Missing in action: 15 months later, Afghan debacle all but absent from campaign trail

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.

But 15 months later, America’s botched military exit from Afghanistan is barely a blip on the radar screen for voters this midterm election season.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan, which marked the final chapter of the longest war in US history, is having little measurable impact in this cycle’s political contests, analysts say and polling data show. With inflation and crime on the rise, debates raging over immigration and abortion, and the Russia-Ukraine war nearing its ninth month, specialists say there’s little bandwidth left in American political dialogue for Afghanistan and the ramifications the pullout will have for US national security in the years to come.

That reality may have been difficult to imagine during the darkest days of the withdrawal, which saw 13 Marines die in a terrorist suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport. That attack came just days after the Taliban swept into Kabul and retook control of the country from a government the US spent two decades and more than $2 trillion trying to prop up.

The withdrawal dominated news coverage for weeks. The most troubling, ending images from the ground saw desperate Afghans clinging to the side 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 in August 2022, specialists say, Mr. Biden and his Democratic colleagues may 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 still face some future fallout. Should they retake the House or Senate, or both, 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.

Already, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the panel’s likely chairman should the GOP reclaim the House, has put the State Department on notice to preserve all records and documents related to Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw, in advance of likely high-profile hearings early in the next Congress. Mr. McCaul’s fellow House Republicans say many facets of Mr. Biden’s withdrawal timeline — and the deadly final days — have not been adequately explored by the current Democratic-run Congress.

“There are all kinds of issues we never got an answer on,” said Rep. Mike Waltz, Florida Republican and an 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 US and its allies during the 20-year conflict, a problem that lingers to this day.

Impact on 2024

Mr. Biden and his supporters will likely downplay Republican-led hearings as little more than political showmanship. But should the president seek reelection in 2024, the congressional probes could cast a harsh spotlight on his foreign policy credentials and his ability to manage crises around the world.

After the withdrawal last year, there was an immediate impact on the public’s opinion of Mr. Biden and his leadership, even 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 US withdrawal was complete and the Taliban were firmly back in charge of Afghanistan, that number had dropped to 43%, Gallup data show.

That matched the largest single-month drop in Mr. Biden’s approval rating so far in his presidency, and the president’s approval ratings have never fully recovered. As of Oct. 20, the president’s approval rating is at 40%, according to Gallup.

It’s little surprise Biden’s approval ratings would suffer. While the US withdrawal agreement with the Taliban was negotiated and signed under former President Trump, critics say Mr. Biden chose to move ahead with the exit despite warnings from his own generals and clear indications the Taliban wasn’t living up to its 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 August 2021 withdrawal made clear that al Qaeda fighters and other terrorists were inside the country. Any lingering doubt about that was erased in August 2022 when a US drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in Kabul, where he had apparently been living a relatively unrestricted life in the heart of the city.

Mr. Biden moved ahead with the withdrawal against the advice of some top military commanders, who recommended that the White House leave at least a small force in Afghanistan to ensure the survival of the government and to maintain US 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, but 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 US 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, the president and his fellow Democrats may have suffered because of them.

“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 show that Afghanistan is virtually absent from the political main stage this year. A Gallup poll released Oct. 31 found that the economy, abortion, crime, gun policy, immigration, relations with Russia and climate change are the top issues for voters.

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