Afghans Will No Longer Choose Their Own Government

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As the Taliban marched through Afghan provinces Thursday and many of the country’s soldiers made way, U.S. President Joe Biden restated his case for unilaterally ending America’s longest war. His argument boils down to an acknowledgement that a U.S. mission to uphold the central government in Kabul is a fool’s errand. “No nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation,” he said. So what would be the point of staying another year or decade to fight for a government that will never be able to rule a deeply divided nation?

In an America recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and in need of investments in its own infrastructure, this thinking holds some appeal. Majorities of Americans want more nation-building at home.

Nonetheless, Biden’s argument is dishonest. Consider the testy exchange he had with a journalist after his prepared remarks. When asked whether the U.S. would be somewhat responsible for Afghan deaths going forward, Biden said, “No, it’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide the government they want, not us to impose the government on them.”

That line is pithy, but it does not reflect what happened after the U.S. invasion in 2001. The constitutional system that exists today in Afghanistan was agreed through a national dialogue. And this system has afforded the Afghan people an elected central government (however corrupt and inefficient). It’s the Taliban that now seeks to impose a clerical state, which will not be subject to popular vote. The Taliban have consistently rejected elections, going so far as to attack voters and polling stations. More recently, they have rejected offers from Kabul for a cease-fire or to join national talks for reconciliation.

The struggle between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban is not a choice between democracy and Islamic rule. It is a conflict over whether Afghans should choose their own government at all. So Biden’s justification for America’s retreat from the country is just not true.

He also said that the mission of the war was to bring justice to Osama bin Laden and to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorism. This sells the U.S. military short. American soldiers who sacrificed in the Afghanistan war were fighting for the self-determination of the Afghan people.

This is a core tenet of American foreign policy at its best. The U.S. fights wars to advance not only its interests, but also its values. It is one thing that makes America exceptional.

For now, Biden is unwilling to completely write off the government in Kabul. The U.S. will continue to provide robust humanitarian aid and security assistance after American forces leave at the end of August, he said.

That’s better than nothing, but not nearly enough. Ever since April, when Biden announced his withdrawal plan, the Taliban has been on the march and, in just two months, has been able to seize 150 of Afghanistan’s 421 districts. If this trend continues, the Taliban will soon impose its own regime, one that negates the people’s right to decide their government.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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