Afghanistan: What Biden's critics get wrong, and the debt owed Afghan refugees

Afghanistan: What Biden's critics get wrong, and the debt owed Afghan refugees
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The Biden administration could certainly have better planned the extraction of civilians from Afghanistan. Yet media and politicians portray the fall of Afghanistan as a broader strategic debacle for U.S. foreign policy and President Joe BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE. They say America’s abandonment of the elected government in Kabul undermines U.S. efforts to support democracy elsewhere; harms U.S. alliance commitments; will be a boon for terrorists, and is likely to result in massive human rights violations. 

These criticisms exaggerate the fallout. Responsibility for the current mess does not lie primarily with those who decided to face the reality of an unwinnable war and call it quits. Instead, it rests mainly with those who expanded what had begun as a limited mission to hunt down suspected terrorists linked to al Qaeda into “nation-building” in Afghanistan — President George W. Bush and his administration.

U.S. democracy promotion does not require military intervention. Indeed, forcible democracy promotion in deeply divided societies won’t succeed — at least at a cost Americans are willing to pay. There are compelling reasons to believe that the withdrawal will not harm U.S. alliances. As to counterterrorism, there are better ways of fighting terrorists than costly occupations with lots of boots on the ground. And though the prospect for human rights in Afghanistan is a cause for concern, the situation does not warrant a continuing U.S. deployment on humanitarian grounds.

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Promoting democracy: The great theorist of democracy, John Stuart Mill, emphasized nearly two centuries ago that democracy needs to grow domestically; freedom delivered by foreign hands, he cautioned, “will have nothing real, nothing permanent.” Democratic leaders empowered through foreign intervention would lack local legitimacy and remain exceedingly weak, especially in divided societies. The interveners would thus continually have to send in foreign support, lest the country collapse into civil war.

Over the last three decades, U.S. policymakers have had to repeatedly relearn these hard lessons — in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia during the 1990s; and most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the future, except in truly genocidal situations, the United States should privilege nonmilitary measures to defend human rights and promote democracy abroad. It should work with allies and partners to nurture civil society organizations, advance universal literacy, and help establish accountable institutions. Such humble measures may be less emotionally satisfying than using military force to topple heinous tyrants; however, they offer better prospects of success over time, in addition to being more cost-effective.

U.S. alliances: Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will not harm the credibility of U.S. alliances. The United States and Afghanistan had signed a “partnership agreement,” but Afghanistan was never a formal U.S. ally — so there has been no breach of alliance commitments. Furthermore, U.S. alliances are intended to benefit the United States by increasing its leverage and preserving a favorable balance of power internationally. In that sense, Biden’s highly publicized decision to shore up traditional U.S. alliances with major industrialized countries — primarily through NATO — has achieved more to signal U.S. strength vis-à-vis Russia and China than a protracted commitment to a weak Afghan government could ever have done. Rational U.S. leaders will continue supporting these traditional alliances, regardless of U.S. policy toward weak partners such as Afghanistan — something that hostile powers can be expected to understand. 

Terrorism: U.S. intelligence and defense leaders are well aware that the threat of jihadi terrorism has shifted in recent years from Afghanistan and the Middle East toward Africa — especially the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert. Hence a continued focus on Afghanistan was probably unwarranted on counterterrorism grounds. More generally, combating terrorism does not require costly military occupations; indeed, these may be counterproductive as they tend to radicalize local populations that often view foreign militaries as agents of imperialism. Nimbler in-and-out operations involving special forces and drone strikes where necessary are arguably better suited to the task. It is also worth emphasizing that terrorists in the developing world threaten primarily their fellow countryfolk, and the threat to U.S. national security has often been exaggerated. Compared to existential threats such as climate change, global pandemics, and nuclear weapons proliferation, the threat from terrorists overseas — who would have to overcome major logistical and technical challenges to successfully employ weapons of mass destruction against Western societies — is eminently manageable.

Human rights: Finally, on human rights, the Taliban may yet show moderation, to prevent their regime from again becoming an international pariah and access badly needed international aid. The Taliban’s recent, swift and relatively bloodless takeover of the country may paradoxically be preferable from a humanitarian perspective, compared to the scenario of a protracted civil war in which the Afghan army had valiantly resisted at the cost of thousands of civilian casualties, without ultimately being able to prevent a Taliban victory. Contrary to what is claimed by some critics of Biden’s decision to complete the withdrawal, an indefinite commitment of 3,000-odd U.S. troops could hardly have stopped a determined Taliban from taking over most of the country. In recent months, the Taliban leadership had simply decided to wait out the United States. But had Biden reversed Trump’s decision to withdraw, the Taliban might well have resumed their attacks on U.S. troops — generating political pressure to again expand the U.S. commitment.  

There is no denying the Afghan people face a bleak future. The best way for the Biden administration to honor its professed commitment to human rights will be to offer substantial humanitarian aid to Afghans in need, and at the same time take in a sizeable number of Afghan refugees — at least 50,000 — privileging those who exposed themselves by collaborating with coalition forces. To facilitate evacuation efforts beyond Aug. 31, the U.S. and its partners should work to establish humanitarian corridors on the ground, in coordination with the Red Cross-Red Crescent Society. Yet facilitating the evacuation of vulnerable Afghans to third-party states won’t be enough; many of them should be offered refugee status in the United States. 

After the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, the United States generously admitted hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians. Today, Washington and its allies owe it to the Afghan people to be similarly welcoming. 

Stefano Recchia holds the John G. Tower distinguished chair in international politics and national security at Southern Methodist University. He has published several books and numerous research articles on the politics and ethics of military intervention.