New Delhi: The US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken Monday said that Washington is now “deeply engaged” with India for “over-the-horizon” capabilities to keep a check on Afghanistan and the new Taliban regime there.
Testifying on the first day of the Congressional hearing — Afghanistan 2001-2021: Evaluating the Withdrawal and US Policies — Blinken said the US is also engaged with India on the growing influence of Pakistan in the war-torn country.
The Taliban knows the consequences of harbouring terrorists, especially those from al Qaeda, he added.
“The Taliban should remember what happened last time … It (Taliban) has made commitments it will not let that happen, but of course, we are not relying on those commitments,” he told the bipartisan Congressional committee.
He added that the US will deploy “over the horizon capacities to detect the re-emergence” of al Qaeda from Afghanistan and other terrorist groups, for which it will align more with its allies, especially India.
The statements come days before US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hold their first bilateral meeting, expected to take place on 24-25 September.
The US and India will also meet along with Japan and Australia for an in-person Quad summit in Washington DC.
On being asked whether India is a priority, given that it neighbours Afghanistan while nations such as Qatar and Kuwait are farther away, Blinken said, “We are deeply engaged with India across the board. With regard to any specifics about over-the-horizon capabilities and plans that we put in place and will continue to put in place, I’d rather take it up in a different setting.”
Blinken fielded the questions in a five hour-long testimony to irate lawmakers, including some who repeatedly demanded he resign. The hearing also witnessed Republican and Democrat senators exchange sharp jibes over the issue.
He is the first Biden administration official to testify publicly since the Taliban’s takeover.
‘Had no warning of Ghani fleeing’
The Secretary of State told the committee that Washington had “no advance warning” about former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country as the situation grew tense with the Taliban marching towards Kabul on 15 August.
He said he had spoken with Ghani just a day before Kabul fell, and was given the assurance that the former Afghan president was working towards a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban and would “fight to the death” if such a deal did not work out.
“He fled the next day. I had no advance warning of that,” Blinken said.
Defending the Joe Biden administration over the country’s troops withdrawal, Blinken said the US president had to complete the withdrawal because he had limited options.
“Return to war or escalate the war” were the only two choices that the Biden administration had in Afghanistan, he said, adding that Biden only inherited a deadline and not a concrete plan from his predecessor Donald Trump, under whom the peace deal with the Taliban leaders was signed.
“In the end, we completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 1,24,000 people evacuated to safety. And on August 31st in Kabul, the military mission in Afghanistan officially ended, and a new diplomatic mission began,” he told the bipartisan Congressional committee.
He also said the UNSC Resolution 2593 — passed under India’s month-long presidency in August — should be followed by the Taliban to rule Afghanistan, and also if it wants international legitimacy. The resolution demands that Afghan territory should not be used to threaten or attack any country or to shelter and train terrorists and plan or finance terrorist attacks.
Noting that the collapse of the Afghan government as well as its security forces led to the emergency evacuation exercise by the US, Blinken said, “Throughout the year, we were constantly assessing their (Ghani government) staying power and considering multiple scenarios. Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while US forces remained.”
After 20 years, 2,641 American lives lost, 20,000 injuries, $2 trillion spent, it was time to end America’s longest war, Blinked added.
Expressing his concerns on the interim government in Afghanistan, Blinken further said the Taliban leaders in the new cabinet have “very challenging track records”, referring to the fact that several of them are on the UNSC’s sanctions list for terrorist activities.
“The interim government named by the Taliban falls very short of the mark that was set by the international community, for inclusivity … And as has been noted it includes members who have very challenging track records.”
He said the US will recognise only the kind of a government in Afghanistan on a “permanent basis” that “advances our interests”.
On US intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan
Blinken was also questioned by several Congressmen on the US’ intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan and if there is a risk that it has been diminished with a hurried troops withdrawal.
“We lost some capacity for sure in not having those boots on the ground in Afghanistan but we have ways and we are very actively working on that to make up for that, to mitigate for that…,” he told the committee.
On accusations that the Biden administration, in its rush to meet the withdrawal deadline of 31 August, had handed over critical arms and equipment to the Taliban leaders, Blinken said, “A lot of excess equipment was handed over to the (former) Afghan security and defence forces, partners with whom we have worked for 20 years … Of course, when those forces collapsed, in a space of about 11 days, some of that equipment wound up into the hands of the successor forces — the Taliban.”
“Our folks worked very hard to disable or dismantle the equipment we still control before they left Afghanistan. Much of the equipment we left behind, including those in the hand of the Afghan forces that then fell to the Taliban, is inoperable or will soon become inoperable because it has to be maintained.”
Blinken added that the equipment does not have any strategic value in terms of the Taliban threatening the US or the neighbours of Afghanistan.
(Edited by Manasa Mohan)