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Blinken to appear before Senate panel to defend Afghanistan withdrawal

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken is facing lawmakers for the second time in as many days when he testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday morning, regarding the administration’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan that stranded hundreds of US citizens and Afghan allies in the country now controlled by the Taliban.

In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday, a hearing in which he participated virtually from the State Department, Blinken attempted to defend the disastrous pullout or provide sufficient answers to why the Afghan forces collapsed so quickly — whether the State Department ignored warnings about those forces and whether Americans still in Afghanistan are being mistreated by the jihadist group now in control. 

During the hearing, Blinken and many of the Democrats on the panel insisted that former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban tied the administration’s hands on the drawdown.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 14, 2021.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to testify in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 14, 2021.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Blinken, in his opening statement, said President Biden was left with two choices, “ending the war or escalating it.”

“Had he not followed through on his predecessor’s commitment, attacks on our forces and those of our allies would have resumed and the Taliban’s nationwide assault on Afghanistan’s major cities would have commenced,” Blinken said.

Republican lawmakers, on the other hand, focused their questions for Blinken on the failures that led to the Taliban so rapidly overrunning the country, a situation that led to chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport outside Kabul as thousands of Afghans desperate to escape the extremist group’s rule tried to catch a flight. 

Key Taliban leaders that are current figureheads in the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Key Taliban leaders that are current figureheads in the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
According to Blinken, Biden faced two choices regarding Afghanistan: end the war or escalate it.
According to Blinken, Biden faced two choices regarding Afghanistan: end the war or escalate it.
EPA/U.S. Marine Corps

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House panel, called the evacuation efforts “an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions.”

“But the president refused to listen to his own generals and the intelligence community. You warned him precisely what would happen when we withdrew,” McCaul told Blinken in his opening remarks.

“This was an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see an unconditional surrender to the Taliban.”

During the chaotic evacuation, 13 US service members were killed in a blast from two ISIS-K suicide bombers at Kabul's airport.
During the chaotic evacuation, 13 US service members were killed in a blast from two ISIS-K suicide bombers at Kabul’s airport.
CJ GUNTHER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

As mobs of Afghans gathered around the perimeter of the airport, clogging the gates, an ISIS-K suicide bomber exploded, killing 13 American service members and scores of Afghans. 

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) said ​she was questioning Blinken on behalf of the families of the fallen, including the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, one of the 13 who was killed Aug. 26.

“Make no mistake, Mr. Secretary, the Biden administration’s egregiously inept withdrawal has left America and the world a much less safe place 20 years after Sept. 11,” Wagner said​, and then asked if he took “any responsibility … for this disastrous withdrawal, or do you still want to call it a success?”

Blinken ​responded that he is “responsible for the decisions that I make.”

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Gabby Petito’s stepfather heads to Wyoming to help coordinate search

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The stepfather of missing Long Island woman Gabby Petito has travelled to Wyoming to help join search efforts — vowing not to leave until he brings her home, her family said Wednesday.

James Schmidt, former fire chief for Blue Point Fire Department, has arrived out West to aid authorities in tracking down Petito, who was last known to be in the state’s Grand Teton National Park in late August.

“He’s not leaving until he brings Gabby home,” Petito’s mother, Nicole Schmidt, told The Post. “Now we have eyes, ears, feet on the ground.. in both her home states and where she was last seen.”

Petito, who is from Blue Point, New York, was reported missing on Sept. 11 by her mom, who said her daughter stopped contacting her family on her cross-country tour of national parks.

She had been traveling in a converted van with her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, and was due to wrap up the trip at a friend’s home in Portland around Halloween.

But when her travel updates stopped in late August, her family became concerned.

Nichole and James Schmidt.
James Schmidt has arrived in Wyoming, vowing not to leave until he brings Gabby Petito home.
Dennis A. Clark

Meanwhile, Laundrie has refused to cooperate with authorities and returned without her to North Port, Florida, where they had been living for around two years, police said.

Police have not accused Laundrie of any wrongdoing, but officers in North Port have repeatedly said that they want to talk to him.

Petito’s family has begged him to give them any information about her whereabouts

Gabby Petito.
Gabby Petito was reported missing on Sept. 11 by her mom, Nicole Schmidt, who said her daughter stopped contacting her family on her cross-country tour of national parks.
Instagram

“The Schmidt and Petito family are going through the worst moments of their lives,” they said in a statement.

“The Schmidt and Petito family beg the Laundrie family to not ‘remain in the background’ but to help find who Brian referred to as the love of his life,” the statement said. “How does Brian stay in the background when he is the one person that knows where Gabby is located.”

.Earlier this week, Petito’s biological father, who moved to the Sunshine State to be closer to her, urged people across the country to keep their eyes peeled for anything “fishy.”

Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie.
Gabby Petito’s boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, has refused to cooperate with authorities and returned without her to his home in Florida.
Instagram

“The hard part is that it’s the van life. They can go anywhere they wanted, unfortunately, in this situation. It’s the entire damn country,” he told The Post.

Additional reporting by Kevin Sheehan

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President Biden’s job approval ratings continue to tank

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President Biden’s job approval ratings continue to tank, as the latest poll shows ​50 percent of Americans disapprove of his performance in the White House — with independents’ disapproval of Biden’s job putting him in negative territory.

The president, dealing with intense criticism over his bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan and a surge in COVID cases, has seen his approval rating fall to 42 percent, a drop of four points since early August, according to the Quinnipiac University poll released on Tuesday. ​

It also marks the first time Biden’s ratings have fallen into negative territory in the Quinnipiac poll since he took office in January. ​​

Broken down by political party, Democrats approve of the job Biden is doing 88 – 7 percent, Republicans disapprove 91 -7 percent and independents disapprove 52 – 34 percent. ​

Other surveys began showing Biden’s approval rating falling below 50 percent at the beginning of August. ​

Afghanistan.
54 percent of Americans agree with President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and 69 percent said it was the right thing to do.
MoD Crown Copyright via Getty Images

Americans are split, though, on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with 48 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving — numbers down slightly since August when 53 percent said they approved of the response to the deadly virus and 40 percent disapproved. ​

On foreign policy, 59 percent disapprove and 34 percent approve, a substantial decline from last month when 42 percent approved and 44 percent disapproved. ​

The president is also in negative territory when it comes to his handling of the economy, with 52 percent disapproving and 42 percent approving. ​

Taliban.
62 percent of those polled believe that American troops will eventually return to Afghanistan to fight terrorists.
AFP via Getty Images

“If there ever was a honeymoon for President Biden, it is clearly over. This is, with few exceptions, a poll full of troubling negatives… from overall job approval, to foreign policy, to the economy,”​ ​said Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy.​

The poll also found that 54 percent of Americans agree with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, and 69 percent said it was the right thing to do, but 65 percent disagree with how he handled the pullout. ​

And 62 percent of respondents believe that American troops will eventually return to Afghanistan to fight terrorists — 28 percent said no. ​

Joe Biden.
This is the first time President Biden’s ratings have fallen into negative territory in the Quinnipiac poll since he took office in January. ​​
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The survey of 1,210 adults was conducted between Sept. 10 -13.

It has a plus/minus 2.8 percentage points margin of error. 

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Lab-grown fish fingers? Birds Eye owner explores cell-cultured seafood

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LONDON — Europe’s largest frozen food group and the maker of Birds Eye fish fingers has teamed-up with US company BlueNalu to develop seafood products grown from cells in a laboratory rather than harvested from the oceans.

Nomad Foods, which also owns the Findus, Iglo, La Cocinera and Green Cuisine brands, told Reuters on Monday it aimed to commercialize cell-cultured seafood to help meet rising demand and to support efforts to safeguard the long-term sustainability of the planet’s fish stocks.

Through the tie-up, Nomad and BlueNalu will collaborate on market research and consumer insights, assess what is needed to gain the approval of regulators and explore new business and product opportunities for European markets.

Europe is the largest importer of seafood in the world, with its citizens consuming more than three times as much as they produce, according to the European Union’s Blue Economy Report.

“The importance of sustainability has never been more apparent and the role of technology in delivering these needs is accelerating,” said Nomad Foods Chief Executive Stéfan Descheemaeker.

The process developed by San Diego, California-based BlueNalu sees living fish cells, isolated from the muscle, fat and connective tissue of a fish, fed the nutrition and care they need to multiply. They are then shaped into portions of seafood using practices commonly utilized in the food industry. There is no genetic modification.

Nomad, which operates and manufactures in 14 markets across Europe, is the world’s largest purchaser of sustainable wild caught fish.

It said its agreement with BlueNalu represented the first of its kind in Europe between a consumer packaged goods company and a cell-cultured seafood company.

BlueNalu is developing a variety of seafood products directly from fish cells.

It focuses on fish species that are typically imported, difficult to farm-raise, are overfished or non-sustainable or typically contain higher levels of environmental contaminants.

BlueNalu’s tie-up with Nomad Foods follows already announced collaborations with Pulmuone Co Ltd. in South Korea, Sumitomo Corporation and Mitsubishi Corporation in Japan and Thai Union in Thailand.

Rivals to BlueNalu include Bluu Biosciences, Finless Foods and Wild Type.

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