The one-year anniversary of the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is forcing the White House to revisit a raw and sensitive moment in President Biden’s term.
The withdrawal and the intense, negative media coverage that chronicled it helped precipitate Biden’s decline in the polls — despite broad public and bipartisan support for pulling American troops out of the country.
“Afghanistan had a really negative effect on the way that people thought about him,” said Jeff Jones, a senior editor at Gallup. “It just kind of fed into these perceptions of him not being very competent.”
The circumstances undermined Biden’s competency argument and provided endless fodder for critics with which to attack his administration.
“It marked the beginning of a dark time for his presidency,” said one Democratic strategist. “You could almost see the symmetry between his falling poll numbers at the time and that moment.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta likened Afghanistan to the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 during the Kennedy administration.
But he argued that Biden, like Kennedy, had since demonstrated a strong foreign policy with his handling of Russia’s war in Ukraine and restoring U.S. alliances.
“I think he’s been able to, hopefully, get beyond what happened in Afghanistan and recognize that there are greater challenges that the United States has to deal with,” Panetta said.
Biden’s decline in public polling hasn’t been driven solely by Afghanistan.
The rise of COVID-19 cases from the delta variant was linked to a dip in Biden’s approval numbers last summer before Afghanistan was a major political issue, and inflation, high gas prices and economic concerns dragged it down for much of this year.
Biden is now seeing an uptick in some polls after a surprisingly strong summer legislative session that culminated with his signing Tuesday of a massive climate, tax and health care package. A Politico-Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that Biden’s approval rating inched up three percentage points to 42 percent just in the past week. Still, Jones said that Biden has not yet recovered the ground he lost following Afghanistan, noting Gallup’s poll last September had Biden at 43 percent approval.
Democrats who had soured on what they saw as a lack of action by the White House are in a better mood, and the party is hopeful that will translate into a stronger midterm performance in November.
As a result, the one-year anniversary of Afghanistan is at least hitting Biden when he is at a recovery point.
The White House has been tight-lipped about how Biden, who is currently on vacation, will mark the one year since the withdrawal, which was completed on Aug. 30, 2021. Biden is currently scheduled to travel to Pennsylvania for a speech on combating crime on Aug. 30.
“Politically, I understand why they wouldn’t want to address that and maybe focus on the positive,” Panetta said.
However, he added, “It is important for both our military and State Department officials not to close our eyes to what is happening in Afghanistan and to continue to try to make sure that that situation does to further deteriorate.”
While Taliban rule has been brutal for the people of Afghanistan, with women and girls seeing their rights constrained significantly, the U.S. has also been able to focus its energy on other major global challenges and threats, foremost among them the devastating Russian war in Ukraine.
A recent successful U.S. drone strike against al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan has bolstered the White House’s argument that it can extinguish terror threats without having boots on the ground.
“That’s the model of how to fight terrorism, how to keep the American people safe,” said White House chief of staff Ron Klain on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday.
Republicans are looking to put the spotlight on the blemishes of Afghanistan.
A new report from Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee accuses the administration of failing to adequately prepare for the evacuation effort and provides a roadmap for continued probing of the administration’s execution of Afghanistan exit should Republicans win control of the House of Representatives in the November midterms.
The White House sought to prebut the report on Monday, releasing a memo that dismissed it as inaccurate and arguing that the withdrawal strengthened U.S. national security by allowing resources to be directed elsewhere. The administration also wants to remind Americans that Biden inherited the Afghanistan withdrawal plan from former President Trump.
“When President Biden took office, he was faced with a choice: ramp up the war and put even more American troops at risk, or finally end the United States’ longest war after two decades of American presidents sending U.S. troops to fight and die in Afghanistan and $2 trillion spent,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson wrote in the memo.
It’s unclear at this point how Afghanistan will color Biden’s presidency.
The images from last August — people clinging to military airplanes, the aftermath of the terror attack outside Kabul’s airport that killed 11 U.S. service members — are difficult to forget.
“It could not have been a more vivid and searing experience when you had something that looked like the fall of Saigon playing out on everyone’s TV screens,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“The manner of the withdrawal dealt a body blow to the Biden presidency because one of Mr. Biden’s calling cards was experience-based competence,” said William Galston, chair of the Brooking Institution’s governance studies program. “And it was widely assumed that the substance of his policy issues would be debated but the manner of carrying them out would be professional and unfortunately the withdrawal from Afghanistan was anything but.”
Democratic strategist Jim Manley said that, while Biden’s approval rating took a hit due to the way the evacuation played out, he doubted it would have a decisive electoral impact.
Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said the degree to which Afghanistan figures in Biden’s historical record will depend in part on what the president does in the rest of his tenure.
“A debacle can become a blip, or if you’re Jimmy Carter, that is how his presidency is described,” Perry said, referring to the Iran hostage crisis.
Galston said Biden’s effective handling of the Russian attack on Ukraine will ultimately outweigh the criticism he received on Afghanistan.
“Has done a superb job of keeping the alliance together and leaning forward to the degree that would have surprised a lot of people six months ago,” Galston said. “As [Afghanistan] fades, the competence of the president’s performance in the face of a much greater crisis will be recognized.”