President Joe Biden is committed to a complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, after two decades of military presence in the country. Although Mr. Biden initially gave the September date in April of this year, he has in recent days reaffirmed his decision publicly. Even now, the withdrawal is all but complete–only about 600 of the approximately 3,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan at the time of Mr. Biden’s inauguration remain in the country. The number is miniscule compared to a peak of about 100,000 troops in the early part of the previous decade.
The Taliban, a fundamentalist insurgent group which was a major target of the United States’ intervention in 2001, has exploited the withdrawal to wage a war of territorial acquisition against the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan. The Afghan military, ostensibly trained by the U.S. to hold its own against the Taliban, is crumbling as the Taliban resurges. Critics of Mr. Biden’s withdrawal plan assert that when U.S. forces leave, the human rights situation in Afghanistan will drastically deteriorate. They claim that women will be repressed, and that anyone who helped the United States will face horrific consequences for their support.
The reality on the ground will almost certainly vindicate some of these claims. Yet the critics are only right in the narrowest sense. The withdrawal might be an immediate cause of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, but the country has spent the last forty years as the site of conflict between great powers: first between the United States and the Soviet Union, and then as the object of the United States’ misguided “War on Terror.” One wonders whether the Taliban—an organization which was birthed in no small part as a U.S.-aligned proxy against the Soviet Union—would be at the gates of Kabul if the U.S. had only pursued a different foreign policy.
Mr. Biden has effectively defended his position against his detractors. While he was a textbook liberal internationalist as a senator, and while he will likely remain in that vein for the remainder of his presidency, he has indicated that the lessons of such hubris have been learned, at least to some extent. In a recent interview on CBS’ Face the Nation, Mr. Biden noted that if the United States has an obligation to protect human rights at all times in all places, we would have to be an occupying force in at least half the world's nations.
As jarring as it might be to hear a president of the United States assert that it is not his responsibility to ensure that human rights are protected everywhere and always, it should also be refreshing. For too long the language of human rights has been warped to justify boots on the ground, with catastrophic consequences. Note, too, that Mr. Biden is not advocating a withdrawal from the world in the way his predecessor did. In his Face the Nation interview he explicitly raises the importance of multilateral diplomacy to bolster the protection of rights abroad.
Liberalism is founded on a belief in the universality of human rights, but democracy demands a value of self-determination. Thus, liberal democracy is faced with profound conundrums about how to interact with the world, especially regimes like the Taliban which have some popular support but deny fundamental liberal values. If Mr. Biden can exercise military restraint while pursuing a peaceful internationalist policy, not just in Afghanistan but in the world at large, he will have rebalanced the scales much for the better, and he may be able to thread the needle between irresponsible isolationism and interventionism.