Trump, Biden spar over Afghan exit; rights crisis goes unmentioned – Voice of America – VOA News

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President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump sparred over Afghanistan in their Thursday night debate, but both were silent on the worsening human rights crisis following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

During the presidential debate hosted by CNN, Trump blasted Biden for his handling of the August 2021 U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden defended his record, but neither of them discussed the human rights and women’s rights crisis in the South Asian nation under Taliban rule.

The fundamentalist group stormed back to power as the U.S.-led foreign forces departed the country after almost two decades of war with the Taliban. The de facto Afghan rulers have imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, banning girls from schools beyond the sixth grade and many Afghan women from public and private workplaces, among other curbs on their freedoms.

“Since the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan has sadly become out of sight and out of mind in both public and policy debate in the U.S., so it’s not that surprising that the two candidates would fixate on the last days of the pullout instead of the broader and quite depressing state of play in Afghanistan today,” Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, told VOA.

The U.S. presidential debate came as the United Nations prepares to host crucial talks between Taliban and international envoys in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday. Afghan civil society and women representatives will not be involved, however, a move drawing strong backlash from global human rights defenders.

“It’s hardly surprising that neither Trump nor Biden has a word to spare for the rights of Afghan women and girls,” said Heather Barr, women’s rights associate director at Human Rights Watch.

“I wish the moderator had asked them specifically about the contributions they both made to creating what is now the world’s most serious women’s crisis, and a crisis that deepens every day,” Barr told VOA via email.

She noted that Trump oversaw the Doha agreement his administration signed with the then-insurgent Taliban in 2020, and those negotiations did not involve Afghan women, nor were their rights on the agenda. The pact set the stage for all American and allied troops to pull out from what is described as the longest war in U.S. history.

“Now Biden is sending his diplomats off to the Doha 3 meeting, where it will be exactly the same — no women on the agenda, no women at the table,” Barr said.

‘Doha process’

The two-day conference will be the third in Qatar’s capital since U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres initiated what is referred to as the “Doha process” a year ago to try to establish a unified international approach to increase engagement with the Taliban.

The de facto Afghan leaders were not invited to the first Doha meeting in May 2023 and refused an invitation to the second in February.

John Fortier, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Afghanistan and post-withdrawal issues facing the country are no longer high on the American people’s agenda.

“I think American institutions and foreign policy experts have concerns, but as a political matter … we are not thinking about Afghanistan in the same way as we were after the events of September 11 [2001]. For many years, we do not have troops in the same way that we had for many years,” Fortier told VOA.

Speaking on Thursday, Trump accused Biden of being responsible for the deaths of 13 American soldiers in an Islamic State group-claimed suicide bombing of the Kabul airport just days before the last American troops left Afghanistan.

“No general got fired for the most embarrassing moment in the history of our country, Afghanistan, where we left billions of dollars of equipment behind; we lost 13 beautiful soldiers. … And by the way, we left people behind, too. We left American citizens behind,” Trump stated.

“I was getting out of Afghanistan, but we were getting out with dignity, with strength, with power. He got out, it was the most embarrassing day in the history of our country’s life,” he claimed.

Biden defended his Afghan exit policy, saying he “got over 100,000 Americans and others out of Afghanistan during that airlift” and sharply criticized Trump’s blistering attacks. “I’ve never heard so much malarkey in my whole life,” the president stated.

VOA’s Afghan Service contributed to this report.

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