President Joe Biden discusses the ongoing situation in Afghanistan in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., August 22, 2021. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
President Biden and his top aides pledged to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, and their emphasis on a loud, though toothless, effort to promote human rights is one of the key instruments with which they have attempted to influence the Taliban’s actions.
From the start of the ultimately successful Taliban blitzkrieg, top administration officials made appeals to the Islamist group’s desire to be accepted as legitimate by the international community, warning it against the brutality that the world has come to associate with its advances. These overtures came mostly from U.S. negotiators in Doha and the White House press briefing room.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield noted in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the Security Council released “a very strongly worded press statement” encouraging the Taliban to respect human rights, a comment widely panned by the administration’s critics.
Unsurprisingly, Foggy Bottom has taken a similar tack, issuing similarly empty statements about human rights, since the start of the Taliban’s new reign in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15, the State Department issued a number of statements designed to prove its commitment to the human-rights-centered foreign-policy vision articulated by top Biden officials in the early days of the administration but which only provided reminders of just how hollow their early comments were.
These statements recognized humanitarian workers, victims of terrorism, and persecuted religious minorities, as officials scrambled to contain the fallout of the U.S. pullout. Each of the press releases, issued by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was a stark reminder of the administration’s decision to leave aid workers and Afghanistan’s religious minorities to the mercy of radical militants, as a new government in Kabul takes power without shedding its deep and abiding ties to al-Qaeda.
“On World Humanitarian Day, we recognize and honor all of the humanitarian aid workers who have sacrificed so much — including, for too many of them, their lives — to answer the call to protect and support the world’s most vulnerable populations. We commend the bravery and compassion of humanitarian aid workers who put the welfare of others before their own,” Blinken said in an August 19 statement marking the commemorative day recognized by the U.N.
Normally, such a perfunctory statement would go unnoticed, but the White House’s handling of the withdrawal has demonstrated scant consideration of the implications for humanitarian workers in the country.
The war-torn country was always a dangerous place for aid groups to operate, but the return of the Taliban has already forced many of them underground, amid the Taliban offensive that the White House failed to anticipate. Newsweek reported that the Norwegian Refugee Council’s staff “had gone into hibernation” after the fall of Kabul and that Save the Children’s work in the country is “currently on pause.”
The State Department also lent its support to religious minorities who will likely face stepped-up Taliban mass atrocities.
“On the International Day Commemorating Survivors of Religious Persecution, we recognize that individuals around the world are harassed, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, and killed for exercising their beliefs,” wrote Blinken in a statement that made no specific mention of Afghan religious minorities, such as the predominantly Shiite Hazaras and Christians, against whom the Taliban have a long history of engaging in indiscriminate violence.
“On this day, we reiterate the responsibility all governments have to protect people from harm regardless of their beliefs and renew our pledge to stand up for the world’s persecuted.”
The statement also neglected to mention an Amnesty International report describing the torture and murder of nine Hazara men in July by Taliban members, though a State Department spokesperson did address the report during a recent press briefing, promising to “continue to condemn these — any reported atrocities precisely because they are violations of the public commitment by Taliban leaders to seek reconciliation for all Afghans. This is what the Taliban have said they want.”
But the Biden administration now seems powerless to follow through on its pledges to prioritize the protection of religious minorities, with the only tool at its disposal to shape Taliban behavior the prospect of future humanitarian aid to a Taliban-controlled Afghan government.
Blinken also issued a statement on the International Day of Remembrance and Tribute to the Victims of Terrorism: “Over the past 20 years, the United States and its international partners have made great strides in detecting and disrupting terrorist attacks. The United States is committed to preventing future attacks and to holding terrorists to account for their crimes.”
But the administration’s work to do just that has been hamstrung by the Taliban’s return to power as experts warn of a renewed threat from international terrorist groups. “The terrorism risk to the United States is going to get dramatically worse,” Nathan Sales, a former State Department counterterrorism official, told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, on Fox News Sunday yesterday, Blinken attempted to smooth over comments by Biden claiming that al-Qaeda no longer maintains a presence in Afghanistan. Acknowledging that the terrorist group does in fact continue to operate in the country, the secretary of state said that it no longer has the capability to attack the U.S. homeland — a claim disputed by terrorism experts.
American officials should loudly champion democracy, human rights, and U.S. interests on the world stage; not doing so would be a major failing. But only making lofty, but unsupported, pronouncements damages U.S. credibility, perhaps even more.
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