AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Lawmakers had some tough questions today for Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the messy end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan.
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MICHAEL MCCAUL: This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban.
CHANG: That is Congressman Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He was among those questioning Secretary Blinken about the U.S. decision to leave, the scramble to evacuate as many people as possible and what to do now about those left behind. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been listening in and joins us now from the State Department. Hey, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.
CHANG: Hi. OK, so McCaul kind of set the tone for the hearing, but we should say that Blinken - he heard concern from Democrats as well, right? Like, can you just tell us a little bit about the criticism the Biden administration faced from both sides today?
KELEMEN: Well, I think the two sides of the aisle can agree on one thing - that there is a lot of concern about those who didn't make it to the Kabul airport last month and onto evacuation flights. Members of Congress - Democrats and Republicans - have gotten really involved in those efforts to help remaining Americans, green card holders, Afghan interpreters, other Afghans at risk who are still trying to leave.
Now, Blinken is reassuring them that the U.S. has worked with Qatar and Turkey and managed to get some Americans and green card holders on flights out of Kabul in recent days. But charter flights have still not been able to leave the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and Blinken says the U.S. is pressing the Taliban to let those flights go. But you know, he's shifted his position a lot on that, and there's been a lot of frustration on the Hill about, you know, why they're not moving more quickly to get those...
KELEMEN: ...People out.
CHANG: Right. And how is Blinken defending the administration's record?
KELEMEN: Well, for one, he says the Biden administration inherited the deal that the Trump administration made with the Taliban, including a withdrawal timeline. His quote today was, "We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan." The other thing he's doing is, you know, he's arguing that the administration really thought it had more time to make a plan. Just take a listen to what he had to say about the timeline today.
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ANTONY BLINKEN: Even the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained.
KELEMEN: And nor did they think they would collapse in 11 days. You know, Blinken even thought that he'd be able to maintain an embassy in Kabul. He had reassured members of Congress earlier this year that the U.S. would stay engaged diplomatically in Afghanistan. But now that embassy is abandoned, and diplomats are working thousands of miles away in Doha.
CHANG: And what did Blinken say about how the U.S. plans to deal with the Taliban now?
KELEMEN: Well, I mean, one of the big problems is that the interim government - and these were his words - it falls short - very short - of the mark that was set by the international community. The U.S. and others wanted a government that broadly represented the people of Afghanistan, not just the Taliban. Instead, the caretaker government is Taliban-only, and it has members with very challenging track records, as Blinken says. That includes people that are on U.S. sanctions lists. So what he's trying to do is keep the international community united on this front to make it clear to the Taliban that it won't gain international legitimacy unless they cut ties to terrorists, allow humanitarian aid and respect basic rights.
CHANG: That is NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you, Michele.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.