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

On Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. chief diplomat will be on Capitol Hill to meet irritating lawmakers from both sides, many eager to blame someone for the crisis that is still unfolding. How Blinken, a first-time cabinet official, handles the crucible can dramatically affect his position in Washington.

Tom Shannon, a former senior U.S. diplomat, chalked the situation up to “Washington’s tough, belligerent policies.” “Tony is very tough for this city. He will do well,” Shannon said.

Others were less charitable.

“He’s not feeling well,” said Kelley Currie, who served as ambassador for global women’s issues during the Trump administration and has been involved in evacuating vulnerable Afghans. “He’s in at all, should never have been in this job and should probably resign and take everyone involved in this debacle with him.”

The rapid turnaround in Afghanistan last month surprised Blinken, like most others, by a surprise: He visited his elderly father in the Hamptons just hours before Kabul, the Afghan capital, fell to the militants. Although Blinken was away from Washington, his schedule was still packed with 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 has come from his own building.

During a City Hall Blinken held with Foreign Ministry staff earlier this month, participants were emotional and complained about what they saw as a messy, confusing reaction to the chaos in a country where many of them had served. A platform that allows for anonymous commentary during the event was filled with harsh statements.

“At what point will the department finally take crisis response seriously …? This was worse than blind people leading the blind,” one person wrote according to photos taken by POLITICO.

Another comment questioned why there was no better planning, especially for worst-case scenarios as opposed to the most likely scenarios: “There is a lot of anger. This amount of suffering did not have to occur.”

Many at State do not fully blame Blinken for any long-term problems, especially when it comes to the department’s emergency preparedness infrastructure. But there is still disappointment in him because he is an experienced hand – a man who has held top positions everywhere from a Senate committee to the National Security Council.

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

Blinken has stayed cold in the middle of the maelstrom and focused more on the task in Afghanistan than on the political drama in Washington, Foreign Ministry officials said.

His most immediate focus is to evacuate remaining U.S. citizens, as well as U.S. legal residents, Afghan translators, and other Afghans eligible for U.S. visas. Overall, the number of survivors who in theory qualify for evacuation is thought to be in the thousands.

Although he seems indifferent, he is especially passionate about helping refugees, a cause he has long fought for, among other things. his own family history, said Foreign Ministry officials.

The secretary has publicly said he is taking responsibility for the response from the State Department, and according to the senior official, his senior staff told the same thing privately. He has also publicly promised a review of how his department handled the situation.

“He has been around this city long enough to know that with a decision so significant, of course, there will be some criticism. And much of it will be unfair,” said the senior Foreign Ministry official. is to be armed with facts. ”

An aide to Blinken declined to say whether the secretary at any time disagreed with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and whether he expressed concern, saying these discussions are private. Asked if Blinken had at any time considered resigning due to the crisis, the aide said “no”.

Although he wants to be on the defensive, Blinken plans to use this week’s hearings to explain the circumstances he and his department faced in the time leading up to the collapse of the Afghan state and why they made the decisions they made.

That explanation is likely to include overly rosy estimates from the intelligence community about how long the Afghan army and government could hold on to power after the United States withdrew its troops. Blinken is also likely to point to the restrained and dysfunctional Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghan interpreters and translators, which the Biden administration inherited in January.

The Blinken assistant stressed that the secretary sees Congress as a partner in foreign policy and is likely to set out potential future steps that will include consulting legislators.

Critics argue that many of the challenges throughout the evacuation came down to differences between the Pentagon and the State Department over the Afghan government’s prospects for survival.

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

Government officials were also concerned that speeding up evacuation and reducing the US diplomatic presence could too quickly 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 speed up the evacuation of Afghan translators and interpreters seeking SIV approval.

“My working hypothesis was that most of the dysfunction we saw was a result of the State Department’s leadership – or lack thereof – rather than the Pentagon. But I do not think that means the Pentagon is getting a congressional inquiry,” he said. GOP Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a former Marine Intelligence Officer and member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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

“When this is investigated, I think we will find that the state overestimated their ability to continue a diplomatic presence and underestimated the demand that a government collapse would give rise to. [SIV applicants] to want to flee, ”said the defense chief.

The Blinken assistant dismissed such criticism, saying Blinken had coordinated closely with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, throughout the process.

Blinken has acknowledged mistakes in the SIV program, which for years have been plagued by bureaucracy and delays. According to Blinken, when he took office almost eight months ago, the SIV program had a backlog of more than 17,000 applicants and “was basically in a dead box.” The corona pandemic exacerbated treatment delays, but it also had opposition to immigration within President Donald Trump’s former administration.

“We have also now learned from hard experience that the SIV process was not designed to be carried out in an emergency,” Blinken said in public remarks earlier this month.

Blinken said the Biden administration was immediately moving to speed up and direct more resources towards the program, which restarted the SIV interview process in Kabul within a few weeks. By May, the State Department had reduced the average processing time for SIVs by more than a year and went from issuing about 100 visas a week in March to more than 1,000 a week in August, Blinken said.

The senior Foreign Ministry official noted separately that as early as July, it had reduced the staff at the Kabul embassy to a minimum, and the majority of its staff on site were either security officials or those processing visa applicants. Further reductions would have meant cutting either the security quota or the consular quota, the official said.

Blinken’s performance has induced eye rolls now and then, not least because he may appear overly calm and diplomatic.

For example, when the Taliban revealed a male-only caretaker government filled with veteran fighters and people on U.S. terror lists, Blinken remarked “it includes people who have very challenging track records.”

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

“I’ve never seen him angry,” a former senior U.S. official said of Blinken. “He does not believe that anger is a particularly useful feeling to get things done.”

Plus, Blinken – like others in the Biden administration – is well aware that the United States so far has to deal with the Taliban while trying to evacuate Americans and others still in Afghanistan. Giving the group a verbal lashing probably does not help that process.

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

Some European countries felt dazzled by President Joe Biden’s announcement in April of the troop drawdown, the former official noted. It was a strategic failure on Blinken’s part, the former official said.

His defenders, however, insisted that Blinken is precisely the type who thinks strategically, and they rejected the claim that the Allied countries did not receive adequate guidance or preparation, pointing to calls, visits and other contacts from Blinken and other US officials.

“He is someone who is always looking around corners, thinking of the next step, taking a step back,” said the senior Foreign Ministry official.

Blinken’s defenders note that he operates at a disadvantage because so many top positions that report to him remain unoccupied. It is largely due to late. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)’s efforts to block the State Department nominee because of his opposition to how the Biden administration has handled a German-Russian energy pipeline.

Key vacancies include the Assistant Secretaries overseeing the agencies dealing with Afghanistan, human rights and refugees.

Blinken, who grew up in a wealthy family whose ranks include ambassadors and famous lawyers, has sent numerous messages to Foreign Ministry staff praising their tireless actions in recent weeks.

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

His efforts are noticed and appreciated. Foreign Ministry staffers who spoke to POLITICO said he still has the good will of the building, even though his status has been cracked.

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

Andrew Desiderio and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

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