When President Joe Biden announced America’s withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, much of the American public rejoiced; ending the nation’s longest war in its history was met with bipartisan approval. The president, it seemed, was acting in accordance with the will of the people, ending a conflict that has claimed nearly 6,300 American lives and over 47,000 Afghan civilians, among thousands of other lives lost. It may then seem mystifying that Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 49%, down seven points in about a month and a half. In reality, it does make sense.
While the public did undoubtedly favor a swift exit from the conflict, it seems that most voters did not seem to grasp what this exit would entail. The chaos that has unfolded in Central Asia in recent weeks was inevitable. While it was a political boondoggle for the president, Biden has made clear that a prompt withdrawal was the optimal decision.
The American mandate in the war in Afghanistan was made plain by former President Barack Obama in March 2009, two months into his first term as president: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.”
Obama, the second of four successive presidents who led the country through the conflict, sent a message to the public not merely with what he said, but also what he didn’t say. Engulfing the U.S. military in a foreign civil war was not the purpose of the American presence in Afghanistan. The United States was not in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban in any capacity other than their harboring of al-Qaeda personnel. According to Biden, that goal was achieved 10 years ago, with “the death of Osama bin Laden over a decade ago and the degradation of al Qaeda.”
With that in mind, a continued American presence in Afghanistan 10 years after its objectives have been met is asinine. The two presidents preceding Biden continued to maintain a substantial military obligation in the country, despite the military successfully completing its stated goal during Obama’s first term. Former President Donald Trump had been calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan since 2011, over five years before his victory in the 2016 election. Both he and Biden won their respective primary elections in part because their promises to end the war enjoyed broad bipartisan support.
The war did not end, it would seem, because each of the presidents involved in the conflict knew that an American withdrawal would lead to exactly what has transpired: the fall of the American-installed Afghan regime in favor of an oppressive, fundamentalist theocracy. While the end of the Afghan war was extremely popular in theory, images of the Taliban ousting the democratic Afghan government have prompted newfound skepticism. Now that the withdrawal is well underway, only 25% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the crisis in Afghanistan. This may be in part attributable to the fact that while the support for an exit was widespread, it was hardly a priority for most voters. In this sense, Biden has turned himself into a political martyr.
The problem with leaving Afghanistan isn’t one of policy; it’s all about the optics. As has been repeated ad hominem by the administration, America had accomplished its objectives in Afghanistan. But Biden struck a difficult chord in remarks on Aug. 14, when he noted that an interminable “U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.”
The American doctrine of propping up otherwise flimsy democratic regimes in the Middle East should end, and this was the hard truth that Biden had the courage to tell. Unfortunately, the reality of the end of that doctrine is the return of radical, religious actors hellbent on reestablishing the power that was stripped from them. Biden knew this, as did Trump, Obama and George W. Bush. In making a popular decision with unpopular ramifications, Biden is actually exemplifying what it truly means to be president: the person in that chair must make a decision with the best interest of the country at heart, even if it may cost them votes.
Biden fell on a sword that Obama and Trump would not fall on, and for that, he should be commended. None of this is to say he has handled this task flawlessly. There are numerous reports of Afghans who worked with and for the Americans who now feel trapped under the Taliban regime, and have been unable to acquire a visa to come to the U.S., or in some cases cannot leave their homes for fear of being executed by the Taliban. It is a failure of both Trump’s and Biden’s administrations that every at-risk Afghan who aided American troops was not accounted for and taken care of prior to the initiation of the withdrawal. On that subject, there is no debate.
But in the end, Biden is being publicly skewered for doing exactly what the people have asked him to do. It is truly a shame that such a decision, the right decision, could very well cost him re-election in 2024. However, Biden being willing to make the right decision in spite of public blowback is exactly why we should be grateful that he is our president. His mind is always on what is best for the country, not necessarily what is best for his political future. In that respect, he may well be the last of a dying breed. We should appreciate what we’ve got before it’s gone.
Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.