Biden: Military Isn't The Way To Deal With Human Rights Issues : The NPR Politics Podcast Frantic evacuations continue in Afghanistan as President Biden publicly defends the way in which the withdrawal of U.S. troops was conducted. And in an interview with ABC on Wednesday, Biden said that using military force to deal with human rights issues was "not rational."

This episode: congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, White House correspondent Asma Khalid, international correspondent Jackie Northam, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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Biden: Military Isn't The Way To Deal With Human Rights Issues

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DAN: Hi. This is Dan (ph) in Atlanta. For most of my runs, I listen to this podcast for the first 15 minutes. But for the rest of the time, many times, my breathing becomes (whistling).


DAN: This podcast was recorded at...


1:08 p.m. on Thursday, August 19.

DAN: Anyway, here's the show.


ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I'm impressed he runs longer than 15 minutes. That's more than most of my runs.

SNELL: (Laughter) Well, I guess he's keeping up the pace there.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SNELL: And we have NPR international correspondent Jackie Northam here.

Hi, Jackie.


SNELL: We're glad to have you here because we are again talking about Afghanistan. President Biden largely reiterated his defense of the Afghanistan withdrawal in an interview with ABC News yesterday, saying that some chaos was inevitable.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The idea that somehow, there is a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens.

SNELL: We're going to talk more about that in a second. But first, Jackie, can you tell us more about what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan right now? Are people still being allowed to evacuate?

NORTHAM: Well, in theory, yes, they are allowed to evacuate, but that's really not what's happening on the ground. You know, just to back up, the U.S. says they're going to try and get about 500 people an hour out of the country, so the operation is kicking into gear. The big problem, though, is getting to the airport. You know, it's a very long road that leads up to the airport, and there are Taliban checkpoints all along the way. It appears that all Westerners are getting through, but armed militants are making it really difficult for Afghans trying to get, you know, to the tarmac. And there are reports of them ripping up people's documents and not allowing them to go any further. And I've been looking at, you know, social media today, and you're seeing all sorts of images just highlighting the chaos there. You know, there's guns firing, and you see militants whipping Afghans and people screaming and pushing. There's little kids involved. It's terrible. It's a really dangerous situation, but, you know, it's the only way to get out of the country.

SNELL: I'm curious. How do you, you know, account for this difference between what Taliban PR is saying to the Western world about how things are going to go down versus what we're actually seeing happen in footage and people's direct accounts?

NORTHAM: Well, you're right. I mean, the Taliban - they've had the full PR machine on high gear all this week. And they're saying all the things that, you know, Western countries want to hear, you know, that women are going to be treated pretty much the same way. You know, there's going to be media. We're not going to - they're not going to have any reprisals against anybody who worked for the U.S. or that. But we're already hearing reports and seeing, you know, stuff on social media that that's not the case. There are reprisals. Women are being told to cover up and that.

And so to answer your question, you have to understand with the Taliban is really - like a lot of militia groups, the one thing that holds them together is this really narrow view of Islam, a really extreme view of Islam. The political, you know, factor of the Taliban - those are the ones in Kabul holding press conferences and tweeting and doing negotiations with the U.S. earlier. They understand that they cannot be the same group that took over Afghanistan last time because the country became a pariah state. There were only three countries in the world that recognized it. They get that because they understand they need international buy-in. They need investment there. They need, you know, foreign aid coming into the country. This is a country that imports everything.

SNELL: In the meantime, there is this process of trying to get people out of the country. And the flip side of that is where do they go? So Asma, Biden had to be pressured to raise the total number of refugees to 60,000 people in May. That's well before this current situation in Afghanistan. Now, some of those Afghans would technically be under a different category. But can we talk a little about resettling those who need to leave?

KHALID: I mean, there's, first of all, just the logistical challenge of even getting Afghan allies - people who helped U.S. troops, people who assisted journalists - out of the country timely. You know, you mentioned this interview that the president did yesterday with George Stephanopoulos of ABC. He was asked, you know, sort of multiple different times about how long U.S. troops would stay on the ground. And essentially, he committed to staying beyond the August 31 deadline if not all American citizens were yet out of the country. But when George asked him to kind of clarify, you know, what does that mean for some of the Afghan allies? That commitment was not, you know, equally extended. So I will say that, I think, beyond the politics of letting additional Afghans into the United States, raising, say, a refugee camp, there's also just the logistical challenge of getting people out of the country.

And the president has faced, you know, criticism, I will say, both from the right and from the left around the fact that there are folks who assisted U.S. troops on the ground there in the country for years who had been trying to get out of the country, whose visa process, you know, was just slogged down. And I think there'll be, you know, a lot of additional reporting in the weeks and months ahead just around some of the hiccups in that process. You know, I will say I've heard even from Democrats that this process was slower. There were a lot of logistical challenges, and what exactly went wrong is valid to look into.

But beyond that, you know, there's a political debate that's going to pop up. And I think to me, what is unclear is that, you know, we are seeing a lot of Republicans point fingers at the sort of horrific scenes you're seeing out of Afghanistan right now and blaming President Biden for the withdrawal. I am curious as to how that conversation ends up translating to the debate over refugees because there seems to be already within the Republican Party, though, a debate about whether or not they want these Afghans coming into the United States.

SNELL: Right. And there is already a letter out - a bipartisan letter in the Senate asking for changes to the program that would allow some of these people who assisted the United States and NATO to come into the country.

KHALID: You know, Jackie, I've repeatedly heard the president refer to this number of 300,000 troops that he says - Afghan troops that were trained and equipped and that they sort of quickly collapsed. And I'm curious what your reporting has shown because it seems like that number that the president keeps talking about is a bit of a facade.

NORTHAM: Well, right, there's always been a question about this 300,000 number to begin with because they thought that there were a lot of ghost soldiers, you know, people on paper but didn't actually show up. You know, this whole idea - you know, when this all unfolded, everybody's going, wait. What happened to the Afghan army? I thought we had been training them and that. And in fact, there has been well-documented reports out there saying this was inevitable. And for the past 10 years, this special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, John Sopko, has been issuing reports, saying, you know, this is a house of cards. It's - there's nothing here. He documented that, you know, you didn't have soldiers with any allegiance to the government and so not surprising if you know, you've got Taliban coming in. They're dropping them in arms or they're in hiding or joining the Taliban.

There was reports about how they're underpaid, how they weren't supplied, everything like that. This was known out there, and the thing that really gets the inspector general Sopko is the fact that even if, you know, consecutive administrations knew this and the military leaders knew this and that, they still came out and said, we're doing a great job. We're doing a great job. And Sopko was going crazy with what he called happy talk because he knew it wasn't true. And he, for one, is absolutely not surprised because he's been documenting it for years.

SNELL: Jackie, thank you so much for helping us try to understand what's going on in this really complicated story. It's been great to have you.

NORTHAM: Terrific. Thanks so much.

SNELL: We're going to take a quick break and talk more about this in a second.

And we're back with editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SNELL: Ron, you are joining us because you have a column out this week calling this Biden's America First moment. So what do you mean by that?

ELVING: You can say this is the one place where the policies of Donald Trump have been most conspicuously continued by Joe Biden. Now, there may be others, but here we have an agreement that Donald Trump had reached with the Taliban 18 months ago. And that was in effect when Joe Biden became president. Perhaps he could have delayed it further. Perhaps he could have tried to reverse it, but he did not. He only tried to delay it until September. The die was already cast. The Taliban had their clocks set. They had been told the United States would have all its troops out by May 1. That was Trump's agreement, and they operated accordingly. They started in the spring fighting season, and they rolled up what was actual of the Afghan army, whatever that portion was, very quickly thereafter through various and sundry means of cooperation and subverting what had been supposedly built by the United States. And our military has been referring to it as a 300,000-man army as recently as yesterday.

Clearly, that wasn't the case, or at least, it wasn't a fighting army. And this has been the continuation of the agreement that Trump reached. And we don't usually think of Joe Biden as being either an America-First-type of person or an isolationist. But he had clearly some years ago lost faith in the Afghanistan mission, even when he was vice president for President Obama. And now that he is president, he has not changed his mind.

SNELL: You know, on that note, I want to play another bit of sound from that ABC interview we were talking about earlier.


BIDEN: The idea that we're able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational, not rational. Look what's happened to the Uyghurs in western China. Look what's happening in other parts of the world. Look what's happening in the Congo. I mean, there are a lot of places where women are being subjugated. The way to deal with that is not with a military invasion. The way to deal with that is putting economic, diplomatic and international pressure on them to change their behavior.

SNELL: Asma, to start with, what do you make of that from the president? You've been hearing the arguments he's been making over the past couple of days. What do you think about this in particular?

KHALID: You know, Kelsey, I'm working on a story right now that tries to better understand exactly what the so-called, like, Biden doctrine of foreign policy is. And his aides have made it very clear from the get-go that they want a foreign policy, quote, "for the middle class." And, you know, I feel like that's a sort of nebulous idea. But, you know, people have made the argument in the past couple of days that perhaps it is calculating. Perhaps it might seem cold to some folks, but their assessment could be that many Americans don't really care that much about what's happening in Afghanistan. And if they do at the moment, they might forget about it in, you know, due time and that the focus is really about kind of nation building here at home. I would say some people make that argument rather snarkily. I would argue that some Biden aides would probably find the idea that their focus is about nation building here at home totally in sync with what they're focused on. I mean, they want to do things, right?

SNELL: I would think that many Democrats would agree.

KHALID: Yeah. And I feel like the question for me is, like, has Joe Biden shifted over the years? Or has the party itself, the Democratic Party, shifted where the kind of more outspoken, hawkish, military interventionist Democrats no longer maybe have the loudest voices in the party?

ELVING: One should also say that both Trump and Biden have fashioned themselves - Biden in a long political career, Trump in a short one - as champions of the working class, the working people of America. And internationalism has largely been, if you will, a product of more elite America, more the products of - the old cliche about the Ivy League supplying the top offices in the State Department and the CIA for many, many years - not a product of the preferences of the working class, which mostly has supplied the service people who have gone into the military and actually gone to these other countries and fought and died. And that is a bargain that perhaps the working class has wanted to reexamine in recent years. I think that has a certain amount to do with Donald Trump's success. And that is something that, I think, Joe Biden is responsive to as well.

KHALID: You know, Ron, the idea that there are elements of similarities between Donald Trump and Joe Biden's international philosophies to me is interesting, but Republicans are still very vocally attacking President Biden because of execution, right? In their view, this is an issue of competence, not just one of foreign policy agenda goals.

ELVING: That's right, and they can certainly make that argument. And I would advise that they make that argument rather than saying, well, Joe Biden is carrying out the contract that was signed by Donald Trump. They certainly don't want to do that, and they would certainly much prefer to say that it was poorly executed in the end and manifestly poorly executed. I mean, clearly, no one would have foreseen. No one perhaps could have foreseen - although that is an arguable point as well - that we would have the kinds of scenes at the airport that we're seeing now or that were so widely photographed and videotaped on the first days of the collapse. Those hideous images are going to be with us. And that, of course, is the responsibility of the people in power today. So whatever you want to call it, they are the ones. It's on their watch. They're holding the bag.

SNELL: All right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Kelsey Small. I cover Congress.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor/correspondent.

SNELL: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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