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Biden’s Democracy Agenda Just Died an Ugly Death in Kabul

The fall of Afghanistan reveals hard truths about U.S. human rights talks.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
A U.S. soldier points his gun toward an Afghan passenger
A U.S. soldier points his gun toward an Afghan passenger at Kabul’s airport on Aug. 16. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The images emanating from Afghanistan on Monday of thousands of Afghans rushing Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee their shattered country, many of them desperately clinging to a C-17 U.S. military aircraft preparing for takeoff, speak to a moment in U.S. history when the country departed from its own ethos. It is a moment that resists erasure.

That is why the Taliban takeover of Kabul has drawn so many comparisons to the fall of Saigon: not because of the striking similarity of U.S. diplomats being airlifted out of the country but because of that same lingering feeling the images from Afghanistan evoke.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s passionate defense on Monday of his decision to leave Afghanistan suggested he doesn’t understand that feeling. The debate today is not about leaving the country but about the spectacularly shameful and distinctly un-American way the drawdown was executed—one that makes Americans question who they are as a country.

The images emanating from Afghanistan on Monday of thousands of Afghans rushing Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee their shattered country, many of them desperately clinging to a C-17 U.S. military aircraft preparing for takeoff, speak to a moment in U.S. history when the country departed from its own ethos. It is a moment that resists erasure.

That is why the Taliban takeover of Kabul has drawn so many comparisons to the fall of Saigon: not because of the striking similarity of U.S. diplomats being airlifted out of the country but because of that same lingering feeling the images from Afghanistan evoke.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s passionate defense on Monday of his decision to leave Afghanistan suggested he doesn’t understand that feeling. The debate today is not about leaving the country but about the spectacularly shameful and distinctly un-American way the drawdown was executed—one that makes Americans question who they are as a country.

The abandonment of Afghanistan, a democratic state, to its fate under the rule of a terrorist organization reveals some hard truths about Biden’s stated democracy and human rights agenda. Afghanistan is the latest and most troubling sign there is a lot more bark to Biden’s democratic bite.

The Biden administration is pointing to the lightning speed collapse of the Afghan army over the past few weeks as evidence of the brilliance behind Biden’s decision to withdraw. In large part, Afghan forces melted away because the glue holding the Afghan army together—the logistical and psychological U.S. system of support they were dependent on—was taken away wholesale. At that point, the endgame was clear.

But ultimately, the Taliban were able to take over so easily because Afghans were unwilling to die in the name of a corrupt president and incompetent government they didn’t support. That was the contingency the Biden administration evidently didn’t consider, though the signs had been blinking red for months.

Instead of uniting his country, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani isolated himself inside his presidential palace, refusing to negotiate with Afghanistan’s power brokers on a political transition. In a balkanized society where people fight for their tribe and home, he centralized power and refused to arm local militias. He micromanaged the war and replaced experienced commanders with political allies who had far less battlefield experience, undermining military leadership and destroying the army’s morale at the worst possible time.

Biden acknowledged Ghani’s shortcomings in Monday’s speech, blaming the Afghan leader for failing to unite his country and make a deal with the Taliban—something Washington pressed him to do for months. It’s puzzling why Biden was unwilling to use the United States’ considerable political and economic leverage to get Ghani to change course as the Taliban continued to gain ground. In the end, just like the Afghan army, the White House accepted the inevitability of a Taliban takeover.

Biden was repeating mistakes former U.S. President Donald Trump—and the two U.S. presidents before him—made, which was to prop up a corrupt government that never earned the Afghan people’s trust. Just like they did in Iraq, Americans convinced themselves their enormous military footprint and blank checkbook would be enough for Afghanistan to stand on its own feet without dealing with the systemic problems of weak governance.

But unlike his predecessors, Biden came to office promising to stand up for U.S. values of democracy and human rights. He has spoken eloquently about the need for the world’s democracies to rally against tyranny and outcompete authoritarian governments.

Biden said Monday the United States’ strategic competitors, China and Russia, “would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.” Today, Russia and China are celebrating the U.S. defeat and are on the verge of recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government. They will undoubtedly be among the group’s biggest backers, fill the vacuum the United States left behind, and point to the resulting damage in the United States’ standing as evidence that democracies cannot, in Biden’s words, “deliver.”

It’s hard to square Biden’s proclamations about human rights and democracy promotion with his approach to Afghanistan.

This is why it’s hard to square Biden’s proclamations about human rights and democracy promotion with his approach to Afghanistan. As a presidential candidate last year, Biden was asked whether the United States had a responsibility to Afghan women and girls in light of a possible Taliban takeover. “No, I don’t!” Biden said. “Zero responsibility.” Even then, it was pretty clear the Taliban—who are now reportedly hunting down Washington’s Afghan allies for execution, forcing young girls to wear burkas, and lining them up for marriage in the districts they control—had no intent on maintaining Afghanistan’s democratic society. When it came time to defend democracy, Biden chose realpolitik, just as then-U.S. President Barack Obama did in Syria.

“There was a lot of promise, a lot of assurance,” a journalist in Afghanistan wrote in an essay for Politico under the condition of anonymity to protect his security. “A lot of talk about values, a lot of talk about progress, about rights, about women’s rights, about freedom, about democracy. That all turned out to be hollow. Had I known that this commitment was temporary, I wouldn’t have risked my life.”

For all its flaws and rampant corruption, Afghanistan has made much progress since the Taliban last ruled the country in 2001, including hosting an independent media, a thriving civil society, and women running businesses and holding positions at the highest levels of government. Much is rightly being made of the need to protect women’s rights as well as a whole generation of girls who now go to schools and universities. But there are many individual freedoms at risk, which Americans take for granted but Afghans have fought to enjoy: listening to music, watching a movie, sitting in a café, or even shaving one’s beard.

On Monday, Biden once again said human rights were at the “center of our foreign policy, not the periphery. But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments; it’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools, and rallying the world to join us.”

Aligning democracies against autocracies is an entirely different exercise than helping democratic movements fight for freedom. In Afghanistan, Biden seems to have accepted he can’t do much in terms of actually ensuring democracy beyond extolling its benefits.

The democratic rubber meets the road in countries in crisis—not just in Afghanistan but also in Cuba, where the regime cracked down last month on massive protests across the country. And in Belarus, where the authoritarian government of Russia-aligned leader Aleksandr Lukashenko has violently suppressed protests, tortured prisoners, and hijacked a passenger jet with a critical blogger abroad. And in Iran, where more than a dozen people were recently killed in a regime crackdown against an uprising in several cities across the country.

The Biden administration is quick to impose sanctions on foreign government officials for undemocratic behavior and call on dictators to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights,” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did with Tunisian President Kais Saied. But when it requires tangible deliverables, Washington rarely proves nimble enough to act quickly. For example, after exiled Belarusian presidential election winner Svetlana Tikhanovskaya met with Biden at the White House, she told reporters she asked him “to stand with Belarus and support our democratic movement with concrete actions,” such as providing emergency funding for Belarus’s civil society and news media.

Afghans want to protect their democracy—but they need U.S. support, not lofty declarations.

The administration does deserve some credit for its response to the election in Peru, where U.S. officials intervened diplomatically to prevent right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori from pulling off what Trump did in 2020: manipulate a deeply divided electorate with unsubstantiated claims of fraud to reverse the narrow victory of her opponent, left-wing school teacher Pedro Castillo, who was ultimately declared the winner. Such messages sent an important message to other authoritarians in the region, such as those running Cuba and Venezuela’s governments.

Yet dictators and monarchs in the Middle East and Africa heard a very different message from Biden’s mild rebuke to Saied’s authoritarian power play in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where civil society activists won the Nobel Peace Prize for their fight for democracy. And from Washington’s $197 million missile sale to Egypt only days after the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi detained family members of a U.S.-based, Egyptian American human rights activist.

In April, I wrote if Biden were truly serious about democracy and human rights, Afghanistan—where the United States midwifed the country’s democratic transition—would be a good place to start. Trump may have forced the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, but Biden had eight months in office to put mechanisms in place to secure at least some of those gains.

The bungled evacuation of tens of thousands of U.S. wartime Afghan allies—some of whom have been waiting for years to come to the United States and now face death if they are discovered by the Taliban—is a perfect example of where the United States needs to break free from its own bureaucratic shackles to support democracy in real time.

Evacuating every one of those Afghans who stood by the United States—not just military translators but also women who served in the government or taught in schools, human rights activists and others who ran U.S. programs, and many others—should be the floor, not the ceiling. Washington still has levers it can and must use to preserve Afghanistan’s gains and protect the nearly 40 million Afghans it is leaving behind, such as tying recognition of the Taliban and future aid to human rights conditions. Washington can also invest in technologies to keep access to the internet and information flowing and allow the media to continue reporting.

The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis was fond of saying: “Democracy is not a state. It’s an act.” Afghans want to protect their democracy—but they need U.S. support, not lofty declarations. Biden must do more to help by matching his actions to his rhetoric.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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