US Senator Chris Van Hollen said on Tuesday that the Trump administration had enabled the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, as he vindicated Pakistan, which he said had released three top Taliban commanders on the then US government's request to push forward the Afghan peace process.
The senator, a Maryland Democrat who was born in Karachi, argued at the first senate hearing on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that it was in Pakistan’s interest to “prevent chaos and civil war” in its neighbourhood.
At Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, some Republican lawmakers blamed the Biden administration for the chaos — and the Taliban takeover — that followed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.
Others — both Republicans and Democrats — also targeted Pakistan for its alleged support to the Afghan Taliban during the 20-year war.
Responding to these allegations, Senator Van Hollen engaged in a dialogue with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was the main witness.
“Is it not the fact that the Trump administration asked the Pakistani government to release three top Taliban commanders as part of that process?” he asked.
“That’s correct,” Blinken replied.
Van Hollen asked a number of questions from the secretary such as Abdul Ghani Baradar being one of those released to the US negotiators, not including the former Afghan government in the Doha talks and pressuring them to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners who were later involved in Kabul's takeover, to which Blinken responded: "That's correct."
The US senator also raised the agreement reached that said US forces would leave by May and would not be attacked but there was no such restriction on attacking Afghan forces, to which Blinken said he was correct.
“And so, we pick a date. We say to the Taliban you can attack Afghan forces and then we say, now let’s negotiate the future of Afghanistan. Isn’t the way it was set up when you walked in?” the senator asked. “That’s essentially, yes," Blinken replied.
“There is a saying in Afghanistan, partners have watches, we have the time. So, the Trump administration, with this negotiation, set it up perfectly for the Taliban. Greenlight to attack the Afghan forces. No discussions going forward," Van Hollen said.
Blinken responded: “I believe that’s accurate.”
Senator Van Hollen reminded Secretary Blinken that former President Donald Trump even criticised President Joe Biden for not withdrawing the forces by May, as agreed in the US-Taliban agreement.
He noted that the Biden administration now had both Pakistan and India on the table because the Afghan dispute could not be resolved without involving regional players.
“I think a number of those countries, at least Pakistan — like India, like the others — have an interest in preventing chaos and civil war in Afghanistan,” he added.
Then returning to Pakistan, he said: “Obviously, we asked them to release prisoners that they had locked up, Taliban prisoners. So, obviously, we have to keep an eye on the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) , [I] get that, but let's all work together to achieve the goal of a stable Afghanistan that protects the rights of its people.”
Referring to some lawmakers’ hostility towards both Pakistan and the Biden administration, he repeated what another senator, Jeanne Shaheen, said earlier: “The level of hypocrisy in this Congress is staggering.”
Secretary Blinken, however, said that the United States was aware of countries such as China, Russia and Pakistan that stand as "outliers" in the effort of resolving the situation in Afghanistan, adding, "that's something we'll be very vigilant about as well."
The committee’s chairman, Senator Bob Menendez, observed that the Taliban were now ruling over Afghanistan, so the international community will have to deal with it in some form.
“But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s no such thing as a reformed Taliban,” said Senator Menendez while urging the Senate to “reimpose sanctions that were waived during the [US-Taliban] negotiations and consider new measures to impose higher costs on the group and its leaders". But he also appealed for allowing life-saving humanitarian assistance to reach the most vulnerable.
“No country should be in a rush to unilaterally recognise this regime. Implore the administration to remain focused on Afghanistan,” he warned.
Senator James Risch, the senior Republican on the committee, said he believed the Biden administration wanted to normalise ties with the Taliban government, but warned that “this must not occur without extensive congressional consultations.”
Recalling that the committee’s chairman had called this “a difficult but important situation”, he added: “We also must understand Pakistan’s role in this entire matter.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, was worried about the impact of the current situation on India. “India has to be looking at this, saying if the United States could have … Pakistan unravel its aims, what chance do they have confronting China?”