled and US diplomats who are currently working around the clock.

His efforts are recognized and valued. State Department officials speaking to POLITICO said he still had the building’s goodwill even though his reputation had suffered a blow.

“It is possible to recover,” said a state official, “but a very steep climb.”

Andrew Desiderio and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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