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Durbin Defends Biden's Afghanistan Withdrawal; Duckworth Says Focus Now Should Be Evacuations

From left to right: U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline), Peoria Mayor Rita Ali, and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D) enter a air hangar for a press conference at the 182nd Airlift Wing Peoria Air National Guard base on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.
Tim Shelley
From left to right: U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, Peoria Mayor Rita Ali, and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D) enter an air hangar for a news conference at the 182nd Airlift Wing Illinois Air National Guard base in Peoria on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin voted to support authorizing military deployment to Afghanistan 20 years ago in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He said he still supports that vote, but said the U.S. learned a "valuable lesson" with the subsequent failure to build a self-sustaining democratic Afghan government.

"They told us Osama bin Laden was there with al-Qaeda. And the question is were we going to go in and get him? And I voted for it. And I'd do it again to stop that madman, with what he did to the United States," Durbin said. "But staying beyond that purpose has cost us dearly as a nation."

Durbin pinned the blame for the government's collapse in the wake of the U.S. military draw down on the Afghan army that was trained and supplied by western forces.

"I'm not going to hold Joe Biden responsible for the Afghan security forces disappearing in the battle. We cannot and should not take their place," Durbin said.

Fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, said America's focus now needs to be on evacuations, not blame games about the how the draw down is playing out.

"Where we need to be right now, today, is focused on getting Americans out of Afghanistan, getting our interpreters and those who worked with us, who we made a promise (to), out of Afghanistan," Duckworth said. "Because I will tell you, if we do not do that, no one will ever work with U.S. forces again. If we abandon them, and don't make a good effort to get our Afghan allies out, the next time we go in some place and we say, 'Come work with us, and we'll take care of you,' no one will believe us."

Durbin said "no one" saw the Taliban's reconquering of the country coming so rapidly.

"We were trying to have an orderly evacuation of Americans, of those who have been loyal to us throughout this battle, and circumstances overwhelmed us," he said.

Duckworth did say she's involved in ongoing meetings around plans to evacuate Americans and Afghan interpreters from the country. She said she wasn't at liberty to talk details in the unclassified setting of an unrelated Tuesday news conference Tuesday in Peoria.

"It is our word, our bond, our value as a nation, that we need to get these interpreters out of Afghanistan. And I will tell you that we're doing everything that we can," she said.

That also includes rescuing Illinoisan Mark Frerichs, who is possibly the only U.S. citizen currently held hostage in Afghanistan. Frerichs, a Navy veteran, was working in Kabul as a civil engineer before he was abducted last year.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said he's open to welcoming Afghan refugees who worked with the U.S. military into the state as they arrive.

"If there's an opportunity, and there are refugees that come to the United States as a result of our ability to get them out, I hope that Illinois will be one place that we'll be able to welcome them to," Pritzker said.

It's unclear how many refugees could arrive to the U.S. from Afghanistan in the wake of the government's collapse and the Taliban's rapid takeover.

President Joe Biden defended his administration's handling of the withdrawal during remarks to the nation on Monday afternoon. But he is facing deepening criticism from both sides of the aisle over how the evacuation process is playing out.

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, was among the critics. In a statement Monday, LaHood said the Biden administration pushed ahead with an "ill-advised, poorly planned and needlessly rapid" complete draw down of American forces in the country.

“President Biden and his Administration’s failure of leadership has enabled a return to a pre-9/11 Afghanistan — creating a fertile breeding ground for radical terrorism to grow once again," LaHood said.

Duckworth, a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, has been a critic of the U.S.' handling of the ongoing Afghanistan conflict. She said the country let its troops down by not revisiting the debate over America's long-term strategy in Afghanistan years ago in the lead up to this moment.

But she acknowledged the news coverage of the draw down and its subsequent fallout is hard to witness.

"The images that we've seen coming out of Afghanistan, as a country is falling to the Taliban, are tragic and incredibly difficult to watch, especially for the countless American service members and military families who sacrificed so greatly in that nation," she said.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.