President Biden has been lauded for his capacity for empathy, and particularly his ability to connect, through a sense of shared loss, with those who are grieving. That facet of the president’s political persona has been largely absent in his response to the plight of the Afghan people, thousands of whom are desperate to escape a country once again under Taliban control.
While Biden and administration officials haven’t turned a blind eye to the ongoing chaos unfolding in Afghanistan’s capital, they have steadfastly stuck to their position, arguing that it was long past time to end the American engagement in Afghanistan, which has limped on for two decades. They’ve further insisted that remaining in the country would not have prevented the Taliban from seizing power.
But critics, both Democratic and Republican, have largely focused their attention on the execution of the withdrawal, not its merits. The scene at the Kabul airport is dire, with desperate Afghans clinging to planes as they take off—a situation that has resulted in devastating loss of life. Translators and other personnel who aided the American military are now in mortal danger, and the claims by Biden himself that some special immigrant visa applicants wished to stay in Afghanistan have been vigorously challenged by advocates for refugees. Many lawmakers have set up phone or email lines specifically to handle requests for constituents seeking to get help for someone in Afghanistan.
Some of the most stinging criticism has come from congressional Democrats. Four key committee chairs in the House and Senate have said that they want to investigate the withdrawal. In a particularly harsh rebuke to the president, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez said he would “seek a full accounting” of the administration’s “flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”
Several lawmakers have also called for evacuating now Afghans who aided the American military, and sorting through the paperwork later. Part of the issue is that the special immigrant visa program is a bureaucratic quagmire with an application process that can take years to complete. According to a July report by the Migration Policy Institute, the SIV program has a backlog of 18,000 Afghan allies and 53,000 family members. The White House said Tuesday that 2,000 applicants had been relocated to the U.S. thus far.
It’s not as if this situation was unforeseeable. In early June, a bipartisan group of House members—many of whom were veterans who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan—urged the White House in a letter to “evacuate our Afghan friends and allies immediately.”
“If we fail to protect our allies in Afghanistan, it will have a lasting impact on our future partnerships and global reputation, which will then be a great detriment to our troops and the future of our national security,” the letter said.
The House also passed a measure at the end of July aimed at strengthening and streamlining the SIV program, and increasing the number of visas by 8,000. Representative Jason Crow, who introduced the measure, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the execution of the withdrawal. The Democrat from Colorado, an Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan, organized a press call on Monday, with members of both parties calling on the administration to do more to aid Afghan allies.
“Send the troops in, the resources, and the combat power necessary to secure the airport as long as necessary to get the job done to get American citizens, and our friends and partners, out,” Crow said on the call. (Some of the most outspoken lawmakers of both parties have been those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, such as Democratic Representative Seth Moulton and Republican Representatives Peter Meijer and Adam Kinzinger.)
The situation for desperate refugees may also be complicated by domestic politics. In May, Biden raised the refugee cap to 62,500—after initially keeping it at the historically low 15,000 level set by President Trump, reportedly due to concerns about bad optics. Reuters reported this week that Biden was concerned about the politics of accepting refugees, and preferred they be sent to third countries.
Some Republican lawmakers and right-wing media personalities have already condemned the idea of letting Afghan refugees into the U.S. In a statement on Wednesday, former President Trump decried a photo of a C-17 plane filled with more than 600 refugees, saying: “This plane should have been full of Americans. America First!” This was in stark contrast to his statement on Monday, where he excoriated the idea of “taking out our military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our country and who should be allowed to seek refuge.” The change in tone indicates that he had been convinced in the interim that the first message did not play as well with his base.
The scaremongering around refugees is far from a universal response from congressional Republicans; a group of 36 GOP freshman on Tuesday sent a letter to Biden urging him to aid the evacuation of Afghan allies.
Biden does not have a reputation as a cynical politician. But in his speech to the American people defending the execution of the withdrawal on Monday, he indicated a belief that the majority of the country would ultimately back his play to leave.
“I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives—American lives—is it worth?” Biden said. He added that he “will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war,” saying that “is not what the American people want.”
Early polling indicates that this assumption may have been a risky one. A Morning Consult/Politico poll released Monday found that 49 percent of voters supported the decision to withdraw all troops by September 11, compared with 69 percent in April. A Wednesday poll by Data for Progress, a liberal think tank, found that 51 percent of likely voters strongly or somewhat supported Biden’s decision to withdraw.
That said, the war in Afghanistan was hardly popular, particularly in its waning years, during which time the conflict had largely faded from the American consciousness, even as thousands of troops remained stationed in the country. As early as 2010, half of Americans believed the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in Afghanistan, according to Quinnipiac polling. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that 49 percent of American adults believed that the U.S. had “mostly failed” in its mission in Afghanistan. And an April poll by The Economist/YouGov found that 58 percent of Americans supported Biden’s drawdown.
If one were to gauge an international tragedy from a domestic political standpoint, it’s unclear whether the situation will affect the midterm elections, which are still more than a year away. Some vulnerable Democratic incumbents have cast doubts about the execution of the withdrawal from Afghanistan—even as they may be leaning heavily on the president, and on the brand of “Biden Democrats,” come next November. Democrats are in serious danger of losing control of both houses of Congress, and a botched withdrawal could be another weapon in the Republican campaign armory.
Toby Moffett, a former congressman and Democratic consultant who has advised the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, argued to The New Republic that ultimately “very few voters will be upset about the withdrawal.”
“There may be an issue of alleged ineptness in implementing it, but this administration has looked anything but inept compared to Trump. Clearly, Biden will suffer some dip in popularity because of the way in which they’ve handled this and the extent to which, it seems clear, our military was not ready for it,” Moffett said. “But we will not be the party of ineptness in 2022.”
Questions about how this situation will affect the midterms are also predicated on an assumption that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be at the top of voters’ minds in 2022. Whether this remains in the public consciousness is dependent on the vicissitudes of a hyperactive news cycle. Steve Israel, a former congressman and chair of the DCCC, noted to The New Republic that views on the withdrawal would also likely be colored by political polarization.
“No matter what Biden does, 40 percent of the electorate will despise it, and 40 percent of the electorate will praise it. The 20 percent in the balance will decide whether to judge their voting decisions on this issue. That could affect the House Democratic majority and the presidency—but only if they’re talking about this issue in a year from now,” Israel said.
All representatives must run for reelection, but the majority of them are in safe seats. It is only two dozen or so seats that will determine control of the House, and Republicans already have structural advantages going into 2022. If Republicans do decide to go after Democrats on Afghanistan, it will likely be just one critique in a potpourri of attack ads.
“Moderate and independent voters tend to base their votes on economic issues and health issues. With the sole exception of the year after 9/11, I’ve never seen a poll where foreign policy or events abroad motivate independent voters. So we’ll see whether the horrific images that we’ve witnessed over the past week stay with those voters in the next year and influence their decisions,” Israel said.
Regardless of how this shapes up politically for Biden in the near term and for Democrats in next year’s elections, the immediate situation for Afghans is dire. The House returns to Washington next week, but its focus will be infrastructure and voting rights, and it is expected to recess again once key votes on those issues are handled. The Senate is in recess until after Labor Day.
Meanwhile, congressional probes have been pledged, and members of Congress have both taken to their bully pulpit to urge Biden to action and undertaken individual efforts to help fleeing Afghans and American citizens. But it’s unclear what else can immediately be done—beyond watching, and, for the sake of the Afghan people left behind, remembering.