The Taliban victory is a major humiliation for the US, but perhaps that’s the silver lining of the Afghan tragedy.
The United States’ chaotic and dangerous withdrawal from Afghanistan is already being widely considered a dark stain on President Joe Biden’s young presidency. What is still unknown is whether this foreign policy crisis, which will forever be tied to Biden in the history books, will wind up being a political liability for the president.
It was only weeks ago that Biden was assuring Americans that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was nothing like the US retreat from Vietnam in 1975.
“The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” Biden told reporters on July 8.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable,” he said.
Those words were played over and over this weekend as the world watched people being taken by helicopter from the US embassy in Kabul, leading critics and experts alike to directly compare it to the fall of Saigon, contrary to Biden’s take last month.
Biden steadfastly defended the withdrawal Monday.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” he said during a speech at the White House, his first comments since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” Biden continued.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”
Foreign policy and national security debates aside, the withdrawal has become the latest in a string of fast-moving political crises for Biden and his administration. And the barrage of negative developments is raising serious questions about his months of optimistic spin on those crises.
Bipartisan criticism on Afghanistan
Republicans and Democrats alike are strongly criticising the US withdrawal.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called it “mismanagement”, “bungled”, and “an embarrassment to our nation”.
Tonight we held a call with Afghanistan's Ambassador to the US to discuss the deteriorating situation.
I remain deeply concerned with the Biden Admin’s mismanagement of their bungled withdrawal. Much like his failed withdrawal from Iraq, it is an embarrassment to our nation.
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) August 14, 2021
Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts and former Marine who served four tours in Iraq, called it a “disaster” and a “tragedy” and said it “must serve as a wakeup call to Congress”.
My statement on Afghanistan. pic.twitter.com/2RHzKxOv4H
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) August 15, 2021
The events in Afghanistan are likely to lead to a litany of congressional hearings into how and why the withdrawal played out as it did, ensuring this issue remains a part of the political landscape for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, it did not take long for the partisan finger-pointing to begin.
Former President Donald Trump, whose administration negotiated with the Taliban and hammered out an agreement to have US troops withdraw this year, piled on Biden.
“He ran out of Afghanistan instead of following the plan our administration left for him—a plan that protected our people and our property, and ensured the Taliban would never dream of taking our Embassy or providing a base for new attacks against America,” Trump argued, without detailing what that “plan” was.
For his part, Biden placed blame squarely on Trump’s shoulders, saying in a statement Saturday that he “inherited a deal cut by my predecessor … that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001”.
It is far from clear what effect the developments in Afghanistan will, in and of itself, have on Americans’ views of Biden, as there is strong bipartisan support for the withdrawal of US troops.
Multiple polls during the past few months suggested a vast majority of Americans – upwards of seven-in-10 – backed US troop withdrawal, with overwhelming support from Democrats and independents, and a majority of Republicans also agreeing.
Those views could change in light of current developments. However, there is an argument that this crisis will only add to the net negative polling effect a series of issues that have seemingly spiralled out of control in recent weeks is having on Biden and Democrats as they seek to hold on to their congressional majority next year.
The COVID Delta variant, which has flipped on its head what Biden promised would be a “summer of freedom” two months ago, is not only surging but stoking political debates about vaccine and mask mandates.
Last week’s announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that the “unprecedented” number of migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border in July was the highest in 21 years reignited the debate about border security.
Those issues, combined with worries about inflation and a rise in violent crime in major US cities have already put a dent into Biden’s approval numbers.
According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden’s approval rating has dropped five points since the end of May to 50 percent. And more Americans than not disapprove of his handling of the economy, crime and immigration, according to a Fox News poll released Friday.
Upcoming polling will surely shed some light on where Biden’s handling of Afghanistan fits into the current political environment. And one issue to watch is how worried Americans are about an attack on the US.
Last week’s Fox News poll, conducted prior to the Taliban’s entry into Kabul, showed 58 percent are concerned about attacks by Muslim “terrorists” in the US.
If that data point significantly increases in the wake of the havoc in Afghanistan, there is little doubt it, along with the US’s other blazing political controversies, will become another point of emphasis for Biden’s foes.