The United States says it will not lift existing sanctions on the Taliban, but it will ensure lifesaving humanitarian aid to vulnerable Afghans amid what the United Nations describes as "a looming crisis" in the country.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pledged to continue humanitarian aid to the Afghan people through United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations, a day after the United States said it would provide nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance.
The top U.S. diplomat, during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, faced another round of tough questioning from lawmakers over last month's withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. He testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee the day before.
During the 3½-hour hearing Tuesday, Blinken said the additional funding will "meet critical health and nutrition needs, address the protection concerns of women, children, and minorities to help more children — including girls — go back to school."
Blinken also told senators that he would name a senior State Department official to focus on support for Afghan women, girls and minorities.
The new U.S. assistance, which would bypass the Taliban and be distributed directly to Afghans, brings the total U.S. assistance to the Afghan people to $330 million this fiscal year.
The U.N. is appealing for $606 million for the remainder of this year for food, health care, shelter and other vital needs to assist 11 million people.
This year's U.N. General Assembly officially opens Tuesday, and whether the Taliban leadership will represent Afghanistan at this year's international gathering remains to be seen.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, Senator Bob Menendez, said to demand the Taliban abide by its commitments now and expect a different result "is somewhat absurd." He asked other countries not to recognize the Taliban bilaterally.
"We know now that the Taliban had no intention of pursuing a political path," Menendez said. "They had no intention of breaking ties with al-Qaida. And it clearly had no intention of allowing women to have their rightful seat at the table and to participate fully in society."
Senator James Risch of Idaho, the Senate panel's lead Republican, said, "Any country that offered support to the Taliban in their recent offensive should risk a strategic downgrade in their relationship with the United States."
"It's hard to see any of these U.N. sanctions being lifted, travel restrictions being lifted," Blinken said, adding that "additional sanctions could well be imposed" if the Taliban government violates its commitments on counterterrorism, freedom of travel and respect of human rights.
The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution on August 30 setting out the international community's expectations of a Taliban government.
A group of Republican lawmakers, in a signed letter, also asked U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield to maintain sanctions such as the travel ban, arms embargo and asset freezes to avoid legitimizing the Taliban.
In testimony Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Blinken said he had not spoken personally to members of the Taliban leadership. On Tuesday, he said that the legitimacy and support the Taliban seek from the international community will depend on their conduct.
During questioning, the chief U.S. diplomat also staunchly defended the Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years.
"Conversely, there is nothing that strategic competitors like China and Russia — or adversaries like Iran and North Korea — would have liked more than for the United States to re-up a 20-year war and remain bogged down in Afghanistan for another decade," the secretary of state said Tuesday.
Taliban insurgents took over the country in mid-August as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled to exile in the United Arab Emirates. The United States evacuated 124,000 people — most of them Afghans, and including more than 6,000 Americans — from the Kabul airport, most of them during a chaotic withdrawal in the last two weeks of August, leaving behind about 100 Americans.
Some Americans have subsequently been able to leave the country through overland exits or on a handful of flights with the Taliban's acquiescence. But Blinken said that as of the end of last week, about 100 Americans still remain. He also mentioned the journalists who had been left behind in Afghanistan following the chaotic evacuation.
The ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Representative Michael McCaul, said it was a "disgrace" that the U.S. government had failed to evacuate U.S. Agency for Global Media journalists from Afghanistan before officially ending military operations in the country on August 31.
USAGM is the government-funded agency that oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which between them have an estimated 550 Afghan employees and their families still in the country.
Under questioning Tuesday, Blinken responded "yes" when asked by Senator Chris Coons whether evacuating the USAGM employees is a U.S. priority. He also affirmed that the State Department is committed to evacuating employees of other U.S.-funded organizations and "our partners" from the American University in Afghanistan. He did not give further details.
Opposition Republican lawmakers and some Democratic colleagues of Biden have criticized the president's handling of the withdrawal of troops, American citizens and the thousands of Afghans who worked for U.S. forces as interpreters and advisers during the war.
The criticism of Biden's withdrawal was especially pronounced after 13 U.S. service members died in a suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport in the waning days of the exit. Islamic State-Khorasan, an Afghan offshoot of the terrorist group operating in the Middle East, claimed responsibility.
National polls of U.S. voters show wide support for Biden's decision to end what he has called a "forever war" in Afghanistan, but not for the way the withdrawal unfolded.
VOA's Wayne Lee and Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.