President Biden inherited a peace agreement requiring a complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Now he faces two unattractive alternatives: Leave by May 1, as the deal with the Taliban requires, and risk governmental collapse and civil war. Stay, with or without a negotiated extension, and face the outrage of a U.S. public exhausted by two decades of conflict. The domestic politics might seem straightforward, but as evidenced by the president’s announcement Thursday that it will “be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” the situation is actually complicated.
Conventional wisdom holds that withdrawing from Afghanistan is popular. Polls show a majority of Americans, including veterans, favor bringing the troops home. Leaving Afghanistan is a priority for key Democratic constituencies and was backed explicitly by President Trump and his 2020 Democratic challengers. Mr. Biden himself promised during his campaign to end the “forever wars,” Afghanistan most prominent among them.
Look closer, however, and domestic demand for an American withdrawal may not be strong as it seems. America’s cities aren’t roiled by protests against the war in Afghanistan the way they were during the Vietnam era. At the height of the war in Iraq, congressional majorities in both houses passed measures requiring an end to the American presence there. This time is different. In December, Congress passed a defense funding bill that blocked Mr. Trump’s order to pull 2,000 troops out of Afghanistan. A new Pew poll about Americans’ foreign-policy priorities finds that protecting against terrorist attacks, the central reason for staying in Afghanistan, remains near the top of the list. Reducing U.S. military commitments overseas came in 17th.
While the notion of ending the American role in Afghanistan resonates, and can even shift policy, it’s unlikely to move votes or affect candidates’ chances, presidential or otherwise. There have been moments in U.S. history when a candidate’s position on war determined his political fortunes. There have also been moments when presidents had to spend great political capital to maintain a war effort, as with Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam or George W. Bush in Iraq. This isn’t one of those moments.
On the contrary, reports suggest that the White House is now reflecting on the possibility of a “fall of Saigon” scenario in Kabul, with Afghanistan overrun as American forces withdraw. No one can say with certainty if, or for how long, the Afghan security forces could hold out against the Taliban in the absence of U.S. and allied assistance. The indicators aren’t encouraging. After the full American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, ISIS seized huge portions of territory and the U.S. military had to return. That kind of possibility looms over Afghanistan if it reverts to an untrammeled sanctuary for terrorists.