When President Biden announced his intention to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, the policy seemed relatively straightforward: numerous polls showed Americans were in favor of ending the country’s nearly 20-year involvement in a war. whose objectives had become obscure.
But four months later, as the Taliban invaded the country much faster and more ruthlessly than expected, new political risks loomed for Mr Biden, who hoped to take credit for ending what he called one of America’s “Eternal Wars”. . “
Now US officials are rushing to evacuate Afghans who have aided the US military and could be the target of Taliban retaliation, and are considering the prospect of hastily evacuating the 4,000 Americans from the US embassy in the capital. Kabul.
The threat of a Taliban conquest and new risks to American personnel and its allies in the country could cause Americans who had paid little attention to Afghanistan for several years to reconsider their point of view, especially if Republicans amplify a message of American failure and surrender.
“Everyone is worried about the repeating images of Saigon,” said Brian Katulis, foreign policy expert at the Liberal Center for American Progress, referring to the chaotic April 1975 evacuation of the American embassy in the capital of South Vietnam. Desperate Vietnamese clung to the struts of departing helicopters as the city was conquered by Communist forces.
Americans remain focused on domestic issues like the coronavirus and the economy, and they are unlikely to care much that the Taliban have captured unknown cities like Kunduz, said Mr. Katulis, who has researched the public opinion on foreign policy.
“But that could change,” he added. âIf you have a horrific parade that continues to unfold in Afghanistan, it could seep into public consciousness like Iraq did in 2013 and 2014â when the Islamic State stormed this country after the withdrawal of US troops.
Speaking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, Biden said he did not “regret” his decision, noting that the United States continued to support the Afghan government and security forces, but adding: ” They must fight for themselves â.
Biden administration officials have repeatedly expressed hope that talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government could lead to a peaceful resolution unless there is a Kabul-based Taliban emirate, but the talks’ prospects for success s fade quickly.
Fortunately for Mr Biden, many Republicans in Congress have turned against foreign military adventures and supported a total exit from Afghanistan, to which President Donald J. Trump first committed last year when ‘he made a deal with the Taliban. Under the agreement, the group ended its attacks on US forces and began peace talks with the Afghan government.
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Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden were in tune with public opinion. Polls have shown for years that a plurality of Americans support the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a majority supporting either a full exit or a smaller American presence.
But as the US-backed Afghan government in Kabul appears more in jeopardy, some prominent Republicans are stepping up their criticism of Mr Biden.
“The reality was clear to everyone except the top of the Biden administration,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Minority Leader, in remarks Monday in the Senate, as he noted earlier warnings that the Taliban could quickly overwhelm the Afghan government security forces. “From their bizarre choice of a symbolic 9/11 deadline to the lack of any concrete plan, the administration’s decision appears to have been based on wishful thinking and not much else.”
“No one should claim that they are surprised that the Taliban is winning now that we have abandoned our Afghan partners,” Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse said in a statement on Tuesday.
But Mr Sasse also praised the complicated political dynamic in which Mr Biden keeps a promise made by Mr Trump.
“Our troops have served America and our allies admirably, but the last administration and this administration have chosen to give up the fight,” Sasse said.
It may come as a consolation to officials in the Biden administration that Mr. Trump is unlikely to join the attacks. The former president, who made the withdrawal of US troops a key campaign theme in the 2020 election, unsuccessfully urged his generals to speed up the US exit.
And Mr. Trump reiterated his support for leaving Afghanistan last April, when he attacked Republican Representative Liz Cheney from Wyoming in a statement as a “belligerent fool” who “wants to stay in the Middle East and in Afghanistan for another 19 years “. , but do not consider the big picture: Russia and China! “
“If Trump is the Republican nominee again, I think it would be difficult for him to criticize Biden for carrying out a plan that Trump implemented,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for New American Security and former foreigner. political advisor to hawkish Republican Senator John McCain.
“Trump did not just open the door” to a withdrawal, added Mr. Fontaine. “What he did was force the problem in a way that had never been forced before.”
But Mr Fontaine, who opposes the withdrawal of US troops, said major political and security risks remained for Mr Biden. He argued that national support for leaving Afghanistan had never been intense, coming close to mass protests opposing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
And he said the possibility of a Taliban takeover followed by the group’s longtime Qaeda allies returning to the country would be a huge liability for Mr Biden.
“Polls show that a majority of Americans want to leave Afghanistan,” Fontaine said. “But they also show that if you ask Americans about their foreign policy or national security goals, they will almost always rank the prevention of terrorist attacks against the United States first or second, and they will rank the extraction of America’s overseas military operations well below that. “
Mr. Trump’s senior lieutenants, who frequently carry out political attacks against Mr. Biden, are also limited in their ability to turn events in Afghanistan against him.
Mike Pompeo, who as secretary of state attended the signing ceremony in Qatar of Mr. Trump’s deal with the Taliban leadership, has repeatedly criticized the Biden administration for being weak in foreign policy.
In an appearance this week on Fox News, however, Mr Pompeo – who is considering a 2024 presidential bid – called the troop withdrawal “the right thing to do.”
In language that closely echoed Mr. Biden’s recent remarks, he added: âNow is the fight for the Afghans.
Some prominent supporters of a military withdrawal from Afghanistan say Mr Biden need not be worried in political terms, noting that his decision has received broad bipartisan support, including from US groups. politically diverse veterans.
“I think the American public is much more likely to see what is going on right now, tragic and disturbing as it is, ultimately the failure of two decades of war and occupation in Afghanistan,” Kate said. Kizer, policy director of the anti-interventionist group Win Without War.
âIt is important to remember that the reason the public supports a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, is that they believe that these wars themselves are a mistake and a failure,â he said. -she adds.
Ms Kizer said she feared some “members of the foreign policy establishment in Washington might learn from Iraq that chaos ensues when the United States pulls out” and soon does. pressure for a new American intervention.
Mr Katulis said he could imagine pressures for a US return to Afghanistan, years after President Barack Obama reluctantly returned troops to Iraq after Islamic State began capturing and executing hostages Americans.
Such a scenario would likely require catastrophic results, he said, such as the killings of Americans or senior Afghan government officials. (After the Taliban first conquered Kabul in 1996, militants captured the country’s president, Mohammad Najibullah, shot him in the head, and hung his battered body from a tower.)
Right now, said Katulis, âpeople care more about repairing their bridges and roads. Afghanistan right now is out of sight, out of mind.