It dominated the headlines in the summer of 2021 and raised serious questions about the Biden administration’s basic competence. President Biden’s approval rating took a sharp hit, and it looked to be a potential political liability for Democrats.
Just 15 months later, however, America’s botched military exit from Afghanistan is barely a blip on the radar screen for voters.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan, which marked the final chapter of the longest war in U.S. history, is having little measurable impact on midterm elections, according to analysts and polling data. With inflation and crime on the rise, debates raging over immigration and abortion, and the Russia-Ukraine war nearing its ninth month, American political dialogue has little bandwidth for Afghanistan and the ramifications of the pullout on U.S. national security in the years to come, analysts say.
That reality may have been difficult to imagine during the darkest days of the withdrawal when 13 Marines were killed in a terrorist suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Days earlier, the Taliban swept into Kabul and retook control of the country from a government that the U.S. spent two decades and more than $2 trillion trying to prop up.
The withdrawal dominated news coverage for weeks. Among the most troubling, enduring images from the ground showed desperate Afghans clinging to the sides of airplanes as they tried to flee the country rather than face a second round of strict Islamist rule by the Taliban.
Had those scenes played out this August, specialists say, Democrats might have paid a serious price at the polls. Instead, enough time has passed that Afghanistan seems to be a non-factor.
“It doesn’t surprise me because American voters’ attention to international politics is very fleeting,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “It’s so long ago at this point. A year and a half is a lifetime in electoral time.
“If it was fresh in everybody’s mind, that would really have an impact,” he said.
The Biden administration may face some future fallout. In campaign arguments for control of the House and Senate, Republicans have promised to launch fresh investigations and hold high-profile public hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal and why it played out in such a chaotic, deadly fashion.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and likely chairman if Republicans reclaim the House, has put the State Department on notice to preserve all records and documents related to Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw. Mr. McCaul’s fellow House Republicans say the Democratic-run Congress has not adequately explored many facets of Mr. Biden’s withdrawal timeline and the deadly final days.
“There are all kinds of issues we never got an answer on,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, Florida Republican and Army veteran, told the Military Times in August.
“Why did our intelligence get the threat wrong?” he said. “Why didn’t the Biden administration provide more air support? What happened to all the military equipment left behind? There needs to be public hearings on those questions because the American public needs to know.”
The withdrawal also created a refugee and resettlement problem for tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with the U.S. and its allies during the 20-year conflict. The problem lingers to this day.
Impact on 2024
The president and his supporters will likely downplay Republican-led hearings as little more than political showmanship, but the congressional probes could cast a harsh spotlight on Mr. Biden’s foreign policy credentials and ability to manage crises around the world if he seeks reelection in 2024.
The withdrawal last year had an immediate impact on the public’s opinion of Mr. Biden and his leadership, though some surveys showed that a clear majority of Americans supported the underlying idea of leaving Afghanistan after two decades of war.
In mid-August 2021, Mr. Biden’s approval rating was 49%, according to Gallup polling. By mid-September, after the U.S. withdrawal was complete and the Taliban were firmly back in charge of Afghanistan, that number had dropped to 43%, Gallup data shows.
That marked the largest single-month drop in Mr. Biden’s approval rating so far in his presidency, and his ratings have never fully recovered. On Oct. 20, Gallup put the president’s approval rating at 40%.
It’s little surprise that Mr. Biden would lose American approval. Although the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban was negotiated and signed under President Trump, critics say, Mr. Biden moved ahead with the exit despite warnings from generals and clear indications that the Taliban weren’t living up to their end of the deal. The group had promised, among other things, to never again allow al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to use the country as a safe haven.
United Nations and Pentagon reports ahead of the withdrawal made clear that al Qaeda fighters and other terrorists were inside Afghanistan. Any lingering doubt was erased this August when a U.S. drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Kabul. He apparently had been living a relatively unrestricted life in the heart of the capital city.
Some top military commanders recommended that the White House leave at least a small force in Afghanistan to ensure the survival of the government and to maintain U.S. counterterrorism capabilities on the ground.
Mr. Biden and his national security team also appeared to be completely caught off guard by how quickly the Afghan government and its military collapsed. The administration initially assessed that the Afghan military could hold out for at least a few months in the face of a Taliban offensive. Instead, the Kabul government crumbled within a matter of weeks and embattled President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Taliban fighters were on the outskirts of Kabul before all U.S. personnel had left the capital, forcing American diplomats to burn sensitive documents at the embassy.
Those were exactly the kinds of events Mr. Biden promised would not happen under his leadership.
Had they been fresh in voters’ minds, Democrats may have suffered this year.
“It would’ve harmed Biden. … It really damaged the brand he presented of himself as more competent than his predecessor,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.
Instead, Afghanistan is “out of sight, out of mind” for voters this fall, Mr. Katulis said.
“It’s about inflation, it’s about economics. It’s hard to even find many national foreign policy questions in the debate,” he said.
Indeed, polling data shows that Afghanistan is virtually absent from the political main stage this year. A Gallup poll released on Monday found that the economy, abortion, crime, gun policy, immigration, relations with Russia and climate change are the top issues for voters.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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