Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that he is not sure whether the target killed in a US drone strike was an aid worker or a terrorist, but assured the Biden administration is looking into the matter.
Blinken, in his second day of testimony over the Biden administration’s chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, faced questioning from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
‘The guy the Biden administration droned, was he an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative?’ Paul asked. A New York Times report claimed that the vehicle struck by a US drone was driven by US aid group worker Zemari Ahmadi, identifying one of the 10 killed in the retaliatory strike after a suicide blast outside Kabul airport killed 170.
‘The administration is of course reviewing that strike and I’m sure that a full assessment will be forthcoming,’ Blinken said.
‘So you don’t know if it was an aid worker or an ISIS-K operative?’
‘I don’t know because we’re reviewing it,’ Blinken said.
‘You’d think you’d kind of know before you off somebody with a Predator drone whether he’s an aid worker or an ISIS-K,’ Paul replied.
The drone strike reportedly killed 10 members of one family, including seven children.
A New York Times investigation that 43-year-old aid worker Ahmadi had been loading his car with water jugs, not explosives, when he and his nine family members were blown to bits.
The Pentagon still maintains that only three civilians died, but the family claims in the report their 10 relatives were killed.
Ahmadi worked for US-based aid group Nutrition and Education International, and spent the day running routine errands for the group, loading nothing into the car other than jugs full of water to bring home to his family, the Times reported, citing witnesses and surveillance video footage.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on September 14
‘You’d think you’d kind of know before you off somebody with a Predator drone whether he’s an aid worker or an ISIS-K,’ Sen. Rand Paul, above, replied when Blinken admitted he wasn’t sure who the US drone strike killed
‘All of them were innocent,’ Ahmadi’s brother Emal told the newspaper, noting that Ahmadi had sought refugee status with the US based on his international aid work. ‘You say he was ISIS, but he worked for the Americans.’
The Pentagon has insisted that Ahmadi’s movements linked him to an ISIS-K safehouse, and that there were explosives in his vehicle intended to be used in a suicide attack on US troops in the final hours of the Kabul evacuation.
‘This was a righteous strike,’ said Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark A. Milley last week, claiming that Ahmadi was an ‘ISIS facilitator’.
In a statement to DailyMail.com on Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby stood by the intelligence assessment that led to the strike, but did not deny there were civilian casualties.
‘U.S. Central Command continues to assess the results of the airstrike in Kabul on August 29. We won’t get ahead of that assessment,’ said Kirby.
‘However, as we have said, no other military works harder than we do to prevent civilian casualties,’ he added.
‘Additionally, as Chairman Milley said, the strike was based on good intelligence, and we still believe that it prevented an imminent threat to the airport and to our men and women that were still serving at the airport,’ the spokesman said.
The drone strike occurred at the home where Ahmadi lived with three of his brothers and their families.
Notably absent from Blinken’s testimony was Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was also invited to appear.
In his opening remarks on Monday, committee chair Sen. Bob Menendez said he was ‘very disappointed’ Austin declined to testify Tuesday.
‘A full accounting of the US response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon. Especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S. Trained and funded Afghan military,’ Menendez said.
He warned Austin’s decision would affect his ‘personal judgement’ on nominees to other Pentagon positions.
The New Jersey senator threatened to subpoena the Defense chief if he didn’t testify willingly.
‘I expect the secretary will avail himself to the committee in the near future and if he does not, I may consider use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others over the course of the last 20 years to testify,’ he said.
Ranking member Sen. Jim Risch shared Menendez’s sentiment, calling Austin’s refusal ‘disheartening.’
‘The debacle in Afghanistan is an interagency failure and the fact that you’re the only one stepping up is disheartening,’ Risch told Blinken.
After the US left Kabul, Republican lawmakers claimed the American military left the Taliban with $83 billion of military gear, citing known reports about how much was given over the 20-year mission.
Pressed on how much military equipment was left behind by the US military, Blinken estimated ‘about $80 billion’ was handed to the Afghan military over the last 20 years.
‘Of that equipment that remains, as you know it was given to the Afghan security force and of course so that is now in the hands of the Taliban,’ he said.
Senate Republicans seized on the figure.
‘So the administration continued with their plans of withdrawal, of evacuation of surrender, knowing that Taliban would be in control of $80 billion worth of sophisticated equipment at the end of that, correct?’ GOP Senator Ron Johnson asked.
Blinken echoed US Central Command chief General McKenzie, who said immediately after the withdrawal that a number of military jets and vehicles left at Kabul airport were rendered ‘inoperable’ before troops left.
‘Other pieces of equipment will become inoperable because there is no ability on the the part of the Taliban to maintain it,’ Blinken added.
At the hearing Blinken was hammered over the chaotic withdrawal and $80 billion in military equipment Republican senators now say is in the hands of the Taliban
Blinken repeatedly maintained that much of the equipment left behind was rendered ‘inoperable’
‘None of it to the best of my knowledge poses a strategic threat to us or any neighbors.’
Later in the hearing, Senator Rand Paul suggested the US deduct the $80 billion figure from the $10 billion in aid to Afghanistan currently being held, contingent on the Taliban’s behavior in the eyes of the international community.
Paul added, ‘Then they’re minus 70 still.’
‘The fact that you’re entertaining good behavior that they’ll get more money, I think, is a big mistake and a naive notion that we’re going to somehow change this stone age philosophy by giving them more of our money.’
Senator Ted Cruz, D-Texas asked Blinken about reports of ‘a list or multiple lists’ of Americans and vulnerable Afghans being handed over to the Taliban – which Biden critics seized on as a ‘hit list.’
But the secretary bristled at Cruz’s accusation.
‘Those reports and the idea that we would do anything to endanger our citizens or anyone else at time we were trying to save their lives is flat out wrong,’ he said.
Blinken stopped Cruz from interrupting his answer, speaking over his attempts with a ‘Let me be very clear, senator, if I may please – thank you.’
He continued, ‘In limited instances, where we were seeking to get a bus or a group of people through a checkpoint, we gave them manifests to the people at the checkpoint to demonstrate those people -‘
Cruz cut him off again.
‘–Roughly how many names on the list?’ Cruz asked.
Blinken tried to answer, ‘Doesn’t matter because they -‘
The heated exchange continued until a visibly agitated Blinken pointed out that the ‘limited instances’ in which names were provided to the Taliban saw those individuals pass through their checkpoints successfully.
Cruz then turned his ire toward the US vetting process for refugees, which has come under fire amid reports that young girls arriving at staging areas and US bases with much older men told US officials they’d been forced to marry to escape the Taliban.
Ted Cruz scolded Blinken during the hearing, telling him he and Joe Biden ‘own this’ crisis
Some even told government officials they’d been sexually abused.
Cruz said the US’s improper vetting process allowed a ‘humanitarian crisis’ to enter the US.
‘Child, marriage and domestic abuse tragically are widespread in Afghanistan,’ he said.
The Texas Republican referenced a late August report that revealed the State Department ‘urgently requested guidance’ from Homeland Security on what to do about child brides entering the US.
‘My question follows, did you receive that urgent guidance? How many children have been subject to sexual abuse? What have you done to rescue young children from illegal and abusive relationships after being brought to America by the State Department?’
Blinken said he doesn’t ‘know the guidance’ but maintained that officers stationed at Dulles Airport, US military bases and various staging areas and transit points across the world are at ‘extreme vigilance’ for such cases.
After further pressure he said there was ‘a handful’ of cases he was aware of in which US officials separated people over the concern.
Also during the hearing Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney asked if the Taliban still held their ‘sympathy and collaboration’ for terrorist groups like al Qaeda, amid fears Afghanistan would become a breeding ground for such cells.
Blinken said the militant groups’ relationship ‘has not been severed.’
‘And it is a very open question as to whether their views an the relationship has changed in any kind of definitive way,’ he explained.
But he appeared to issue a thinly veiled threat to the militants, whose previous regime was toppled by American forces in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks.
‘They do know that the last time they harbored Al Qaeda and it engaged in an outwardly direct attack on our homeland, certain things followed which I believe they would have an interest in not seeing repeated,’ Blinken said.
He added, ‘And ISIS K is a different thing because the Taliban and ISIS-K are sworn enemies.’
But Blinken’s confirmation of the Taliban and al Qaeda’s active ties comes just days after al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in a video commemorating 20 years after 9/11 – shattering the belief that he died months prior.
In his opening statement Blinken again blamed US citizens for getting stranded in Afghanistan, repeating that the State Department sent ’19 specific messages’ to Americans there, urging them to leave.
He added the department offered ‘financial assistance to pay for plane tickets.’
‘Despite this efforts, at the time of the evacuation began, there were still thousands of Americans in Afghanistan – almost all of whom were evacuated by August 31,’ the Biden official said.
But after the US wrapped its military withdrawal at the end of August, Blinken revealed that at least 100 Americans had been left behind.
On Tuesday Blinken said a ‘diplomatic mission’ was still in place working to get those people out.
He revealed the US was working with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to facilitate Americans ‘crossing into their countries’ as the evacuation continues.
‘We would have consular officials surged in the necessary places to handle people coming out in that fashion,’ he added.
He made similar comments earlier in September during a press briefing on that same ‘diplomatic mission.’
‘For many months, going back to March, we issued 19 different notices to those registered with he embassy, as I said encouraging them and then urging them to leave Afghanistan,’ he said on September 3.
During a grilling from ranking member Sen. Jim Risch Blinken confirmed reports that the Biden administration was warned in mid-July that Kabul would rapidly fall to the Taliban.
‘I certainly received this cable and in mid-July. I read it. I responded to it. I factored its contents into my thinking,’ Blinken answered.
He denied that the cable warned how quickly the Afghan government and military would collapse though he conceded it expressed ‘real concerns’ over the government’s durability after the US departure.
Blinken added that one ‘very good recommendation’ Biden officials took into consideration was to continue efforts expediting the evacuation of special immigrant visa applicants
‘That is the problem with us not having access to the cable. We were told by others it was significantly different than what you are saying,’ Risch replied.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio also grilled Blinken on what the government knew and when it knew it.
‘We have every reason to believe and to plan for the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan military,’ Rubio said.
‘This is not an argument in favor of staying. I think that ship has sailed. We’re not debating the withdrawal. What I’m arguing is we have a terrible status quo and the Afghan government after billions of dollars and was not self-sustaining. And we should begin to know as we draw down, that we’ll see the potential for a collapse, and that is what all of the pieces pointed to as well.’
Blinken said a Taliban takeover after the US left was a ‘worst case scenario’ in February and upgraded to a possibility ‘by the end of the year’ in July.
‘Nothing that I saw, that I saw, that we saw suggested that this government and security force would collapse in a matter of 11 days. And you’re right that I think we need to look back at all of this,’ he said.
Romney piled on Rubio’s questioning, telling Blinken that Kabul falling to the Taliban ‘was a significant probability that should have been planned for.’
At another point in the hearing, GOP Senator Ron Johnson pressed Blinken on the US decision to withdraw but interrupted the Biden official’s answer, dismissing it as ‘bureaucratic speak.’
On Tuesday Blinken also urged the Senate to quickly confirm President Biden’s State Department nominees involved in national security, citing the ever-present risk of attacks.
‘It is essential that we accelerate the process for national security appointments since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice,’ Blinken told the committee.
Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s Democratic chairman, asked the Senate on Monday to confirm four of some 80 State Department nominees now pending before the Senate, many of them being blocked by Republican Senator Ted Cruz.
Blinken sat before lawmakers after he was criticized by one Republican representative on Monday for testifying via video during his hearing before the House.
Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania asked Blinken if he ‘couldn’t be bothered to come down here and see Congress?’ on Monday.
‘All right, that’s great,’ he added.
Blinken replied that his understanding was the House was not in session.
‘I’m right here, Mr. Secretary, so is the chairman and ranking member,’ Perry interrupted. ‘We’re here!’