Biden Is Betting Americans Will Forget About Afghanistan

People in and around the White House are relying on Americans’ notoriously short-term memory.

President Joe Biden speaks into a microphone with his hands held up to frame the lower half of his face.
Tom Brenner / Bloomberg / Getty

Call it the White House’s dream scenario: In the end, the voters don’t blame Joe Biden. The president’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan simply aligns him with everyone else who has given up on the notion that the military could mold a fractious country into a stable democratic ally. The administration is hoping that grisly images of desperate Afghans clinging to a C-17 fade, replaced by collective relief that no more Americans will die in a murky, brutal war that spanned two decades and four presidencies.

Despite the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan, White House officials and people close to Biden don’t foresee his decision hurting Democrats in next year’s midterm elections, nor in the presidential race that follows. Their argument is that the nation should be reassured that a president who vowed during the 2020 campaign to end “forever wars” made good on the promise.

Will it work? Biden’s allies are betting so.

“A big majority of the American people want us out of Afghanistan,” Ted Kaufman, a Biden confidant since the 1970s and a former Democratic senator from Delaware, told me this week. “And that will be a key message—the key point for the American people is our troops are out,” he said. “It’s fine for us to sit in Washington and talk about what’s wrong in Afghanistan. We’re not bearing the brunt of this war. It’s another thing if you have a son or daughter or father over there.”

Biden’s handling of the biggest foreign-policy crisis on his watch to date is unfolding on two tracks: short- and long-term. In recent days, the White House has privately sent talking points to supporters that sought to blunt the ferocious backlash over the Taliban victory by deflecting responsibility onto a useful target. On his way out the door, Donald Trump left Biden with two bad choices: “indefinite war in Afghanistan” or a troop drawdown and potential Taliban victory, a White House communications aide wrote in an email obtained by The Atlantic. That binary formulation ignores all the other options that were open to Biden: at minimum, leaving sufficient troops in place so that a fleeing Afghan didn’t perish inside the wheel well of a departing plane. Not all Democratic partisans are sold on the idea that Trump boxed in Biden when he negotiated a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan set for this spring. After taking office, Biden quickly recommitted to the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear deal that Trump had abandoned. “This one they chose not to reverse,” Donna Brazile, a former Democratic National Committee chair, told me. “If you don’t reverse it, you own it.”

Looking ahead, Biden’s team is focused on preventing any revival of a terrorist threat from Afghanistan. His national-security team said it is better positioned to quash terrorism emanating from nations with no U.S. military presence than was the case 20 years ago, when Osama bin Laden oversaw the 9/11 attacks from his sanctuary in Afghanistan. But if an attack happens on Biden’s watch, one of his campaign fundraisers said, Americans won’t necessarily rally behind a president who left Afghanistan in the hands of extremists. A natural reaction among voters will be “We didn’t want you in Afghanistan, but you should have kept this from happening and now there are dead Americans, and you have to explain that, and you have to go to their funeral,” said this person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely.

The cable networks are showing chaos, tears, and dead bodies on an airport tarmac, yet some of the living are already writing the scenes off as “the cost of war.” Afghanistan was a war that Americans have clearly wanted to end for a while. In a poll taken 10 years ago, voters largely predicted the messy outcome that’s unfolding today. More than 70 percent believed that the U.S. would eventually withdraw its troops and leave Afghanistan without a functioning democratic government. A Quinnipiac survey in May found that by a margin of 62 percent to 29 percent, Americans approved of Biden’s plan to pull out all troops. Military households approved by a 23-point margin: 59 percent to 36 percent.

“I don’t believe Americans are going to evaluate Joe Biden on whether Afghanistan is a stable democracy,” Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research, told me. “They’re much more focused on whether America is a stable democracy. And, sad to say, we have our work to do there these days as well.”

For all the intense focus in Washington on the Taliban’s resurgence, the broader public seems more preoccupied with other issues, like the still-raging coronavirus pandemic. Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and is now a Democratic representative from Arizona, tweeted last weekend, “What I am feeling and thinking about the situation in Afghanistan, I can never fit on Twitter. But one thing that is definitely sticking out is that I haven’t gotten one constituent call about it and my district has a large veteran population.”

One former Biden campaign aide told me, “It’s tough to imagine that in the midterm elections or certainly in 2024 that the Afghanistan withdrawal will be front and center. These things often seem urgent, and the implications seem enormous in the moment. But at the end of the day, voters care about things that affect them and their families.”

But even some Biden allies fear he has given the opposition a cudgel they can use for as long as he’s in power. The frenzied exodus from Kabul carries an eerie echo of Americans hastily boarding a helicopter from a rooftop when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Republicans are already trying to capitalize on the idea that Biden “lost” Afghanistan and will bear direct responsibility should the Taliban execute Afghans who tried to assist the U.S. war effort. “Where this potentially hurts is the Republicans being able to say, ‘Well, you fucked up Afghanistan,’” the Biden fundraiser told me.

When it comes to America’s longest war, Biden has long been a skeptic—though in 2001 he did vote for a Senate resolution authorizing then-President George W. Bush to use military force against nations that planned or aided the September 11 attacks. Nine years later, as vice president, he committed a revealing gaffe as the war neared its second decade. The U.S. would be “totally out” of Afghanistan in 2014, “come hell or high water,” he said in an interview. At the time, that wasn’t the White House’s position: Barack Obama hadn’t planned a wholesale military departure by that date. Biden later backed off a statement that didn’t jibe with official policy, yet foreshadowed the steps he’d take after becoming commander in chief.

Although Biden’s critics allege that he merely wants to be on the right side of public opinion, his opposition to maintaining an American troop presence in Afghanistan may be rooted in something more personal. He’s long displayed empathy for combat troops deployed in far-flung theaters. When raising his young family, he’d circle Memorial Day on the calendar and take his children to events in Delaware, Kaufman told me. I asked him if Biden’s resolve to get out may have been shaped by his late son, Beau, who served a tour in Iraq in the decade before dying of brain cancer at the age of 46. Kaufman said the reverse is true: Beau Biden joined the Delaware National Guard because of his father’s veneration of the military when he was growing up. As president, Biden typically ends his speeches with the phrase “May God protect our troops.” Trump had moved the prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action flag to a less visible spot on the White House grounds; Biden returned it to the pole atop the building.

How forcefully Biden pushed to wind down the war over the years isn’t so clear. During a Democratic-primary debate last year, Biden said he was “totally opposed to the whole notion of nation-building in Afghanistan.” Yet that’s not the way some diplomats who worked in the region remember it. It is undoubtedly true that most people don’t remember this 2002 statement from Biden, which he directly contradicts today: “History is going to judge us very harshly, I believe, if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we are fearful of the phrase ‘nation-building.’”

Ryan Crocker reopened the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2002 and said his first congressional visitor was Biden, then a senator. They visited a girls’ school in Kabul that was up and running after U.S. forces had ousted the Taliban from power. “He was a big supporter of the stuff we were trying to get off the ground,” Crocker told me. When Crocker returned for another stint as U.S. ambassador to the country in 2011, he said Biden “just wasn’t visible on Afghanistan. I didn’t hear from him, nor did I feel his weight. We had occasional National Security Council meetings, and I don’t recall him ever saying anything of note.”

Part of Biden’s pitch as a 2020 candidate was that he would restore competence to a White House sorely in need of it. He’d hire seasoned experts; he’d bring to bear all the experience he’d gathered as a onetime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a two-term vice president. For critics of the withdrawal such as Crocker, the new scenes of Taliban fighters beating people trying to flee the country following the abrupt collapse of the American-backed Afghan government undercut that image. “I always had great admiration for [Biden],” Crocker told me. “He was a decent person in higher politics, an internationalist. Frankly, this raises questions of competence.”

Back in 2011, I was part of a small pool of reporters who traveled to Afghanistan with Biden aboard Air Force Two. I remember the way he’d come to the back of the plane and schmooze with the press corps, bracing himself against the seats during bouts of turbulence, while worried aides stood nearby ready to steady him if he lost his balance. Wearing his trademark sunglasses and bomber jacket, he toured a 22,000-acre military training center and watched an exercise in which Afghan soldiers seized a building. Speaking at the presidential palace, he said, “It is not our intention to govern or to nation-build.” That, he added, is “the responsibility of the Afghan people, and they are fully capable of it.”

Memories being short, voters may eventually forget the tumult at the Kabul airport. Biden might get political credit for ending American involvement in an unpopular war, as people in his orbit predict. But what happens next isn’t only the Afghan people’s responsibility; it’s also the president’s. If a terrorist attack originates in Afghanistan, Biden might also take the blame.

“More than the awful things that may happen in Afghanistan to our interpreters and to women and girls, I fear for the damage to America’s leadership, which he vowed he would restore,” Crocker told me. “I just feel kind of sick.”