President Biden’s decision in April to withdraw American combat troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 set in motion a collapse of the Afghan government that accelerated in recent weeks. The Taliban have now seized back control of the country as Americans evacuate and Afghans are left to face the grim aftermath.
It’s not the ending to the 20-year “forever” war Biden promised. But it’s hard to say just how harshly Americans will judge Biden for what’s happened. That’s because Americans tend to not care a great deal about foreign policy, and, moreover, most Americans previously supported Biden’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan. That said, even if most Americans want out of Afghanistan, it’s possible that they don’t like how it’s unfolded and Biden’s overall approval does take a hit as a result — it’s already at the lowest point of his presidency. But it’s not clear that that will happen. There is simply a lot that is still unknown, and given that this is a fast-changing story, it’s hard to know what the lasting repercussions for domestic politics will be at this point.
At least until the events of this weekend, though, Americans supported Biden’s decision to remove U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. Most polls conducted since the beginning of July show that a sizable majority of Americans supported Biden’s decision, as the table below shows. But as the latest poll from Politico/Morning Consult conducted over the weekend suggests, that could be changing.
|Politico/Morning Consult*||Aug. 13-16||49%||37%||+12|
|Redfield & Wilton Strategies||Aug. 2-3||49||19||+30|
|Chicago Council on Global Affairs||July 7-26||70||29||+41|
|Echelon Insights||July 19-23||64||22||+42|
|Yahoo News/YouGov||July 13-15||50||22||+28|
|The Economist/YouGov||July 10-13||57||20||+37|
|Politico/Morning Consult||July 9-12||59||25||+34|
|The Hill/HarrisX||July 2-3||73||27||+46|
In the first poll conducted over the past weekend — after the imminence of the Taliban’s takeover became apparent — Politico/Morning Consult found a decline in support for withdrawing troops and an increase in opposition to the withdrawal. In the survey, 49 percent of registered voters supported the decision to remove troops, while 37 percent opposed it, a shift from the pollster’s previous survey in early July. Additionally, 51 percent said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan and just 25 percent felt the withdrawal was going well. While we’ll have to see what polls show in the coming days, this survey suggests at least some backlash to the Biden administration’s approach.
That said, it’s possible Americans won’t penalize Biden all that much for what’s happened in Afghanistan because, outside of some major conflicts, foreign policy doesn’t usually weigh heavily on voters’ minds. Foreign policy is a critical matter — events in recent days have reminded us of the serious implications of the U.S.’s decisions — but the reality is that for years Americans have paid very little attention to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Additionally, Americans’ perspectives on the Afghanistan conflict are mixed, with Gallup recently finding about an even split on the question of whether it was a mistake for the U.S. to send troops in the first place. After 20 years in Afghanistan and the unpopular war in Iraq, Americans are skeptical of intervening militarily in foreign countries — even for humanitarian reasons.
One thing that does seem likely, however, is that opinions of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan will become more polarized by party. We’re already seeing this with the new Politico/Morning consult survey: Net support for the withdrawal among Democrats was +53 (69 percent supported it, 19 percent opposed) while GOP net support was -27 (31 percent supported it, 58 percent opposed). And it’s possible Republican attitudes on Afghanistan may shift farther away from Democratic ones. Americans tend to follow cues from elites in their parties on foreign policy issues, and at this point, Republicans are going on the attack. Both the hawkish wing of the party and the more Trumpian isolationist faction are criticizing Biden for what’s happened, even though many Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan. So it’s possible what little standing Biden enjoyed among Republicans overall could further erode. Democrats, on the other hand, are unlikely to break with Biden even if more of them now disapprove of the withdrawal.
On the whole, we don’t expect to see a big shift in Biden’s approval rating, given just how polarized American politics are. But it’s also impossible to currently ascertain the longer-term consequences of the Taliban’s takeover, such as a potential increase in terrorism. It’s possible that what’s happened in Afghanistan will dominate headlines for weeks to come, but even that’s uncertain. After all, American news coverage of Afghanistan has surged before, only to quickly evaporate. And even if the spotlight stays on the crisis in Afghanistan, that doesn’t necessarily mean Biden will lose ground in approval. Consider a common comparison the media has made in recent days: the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in April 1975 in South Vietnam to North Vietnamese forces, a similarly chaotic moment of defeat for the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War. In a Gallup poll taken before North Vietnamese troops took control of the city, then-President Gerald Ford’s approval rating was 39 percent, and it was 40 percent in a survey taken right afterward. And this was at a time with a substantially less polarized electorate and many more swing voters.
But fairly or not, the reality is that Biden will now likely be associated with the ugly end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, which ultimately failed to build a stable democratic regime. At this point, though, it remains to be seen just how that will influence overall public opinion toward Biden and his presidency.