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Blinken defends Biden's refugee cap, Afghanistan withdrawal in exclusive interview

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(WASHINGTON) — In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken defended the Biden administration amid a barrage of criticism from Democratic lawmakers and refugee advocates for maintaining a Trump-era limit on refugee admissions for now.

While President Joe Biden pledged to admit 125,000 refugees in the new fiscal year next fall, Blinken wouldn’t commit to a number, telling ABC’s “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz, “Look, the president’s been clear about where he wants to go, but we have to be, you know, focused on what we’re able to do when we’re able to do it.”

That wait-and-see language from Blinken and the White House, citing the “decimated” state of the refugee resettlement program, enraged several prominent Democrats, as well as refugee resettlement agencies who said they are ready to accept Biden’s pledge of 62,500 for the rest of this fiscal year.

As a result, after the White House had announced Friday that Biden would keep former President Donald Trump’s historic low cap of 15,000 refugees, the administration backtracked and said it would raise the cap next month.

“We’re able to start to bring people in who’ve been in the pipeline and who weren’t able to come in. That is starting today, and we’re going to revisit it in the middle of May,” Blinken said.

A wave of Democrats attacked Biden’s decision on Friday to sign an executive order to maintain Trump’s refugee admissions cap of 15,000. Refugee resettlement agencies called it “deeply disappointing,” while Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the House Progressive Caucus, shamed Biden.

“President Biden has broken his promise to restore our humanity. We cannot turn our back on refugees around the world, including hundreds of refugees who have already been cleared for resettlement, have sold their belongings, and are ready to board flights,” Jayapal said in a statement.

Some 35,000 refugees have been vetted and approved for resettlement in the U.S., according to the International Rescue Committee, a resettlement agency.

With Biden’s order, those resettlements can begin again, but they will be limited. After fierce criticism Friday, the White House said the administration would set a “final, increased refugee cap” next month after a few weeks of arrivals and blamed the Trump administration for leaving the program “broken,” in Blinken’s words.

“Based on what we’ve now seen from in terms of the inheritance and being able to look at what was in place, what we could put in place, how quickly we could put it in place, it’s going to be very hard to meet the 62,000 number this fiscal year,” he said — the number he told Congress the administration would accept in a February notice.

“We’re going to be revisiting this over the coming weeks,” he added.

Refugee resettlement agencies agreed that Trump left the nation’s program in tatters through funding cuts and onerous vetting measures, but they’ve said they could scale up quickly to meet Biden’s original target of 62,500 if the administration helped provide resources.

Instead, Biden on Saturday blamed the historic number of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border for keeping the refugee cap low for now — a reason Blinken didn’t cite. While some of the same government agencies deal with both, refugees are vetted overseas and granted approval to travel to the U.S., while asylum seekers request asylum once entering U.S. territory.

The administration is also facing criticism from some Democrats and many Republicans over Biden’s decision this week to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 — nearly 20 years after the U.S. first invaded to topple the Taliban government that provided safe haven to the al-Qaida operatives who planned those attacks.

Despite intelligence chiefs warning this week of a decrease in U.S. visibility in the country, Blinken said the administration will maintain “the means to see if there is a resurgence, a reemergence of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan … in real time, with time to take action.”

Fresh from a trip to Kabul, where he met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, other Afghan officials and civil society leaders, including prominent women, Blinken also told Raddatz the administration “will take action to make sure to the best of our ability that” the Taliban respect the gains made by Afghan society, especially in the area of women’s rights.

The U.S. intelligence community’s annual assessment, released Wednesday, said withdrawal risks a resurgence of that terrorism threat — and it may go undetected by U.S. forces.

“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That is simply a fact,” said CIA Director Bill Burns.

Blinken didn’t dismiss those concerns but said the administration is “going to make sure that we have assets appropriately in place to see this coming, if it comes again, to see it and to be able to to deal with it.”

Beyond the terrorism threat to the U.S. or others, there are strong concerns the Taliban is waiting for an American exit to topple the Afghan government. Blinken appeared to disagree, telling Raddatz, “What everyone recognizes is there’s no military resolution to the conflict. So if they start something up again, they’re going to be in a long war that’s not in their interest.”

It’s unclear if the Taliban views the situation that way. Its leadership said this week that the Taliban will not participate in peace negotiations with the Afghan government until U.S. and NATO forces exit but also said the Taliban remains “committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem.”

Blinken said the U.S. will throw its full weight behind supporting those peace negotiations, which are supposed to restart again in the coming weeks with a summit hosted by Turkey.

“If the Taliban is going to participate in some fashion in governance, if it wants to be internationally recognized, if it doesn’t want to be a pariah, it’s going to have to engage in a political process,” he said.

Even if that political process succeeds, there are deep concerns that with the Taliban in power in some form, the rights of women and girls and minorities will be curbed at best. But Blinken committed that U.S. diplomatic, economic and development support would be conditioned on those rights being respected.

“Any country that moves backwards on that, that tries to repress them, will not have that international recognition, will not have that international status, and indeed, we will take action to make sure to the best of our ability that they can’t do that,” he said.

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