The withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan has created something of a public opinion paradox: The withdrawal itself is popular with voters, but President Joe Biden’s approval rating has suffered substantially for doing it. Most galling for Democrats is that the Taliban’s swift victory was guaranteed not by Biden’s actions, but by sweetheart deals made by the Trump administration—deals that Democrats would be wise to highlight and investigate in the months ahead as inoculation against bad-faith Republican attacks.
The paradox has spawned a number of theories to explain it. Some speculate that Biden’s declining popularity has more to do with COVID-19 and the economy than Afghanistan; some say the logistical mistakes in executing the withdrawal are more responsible than the decision to leave; some argue that Biden’s reaction to those supposed errors made the difference; and others contend that the foreign policy apparatus colloquially known as “the Blob”—and its allies in the press—are punishing Biden for the decision to leave.
Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others. It’s difficult to believe that Americans are only now realizing the dangers of the Delta variant, or that anger over Biden’s personal emotional responses to Afghanistan exist anywhere outside of the Fox News audience.
It’s hard to deny the supposedly “liberal” media’s role in all of this. The entire bipartisan national security apparatus was surprised by the speed with which the coalition government in Afghanistan collapsed. Despite a chaotic first day filled with panicked misfortune and a single deadly ISIS-K terrorist attack that cost of the lives of 60 Afghans and 13 American troops, the United States conducted a speedy evacuation of unprecedented size with remarkable order and competence. But the press stories around the withdrawal have been relentlessly negative. The power of the media to affect public opinion regardless of actual reality or context should be a warning to the “do-popular-things” popularists who behave in accordance with the implications of quantitative public opinion polls; sometimes, those actions will not necessarily lead to positive political outcomes.
It remains to be seen whether Biden’s recent polling struggles will have an impact on the midterms, or whether Americans’ notoriously short attention spans on matters of foreign policy will even remember these arguments in 15 months. But one can be reasonably certain that Republicans will remind voters about Afghanistan throughout the campaign—and possibly even try to impeach Biden over the issue and other imagined offenses if they retake control of the House of Representatives.
One of the infuriating aspects of these GOP tactics for progressives and partisan Democrats is that, whether one agrees with Biden’s decisions on Afghanistan policy or not, the course was already set out and guaranteed by decisions made during the Trump administration.
It was Donald Trump who made the fateful deal in Doha to not only make peace with the Taliban but also to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. The release was extremely unpopular in both the U.S. and Afghanistan at the time, even by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s own admission, and many of those detained were among the combatants who not only took to the battlefield immediately afterward but also seized some of the highest positions of power in Kabul last month. It was Trump who dramatically reduced troop levels and signaled to the Taliban that the days of the coalition government were numbered. It was Trump who set up the withdrawal and boasted about it—much as he irresponsibly lies about it now for cynical political gain.
Depending on your viewpoint, these may have been the best decisions of Trump’s otherwise abhorrent presidency. Certainly, they were not made in the interest of reducing bloodshed or the suffering of Afghans; after all, Trump dramatically increased the number of drone strikes and bombings in Afghanistan, and his superficially antiwar stances were taken to reinforce isolationist white supremacy and indifference to the fate of others in the world. But decisions made for repulsive reasons can still, by accident, be consequentially correct.
Even so, there is no question that the Trump administration guaranteed these outcomes. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted in February 2020 that the Taliban “must prove to the world that they are ready for peace” and that “after nearly 20 years in Afghanistan, [the Trump] administration is working toward closing this chapter.” It was the Trump administration that set a hard deadline of May 1, 2021, for the U.S. to leave. And as Senator Mitt Romney noted on CNN, we don’t know whether some of the released prisoners may have ended up among the ISIS-K terrorists responsible for the airport attack.
Perhaps most important, the rush to evacuate Afghan allies was severely hampered by white supremacist anti-immigrant actions taken by former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller and his allies to sabotage the asylum and Special Immigrant Visa process. Absent those decisions, the evacuation process would have been far more thorough and orderly.
Biden had no good options left. He could have poured more troops into Afghanistan to further the war. He could have begun evacuations earlier, which might have panicked the coalition government while leaving thousands of U.S. troops in harm’s way; he then would have been blamed for that government’s corruption and inability to put up a fight against the Taliban. Or he could have done what he did: count on the coalition government to stop the Taliban from taking Kabul for at least a few months while slowly undoing the Trump administration’s damage to the asylum system and getting our allies to safety. The failure of that plan was by the national security establishment, which failed to set up an army that could last even a week against the Taliban, despite 20 years and trillions of dollars spent on the project. In any case, a second Trump administration would have fared no better.
In a more decent political world, Democrats and Republicans would agree to live and let live over Afghanistan, recognizing that both the Trump and Biden administrations wanted to end the war and that there were no possible decisions by either administration that could have led to perfect outcomes.
But we do not live in that world. Republicans intend to use media-driven misconceptions over the withdrawal to sweep them back into power in Congress next year. And they will almost certainly conduct endless sham hearings into Biden’s supposed failures in advance of the 2024 election. While a Democratic investigation of the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban runs the potentially negative risk of keeping Afghanistan in the news, it is one of the best ways to blunt this Republican ploy.
Moreover, if Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema prevent all legislative progress after the infrastructure bill by refusing to reform the filibuster, it would be wise for congressional Democrats to spend some time conducting investigations into Trump administration corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power—from its COVID-19 response and its self-dealing to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s mail sabotage and, of course, its terrible deal with the Taliban. If nothing else, these questions are a matter of national security and national interest, so we can avoid similar mistakes in the future. In other words, these investigations are not just good politics. They are good policy, too.