CNN anchor Jake Tapper relentlessly pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday over the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, asking Blinken straight up how President Joe Biden “got this so wrong.”
With the Taliban now occupying the Afghanistan capital of Kabul and negotiating with the Afghan government for a “peaceful” transfer of power, Tapper brought up Biden’s remarks just a few weeks ago in which the president said it was “not true” that the Afghan government would likely collapse once the U.S. left the nation.
“Secretary Blinken, as you know, the Taliban has closed in on Kabul,” Tapper said to the secretary of state on CNN’s State of the Union. “We are 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. How did President Biden get this so wrong?”
Blinken, for his part, tried to reframe the debate around the overall mission in Afghanistan, which he said was to “deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11.” After noting that Osama bin Laden had been assassinated ten years ago, Blinken then brought up the withdrawal agreement former President Donald Trump’s administration reached with the Taliban, suggesting it was the impetus for the current situation.
“The previous administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban that said that our forces, only about 2500, would be out of the country on May 1,” he stated. “The idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there is simply wrong. The fact is had the president decided to keep forces in Afghanistan beyond May 1, attacks would have resumed on our forces.”
Blinken added: “The Taliban had not been attacking our forces or nation during the period from which the agreement was reached to May 1. The offensive you are seeing across the country to take the provincial capitals would have commenced. We would have been back at war with the Taliban.”
Tapper, however, pointed out that the Biden administration did “blow through” that May 1 deadline, as troops were only recently withdrawn. Saying the issue wasn’t that troops were pulled out but “how they were withdrawn,” the CNN anchor asked Blinken if Biden bears “the blame for this disastrous exit from Afghanistan.”
The secretary acknowledged that while the Taliban was at its strongest point since it was pushed out of power in 2001, four different administrations had poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan to build a modern military force of 300,000, complete with an air force.
“And the fact is we’ve seen that force has been unable to defend the country,” he declared. “That has happened more quickly than we anticipated.”
Tapper, meanwhile, continued to grill Blinken on Biden’s recent claims that it was unlikely that the Taliban would quickly take over the entire country, again noting that the president was “wrong.” After Blinken pivoted, saying that the “status quo was not sustainable” and that the U.S. wasn’t going to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, the CNN anchor called him out for deflecting.
“You keep changing the subject to whether we should be there forever,” he exclaimed. “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 is what I’m talking about. Then you have to send people back in. That is the definition of ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have taken those troops out because now we have to send twice as many back in.’”
Blinken insisted that Biden now sending in 5,000 troops to help evacuate the remaining Americans in Afghanistan shows “the president was prepared for every contingency” moving forward, prompting Tapper to then ask if Biden has offered anything to the Taliban in exchange for safe passage of Americans.
“No. We haven’t asked the Taliban for anything,” Blinken replied. “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.”
After taking the Biden administration to task for not preparing ahead of time to evacuate thousands of Afghan translators who are now targets of the Taliban, the State of the Union host then brought up the unfortunate optics this withdrawal mirrors.
“President Biden is intent on avoiding a Saigon moment, 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?” Tapper wondered aloud.
“No, we’re not. Remember, this is not Saigon,” Blinken responded, as diplomats were literally being airlifted from the embassy at that very moment. “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. We have succeeded in that mission.”