WASHINGTON (SBG) — President Joe Biden defended his Afghanistan withdrawal in an interview Wednesday, as his administration struggled to contain the political fallout from the Taliban’s abrupt takeover of the country and the ensuing chaos.
“There is no good time to leave Afghanistan,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in his first interview since Kabul fell to the Taliban over the weekend. “Fifteen years ago would've been a problem, 15 years from now, the basic choice is, am I going to send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?”
The Taliban swept into Kabul after seizing control of all of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals in less than two weeks, usurping a U.S.-backed civilian government and military. The victory marked the culmination of an offensive that began building momentum months ago when Biden set an unconditional deadline to get U.S. troops out before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The speed of the Taliban’s ascent caught the Biden administration by surprise, despite intelligence estimates that reportedly indicated the swift collapse of the government was more likely than officials publicly stated. The Pentagon is now scrambling to get tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans onto flights out of Kabul before troops are set to complete their withdrawal Aug. 31.
“We're going to go back in hindsight and look, but the idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens,” Biden said Wednesday.
Biden insisted contingency plans were in place, allowing for the quick return of thousands of troops to secure the airport in Kabul and oversee evacuation flights. He maintained ending the military engagement was the right move, and the mission to get Osama bin Laden and wipe out the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks had long been accomplished.
“Are we going to continue to lose thousands of Americans to injury and death to try to unite that country?” he said. “What do you think? I think not. I think the American people are with me.”
The latest polls suggest the American people might not be with him, though — at least not to the degree they had been before. Polls conducted in the spring showed overwhelming support for Biden’s plan to get troops out of Afghanistan, but surveys released this week indicate the public’s mood has shifted.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted amid the Taliban takeover over the weekend found support for Biden’s withdrawal had fallen by 20 points since April, though a plurality of voters still favored leaving. A survey released Thursday by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed 47% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of international affairs.
“People are looking at what’s going on. They’re saying this is horrible, we don’t like what it’s doing to those endangered people left behind,” pollster Scott Rasmussen told The National Desk Wednesday. “At the same time, there’s a real reluctance to commit our troops for a long period of time in any nation.”
According to RealClearPolitics, Biden’s average approval rating has fallen below 50% for the first time since taking office, and a new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows a 7-point drop in approval since Friday. A Rasmussen Reports survey found more Americans would vote for former President Donald Trump than Biden if the 2020 election were held today.
“This is going to be a tough hole to dig themselves out of,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant and associate professor of advertising emeritus at Boston University.
Chaos has unfolded in Afghanistan as the Biden administration faces several other crises on the domestic front that might also have dented support for the president. COVID-19 has raged back in much of the country, border apprehensions remain at a 20-year high, and surging inflation has undermined the economic recovery from the pandemic.
A survey conducted by the Trafalgar Group for Convention of States Action last weekend found most Americans are currently not optimistic about the country’s future, including 63% of independents. Even with Democrats in full control in Washington, more than one-third of Democratic voters say they are not optimistic.
“From Afghanistan to COVID-19 to inflation to foreign policy to basic things like education, Washington D.C. is failing to solve challenges, and the people are losing hope,” said Mark Meckler, president of Convention of States Action.
As scenes of unrest, violence, and desperation in Afghanistan are broadcast around the world, Biden administration officials have offered several defenses for their actions. They argue a deal signed by the Trump administration last year left them with little choice but to withdraw or send in tens of thousands of troops for a renewed conflict with an emboldened Taliban.
Officials have also asserted they had no reason to expect an Afghan military and government the U.S. spent hundreds of billions of dollars and 20 years propping up would crumble in a matter of days. They believed they would have weeks or months to complete evacuations before the Taliban seized control of the country.
There is some truth to both those points, but critics say Biden could have renegotiated the agreement with the Taliban, begun evacuations sooner, or taken more aggressive action to secure Kabul. Berkovitz said casting blame on others in a situation like this has its limits.
“Biden keeps saying the buck stops here and then passes the buck on, especially to Trump,” he said. “You can’t have that both ways.”
In addition to the Stephanopoulos interview, Biden has delivered one public speech on the situation in Afghanistan this week, but he has refused to take questions from the White House press corps. According to Berkovitz, holding a news conference and clearly explaining his strategy and vision might alleviate some public concerns about Biden’s performance, but this crisis has brought out his worst tendencies as a public communicator.
“He’s been showing testiness, a lack of command understanding and communicating key issues, and he’s been avoiding dealing with the media, answering questions,” he said.
Still, the latest polls indicate the underlying goal of withdrawing from Afghanistan remains popular, with a slim plurality in a new YouGov survey saying bringing troops home was the right decision. According to the AP/NORC poll, 62% of Americans now believe the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting at all.
“I think ultimately we will see continued support for the withdrawal but real questions about the way it was handled and the competency of the foreign policy team,” Rasmussen said.
Biden said Wednesday U.S. troops would stay on the ground in Kabul until all Americans are flown to safety, even if that means staying past the Aug. 31 deadline. If he can complete evacuations successfully and prevent new terrorist threats from emerging from the region, the lasting political damage could be minimal, but those are still very big “ifs.”
“Getting the Americans out is critical. That’s round one,” Berkovitz said. “Then down the road, if Afghanistan turns back into a state that shields and promotes terrorism, this whole situation would be a debacle for the Biden presidency. That’s the bigger long-term threat.”