Blinken Is Grilled on Afghanistan in Congress

The Taliban has agreed to refuse refuge to terrorist groups as a condition of the U.S. military withdrawal, which the Trump administration brokered in February 2020. But it is widely believed that Al Qaeda’s most senior leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, is living in Afghanistan, and top C.I.A. officials, including William J. Burns, the agency’s director, have acknowledged that their ability to gather information on terrorist activity there is now diminished.

Ahead of Mr. Blinken’s testimony, the Biden administration’s top intelligence official said Afghanistan was not the most pressing terrorism threat for the United States, even after the Taliban’s takeover. Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said the withdrawal of American troops and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government have created challenges for collecting intelligence in the country.

But, she said, “in terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan.”

Her comments underscored a tenet of Mr. Biden’s decision to leave: that the enduring conflict in Afghanistan had become a distraction from more immediate threats to the United States, like China, Russia, climate change and the coronavirus.

Given that strategy, the overall decision to withdraw from Afghanistan “made good sense,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador who worked closely with Mr. Blinken and other senior officials during the Obama administration and is now chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington.

But, Mr. Jeffrey said, “the preparations for this thing, and the failure of imagination on how fast it would happen and how complete the collapse — that’s a problem that you have to point to the administration on.”

The diplomatic effort that Mr. Blinken vowed would continue largely focuses on pressuring the Taliban to ensure safe passage for people who want to leave Afghanistan, and to protect Afghan women and girls who were denied educations and jobs, and in worst cases, brutalized, when the Taliban last ruled, from l996 to 2001. On Monday, he acknowledged that the Taliban had fallen “very short of the mark” in creating a government that includes women or ethnic minorities, as many countries have demanded.

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