Americans expressed concern about those in Afghanistan who supported and worked with American soldiers and diplomats and are now left at the mercy of the Taliban
By Atanu Biswas
As the US army hurriedly left Afghanistan within the stipulated deadline of 31 August, a report saying caged dogs that had worked with the US military were left behind in the country broke on social media as well as mainstream media and many activists, politicians, and animal lovers raised alarms. The Pentagon, however, was quick to deny that any service dog was left behind in Afghanistan while acknowledging that a series of social media posts about non-military evacuation of Kabul pets caused confusion.
Alright if not dogs, did America leave anything else behind in Afghanistan? The US officials, of course, believe 100 to 200 Americans remained in Afghanistan “with some intention to leave”. And Americans expressed concern about those in Afghanistan who supported and worked with American soldiers and diplomats and are now left at the mercy of the Taliban. And those millions of Afghans who thought that America would protect them from the Taliban. As the spectre of Afghanistan would haunt America, a vast majority of Americans across lines of age, education, ideology, party identification, race, and ethnicity feel that their country didn’t do enough to help them.
And Joe Biden has got the bittersweet taste of presidency for the first time from the Afghanistan debacle. When he announced the pull-out in April, he was eager to accept the credit to end America’s longest war. But, as soon as the Taliban quickly took control of the country, amid huge national and international criticism, Biden tried to remind people that the pull-out was according to the outline framed by his predecessor, Donald Trump. The Republicans and Trump also seemed to forget the Doha agreement of the previous administration which actually legitimized the Taliban. They keep on blaming Biden for the Afghan episode.
Now, how would Afghan tremors impact the political scenario of America and the popularity of Biden? It’s very clear that the Americans were eager to end the two-decade-old Afghan war – a $2 trillion effort – although they knew that the withdrawal of their military from Afghan soil would increase the threat of terrorism and diminish US national security. About 77 per cent supported the withdrawal. However, it seems that they can clearly distinguish between the decision to withdraw and the way this decision has been carried out. About three-fourth of Americans now think that the exit from Afghanistan was a badly planned and poorly carried out exercise. About 60 per cent disapproved of Biden’s handling. No wonder that Biden’s popularity has taken a serious hit. In fact, Biden’s job approval rating has fallen underwater across polls conducted by different agencies. The devastating Kabul airport attack only made the situation worse for him.
It is clear that the honeymoon period of Biden’s presidency is over. As per the data of polling agency FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s overall approval rating was 54.7 per cent on 25 May, which fell to 45.9 per cent (with a 48.4 per cent disapproval rating) on 3 September. Such a big swing in public opinion of presidents is rarely seen in this era of deep political polarization. But it will be a wrong assessment if it is fully attributed to the Afghan episode. If one examines carefully, Biden’s job approval started to decline even before the poor handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The resurgence of the pandemic after a few weeks of euphoria, particularly the impact of the Delta variant, had a big role to play. In fact, a FiveThirtyEight report shows that Biden’s approval rating on handling Covid-19 fell to 53 per cent with a downward slope, after hovering in the low 60s for much of his presidency. The recent events in Afghanistan had certainly intensified the decline in Biden’s popularity, but its exact effect is unknown.
The images of helicopters lifting off from Afghanistan motivated many people to compare Biden to President Gerald Ford and the 30 April 1975 fall of Saigon. Ford lost the 1976 US presidential election to his Democrat rival Jimmy Carter. Consequently, the important question is: Can the Afghan tremor create a fatal crack in Biden’s presidency and his
History would tell us it is not so straightforward. The next presidential election is more than three years away. And Americans would remain more focused on their economy and how the pandemic evolves in the coming days. The Republicans might be hoping to use this crisis politically in the 2022 midterm elections, at least. For if they succeed in taking control of the Senate and House of Representatives from the Democrats, the second half of Biden’s presidency would face a different music, for sure.
As the Afghanistan became Talibanized for the second time, extracts from a press conference of a US president got wide circulation in the media. The President was replying to a query on the extent to which America had lost credibility due to the military withdrawal. “We did train – and there was no attention paid to this. Our army had a unit in there training… and made a very capable military,” the President said. But “some units of the army refused to take up arms against some of their same ethnic background, or religious background.” And so “it was agreed that there was no longer any point… and we withdrew.”
Afghanistan will remain a deep scar on America’s international reputation. And that’s all. Afghanistan is a far-off land for the American people. Ultimately most American voters consider the world ends at their shores. So, the electoral fate of Biden and the Democrats will depend on how well the American economy performs, and how effectively it controls Covid. The misery of Afghanistan and its people would not drive American voters’ choice. Mr Biden certainly knows this well.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.