WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and efforts by the Department of State to evacuate remaining Americans and Afghans at risk, ensure humanitarian access, and maintain counterterrorism capacity.
Senator Coons opened by noting several urgent focus areas, “How do we get the remaining American citizens, legal permanent residents, and those Afghans who served alongside us or worked with and for us, and who are most at risk, out of Afghanistan? How do we make sure Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists again and deal with the Taliban? What leverage do we have in doing so, and to also make sure humanitarian aid gets into Afghanistan, and most urgently, how do we support and resettle those Afghan refugees whom we've evacuated to third countries, and that much smaller population that has reached the United States?”
Senator Coons received commitments from Secretary Blinken regarding the State Department’s work to expand eligibility for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), including for congressionally funded media outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty; partners at the American University of Afghanistan; and other civil society partners across the country. Senators Coons and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) urged Blinken to expand the State Department’s interpretation of SIV eligibility to include these individuals last month.
Senator Coons also thanked the State Department and other U.S. Government personnel for their work to evacuate and repatriate U.S. Citizens and Afghans at risk: “So let me just start with my thanks to the State Department, to the employees in Kabul and Qatar, and the DC-based task force that's worked with the evacuation and repatriation of Americans and Afghans, and to the many Delawareans and Americans, whom I've heard from; former military folks who served in Afghanistan, former diplomats and development professionals eager to help, and I look forward to continuing to coordinate with you and with agencies of our government, advocacy groups, and other partners on resettlement efforts. I'm glad that the former governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, has been asked to step forward and help coordinate this resettlement effort, and I was encouraged today to see Welcome.US launch a broad, multifaith, bipartisan national organization co-chaired by three former presidents, Bush and Obama and Clinton, and dozens and dozens of faith groups and nonprofits to welcome Afghans to the United States.”
Full audio and video available here. A transcript is provided below.
Sen. Coons: Thank you, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch, for this hearing, and thank you, Secretary Blinken, for your service and your testimony today. We have, I'm sure, lots of opportunities to look backward at the 20 years of our engagement in Afghanistan and its decisions, but I had hoped this committee would rise above the temptations of partisan politics and use this hearing to consider the urgent questions still before us, and I hope we'll get a few minutes to focus on this, Mr. Secretary.
How do we get the remaining American citizens legal permanent residents and those Afghans who served alongside us or worked with and for us, and who are most at risk, out of Afghanistan? How do we make sure Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists again and deal with the Taliban? What leverage do we have in doing so, and to also make sure humanitarian aid gets into Afghanistan, and most urgently, how do we support and resettle those Afghan refugees whom we've evacuated to third countries, and that much smaller population that has reached the United States?
So let me just start with my thanks to the State Department, to the employees in Kabul and Qatar, and the DC-based task force that's worked with the evacuation and repatriation of Americans and Afghans, and to the many Delawareans and Americans, whom I've heard from; former military folks who served in Afghanistan, former diplomats and development professionals eager to help, and I look forward to continuing to coordinate with you and with agencies of our government, advocacy groups, and other partners on resettlement efforts. I'm glad that the former governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, has been asked to step forward and help coordinate this resettlement effort, and I was encouraged today to see Welcome.US launch a broad, multifaith, bipartisan national organization co-chaired by three former presidents, Bush and Obama and Clinton, and dozens and dozens of faith groups and nonprofits to welcome Afghans to the United States.
So let me just start with a question about visa status. Senator Sullivan and I wrote a bipartisan letter in mid-August, urging expanded eligibility for the SIV program. I'm interested in how you're working to expand eligibility under the existing visa programs to include family members and to support those the U.S. government supported and worked alongside but who were not direct employees. I want to start if I could, Mr. Secretary, by asking you just yes or no questions about three groups that other senators have mentioned.
Secretary Blinken: Sure.
Sen. Coons: There's about 550 employees and family members from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty who were not evacuated. Is the [State] Department prioritizing their evacuation?
Secretary Blinken: Yes.
Sen. Coons: The department committed to evacuating our partners from NED – the National Endowment for Democracy, NDI, and IRI. Are those also being prioritized?
Secretary Blinken: Yes, they are.
Sen. Coons: And our partners from the American University of Afghanistan as well?
Secretary Blinken: Yes.
Sen. Coons: And so, if you would take the four minutes we've got left and explore with me: how do we ensure safe passage across land borders, whether into Tajikistan or Pakistan, safe and regular flights out of Afghanistan, whether from Mazar-i-Sharif or Kabul. And how do we get documents into the hands of those who don't have identity documents, either because they were destroyed in our embassy or they destroyed them themselves out of fear of the Taliban, and how do we make sure that we're providing the financial support needed for the whole group of refugees, who after thorough vetting ultimately reached the United States?
Secretary Blinken: Yeah, thank you very much, Senator. Those are all very important questions, and let me try to respond briefly to them, and we can take on the details after the session if need be. First, we needed and we have established a clear expectation from the Taliban about allowing people to continue to leave the country to include American citizens, green card holders, Afghans who have or who are properly documented with a visa, including specifically those who worked in some capacity for the United States. And not only do we have that understanding and public statements by the Taliban, of course, it's built into everything we've done with a large coalition of countries in terms of setting an expectation and making very clear that a failure to fulfill that expectation will have significant consequences, which we can get into.
Second, very important actually to make sure that there are ways to travel freely from the country. We made an intensive effort, before we left, to understand and share with Qatar and Turkey, the countries that stepped up to do this, what was necessary to make sure that the airport in Kabul could continue to function, and ultimately to have charter flights, and then commercial flights going in under International Civil Aviation Organization standards. We did intensive work. We brought the American Contact [inaudible] back in the midst of the evacuation, who had been running the airport to work that. We handed off a very detailed plan, which is now being implemented.
Third, the land process. We've worked with Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan on this to make sure that, as we move people out of Afghanistan, they would facilitate their crossing into their countries. We would have consular officials surge to the necessary places to handle people coming out in that fashion. And now, to your very important point about documentation, and this is something that maybe we can take offline, we are working on a mechanism and a means by which – and there are multiple ways of doing this – to make sure that people who don't have the necessary document, for example, a visa from us, a physical visa, to get that to them. And I prefer to go into more detail on that in another setting.
Sen. Coons: Understood. If I might, just as a closing question. You were asked at the outset sort of what are the factors we weigh as we decide the future of our relationship with the Taliban. And we're in this difficult situation. Many of us recognize the Taliban is a terrorist organization that's done horrific things within Afghanistan in the past. Yet, we need to have some working relationship with them to secure the safe passage out of thousands of people who we still care deeply about. A number of American citizens with Delaware ties who I've been in contact with didn't leave because their families were still in Afghanistan. And there are clear measures that they should be expected to meet that you laid out your opening statement. What do you think will be the most important aspects of our leverage to ensure the Taliban perform in ways that we would accept? And what do you think will be the turning point at which we'll make decisions with our allies to take sharper and harsher measures against the Taliban?
Secretary Blinken: So simply put, the nature of the relationship that the Taliban would have with us or most other countries around the world will depend entirely on its conduct and actions, specifically with regard to freedom of travel, as well as to making good on its counterterrorism commitments, upholding basic rights of the Afghan people, not engaging in reprisals, etc. These are the things that not only we, but countries around the world, are looking at, and there is, I think, significant leverage that we and other countries hold when it comes to things that the Taliban says it wants but won't get if it does not act in a way that meets these, these expectations. For example, we talked a little bit before about the existing UN sanctions on the Taliban. These are significant, as well as travel restrictions. There's now a new Security Council resolution that we initiated, setting out the expectations for what the Taliban has to do. If it's in violation of that resolution, it's hard to see any of these UN sanctions being lifted, travel restrictions being lifted, and indeed, additional sanctions could well be imposed.
Similarly, the foreign reserves of Afghanistan are almost exclusively in banks here in the United States, including the Federal Reserve – other banks about $9 billion. All of that has been frozen. There are significant resources as well that are in the international financial institutions that Afghanistan normally would have access to. Those, too, have been frozen. Over the last 20 years or so, the international community is provided about 75 percent of the Afghan government's annual operating budget. That, too, has been frozen. So, among many things that the Taliban says it seeks, both basic legitimacy and basic support, the United States, the international community, has a hand on a lot of that, much of that, most of that. And so, we'll have to see going forward what conclusions the Taliban draws from that and what its conduct will be matching these basic expectations that we've set.
Sen. Coons: Thank you.