A hard first test for Biden's democracy agenda

How withdrawal from Afghanistan complicates the Biden administration's push for global democratic renewal

In a visit to the State Department two weeks after he took office, President Biden strongly emphasized the importance democracy would have in his administration’s foreign policy. He declared his intent to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “push back” against “authoritarianism’s advance.” Likewise, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that the United States would “renew democracy because it’s under threat.” These statements found formal bureaucratic expression in the administration’s interim national security guidance, which pledged to “revitalize democracy the world over.”

The first major test of the Biden administration’s commitment to democracy as foreign policy priority comes in Afghanistan, where President Biden yesterday announced his intention to pull all American troops out of the country by the twentieth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He claimed that this move will “end the forever war” in Afghanistan, but he did not make a clear or compelling case that a U.S. withdrawal will actually accomplish any goal beyond withdrawal itself. It’s unlikely to secure Afghanistan’s deeply flawed democracy against the Taliban, and without a political settlement in place an American military departure will probably open a new and no less bloody chapter in a conflict that dates back to the late 1970s. 

In his State Department speech, President Biden made crystal clear that “force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election.” His National Security Council’s interim guidance, moreover, correctly noted that “A vibrant democracy rejects politically motivated violence in all its forms.” In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s politically motivated violence seeks to overrule the will of the Afghan people. Yet Biden’s withdrawal speech made no mention of Afghan democracy and one passing reference to continued American support for the basic rights of Afghan women and girls. 

Still, it’s far too early to declare that the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy will go against the grain of the admirable foreign policy principles it enunciated early on. After all, President Biden made clear that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian, development, and security assistance to the Afghan government even after American troops leave. Without specifics on that assistance, it’s too soon to pass any sort of categorical judgment on this admittedly hard case for the Biden team’s democracy agenda.

But America’s recent record of fulfilling such pledges of assistance after the withdrawal of U.S. forces isn’t great. When American troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, for instance, President Obama promised that American diplomats and civilian advisors would build a “strong and enduring partnership” between the United States and Iraq. The State Department even planned to deploy 17,000 personnel to fifteen sites across Iraq to support this new relationship. In the end, though, the State Department wound up shuttering nine of those sites and slashing its personnel numbers by 61 percent in the year that followed the departure of America’s military.

Even if the Biden administration follows through on these commitments, it remains unclear how American humanitarian and development assistance will reach its intended Afghan recipients. Once U.S. troops withdraw, an already dangerous security situation will likely deteriorate further – making it all the more difficult to make good on pledges of humanitarian and development aid.

As President Biden himself acknowledged, the current administration’s hand was forced by the poor withdrawal deal negotiated with the Taliban by its predecessor. That agreement gave up America’s primary source of leverage – its military presence – in exchange for general Taliban promises to engage the Afghan government in peace talks and not host terrorist networks like al Qaeda. Afghan civilian deaths remained among the highest in the world in 2020, and deaths in combat among pro-government forces amounted to over 3,300 the same year. It’s no surprise that America’s intelligence agencies recently assessed that “the prospects for a peace deal [in Afghanistan] remain low during the next year.”

More generally, it’s difficult to see the broader strategic logic behind this withdrawal. President Biden framed his decision as in keeping with a desire to “focus on the challenges that will determine our standing and reach today and into the years to come.” But there’s no reason to think that the current U.S. military mission in Afghanistan – only 2,500 troops at a cost of just $17 billion last year – constitutes an overwhelming drain on national resources, especially in the context of some $5 trillion in coronavirus relief since March 2020 and President Biden’s own proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Moreover, Americans are neither clamoring for withdrawal nor demanding the United States stay in Afghanistan. They’ve been largely ambivalent about America’s military presence in Afghanistan, supportive of talks with the Taliban but concerned about terrorist threats and regional security.

What the withdrawal of U.S. troops won’t do, however, is end the war in Afghanistan – at least not in the way the administration’s social media feeds and many advocates of withdrawal claim. Indeed, it’s far more likely that the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will make it all the more difficult to negotiate a political settlement to the country’s four-decade civil war. It’s much more probable that the conflict persists and escalates once American forces depart, as the Taliban tests its strength and attempts to seize the entire country through force in the absence of foreign troops.

Far from ending the war in Afghanistan, then, the departure of U.S. troops will probably lead to more fighting, more death, and more destruction over the course of the year to follow. If the Afghan government proves more resilient than the Taliban and many Washington analysts expect, Afghanistan’s internal conflict will simply have entered yet another new phase. As in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, simply ending American military involvement won’t bring the war in Afghanistan to an end – and it may actually crowd out diplomacy.

Moving forward, it'll be vital that the Biden administration to learn from the Obama administration’s post-withdrawal mistakes in Iraq and remain engaged in Afghanistan after the departure of American troops. That will be all the more difficult given the President Biden’s praiseworthy desire to focus on larger foreign policy challenges from China and Russia to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. But withdrawal from Afghanistan creates its own set of strategic risks and moral quandaries, many of which impinge on the Biden administration’s declared intention to shore up democracy around the world.

These moral questions don’t have clear or easy answers, and they go well beyond stale Washington debates about whether or not U.S. military withdrawal amounts to an abandonment of ordinary Afghans.  Even if U.S. troops stayed in Afghanistan, for instance, the United States would still – correctly, in my view – push hard for a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But do such agreements reward and empower armed political extremists that aim to snuff out the possibility of free and open societies in Afghanistan and around the world? As the journalist Kim Ghattas rightly asks, why should “the Afghans who oppose the Taliban be expected to compromise or share power” with them? 

Such questions are rarely if ever raised in the sloganeering that passes for political and policy debate in the United States. It’s far easier to condemn “forever wars” and end our own direct military involvement in overseas conflicts than to find ways to actually end the conflicts themselves – or support those who stand up for liberal values and democracy in the face of violence and intimidation by armed groups like the Taliban. These hard problems deserve serious thought and consideration from political leaders, policymakers, and pundits alike – and especially from those who support pulling American troops from the country.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan presents enormous challenges to America’s interests and values – including President Biden’s stated desire to refocus American foreign policy on the challenges of the future and defend democracy against a rising autocratic tide worldwide. As his former boss President Obama unhappily discovered, it’s one thing to pull U.S. troops out of a war and declare it over but quite another to be able to successfully pivot to strategic issues deemed more important. 

“When you state a moral principle, you are stuck with it.” That’s what President Franklin Roosevelt, another one of Biden’s predecessors, said upon facing criticism from the great Indian apostle of non-violence Mohandas Gandhi in 1942 over America’s failure to live up to the fundamental liberal principles set forth in the Atlantic Charter. Along with his top foreign policy advisers, President Biden himself has rightly articulated the compelling moral principle that the United States needs to actively defend democracy around the world – and in Afghanistan, they face their first and hardest test of how well they can stick with it.