Quinnipiac University’s latest poll is replete with bad news. According to its findings, a majority of Americans believe the current administration is “not competent.” Most voters surveyed disapprove of how President Joe Biden is responding to the pandemic, managing the economy, serving in his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, dealing with taxes, handling immigration, and addressing the brewing crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Quinnipiac did, however, provide us with some good news. When confronted by the consequences of Biden’s policy of retreat from foreign conflicts, Americans have rediscovered that they prefer engagement to ignominious surrender.
When respondents were asked if “the U.S. did the right thing by withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan,” the pollster found that only 28 percent of voters still supported full withdrawal. A majority (50 percent) said that a residual American troop presence should have remained in Afghanistan. Another 15 percent said the U.S. should not have pulled out any of its forces. Even among self-identified Democrats, only a plurality still backed America’s pullout from Afghanistan.
“Weary of the seemingly endless conflict but wary of what was left behind, the majority of people still see boots on the ground as the firewall between a country in the grip of Western hating factions and the rest of the world,” Quinnipiac University analyst Tim Malloy remarked.
It will be easy for political analysts to write this off as the lingering bad taste that persists following America’s chaotic, bloody, and strategically incoherent withdrawal. That presupposition allows these analysts to cling to the notion that full withdrawal could have been popular—it just needed to be administered by a better manager. But the idea that Americans couldn’t wait to be rid of their obligations to Afghanistan and wanted out of that theater come what may is a dated understanding of American public opinion on the subject.
In a woefully underappreciated March 2021 analysis of the available polling data on the conflict, Brookings Institution researchers Madiha Afzal and Israa Saber found that Americans were not nearly as war-weary as their representatives in government assured them they were. “Ordinary Americans display a significant degree of ambivalence on the question of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan,” they wrote.
These researchers found that survey respondents were generally apathetic toward the issue of Afghanistan, noting that it had become just another aspect of U.S. foreign policy (from which Americans are notoriously disengaged). They added that a staggeringly high number of respondents declined to even answer questions relating to America’s footprint in Afghanistan. Those who did respond were split on the matter; in one fall 2020 poll, just 34 percent of voters backed full withdrawal, and only then after an agreement with the Taliban to jointly pursue counterterrorism operations had been secured. Two earlier polls showed similarly low levels of support for a U.S. exit from Central Asia.
The polling isn’t just reflective of voters’ ambivalence, but of the inevitability of the disaster that was about to unfold. A question premised on the notion that the Taliban would negotiate a peace agreement in good faith, much less that the organization would help the U.S. deter and disrupt terrorism in the Af-Pak region, is a laughable proposition. Average voters should not be expected to have closely followed negotiations with the Taliban in Doha in the year leading up to withdrawal, but America’s elected leaders should have been familiar with them. A cursory review of those fruitless talks should have led America’s elected leaders to foresee the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan. From there, they might have envisioned the abandonment of America’s wartime allies to a retributive terrorist regime, the sacrifice of U.S. outposts and diplomatic missions, and the shameful national humiliation the voting public would be forced to own.
Even more distressing from the perspective of those who remain ideologically committed to the idea of unconditional surrender in America’s “forever wars,” Afghanistan is not disappearing from the headlines as some surely hoped it would. On a semi-regular basis, the voting public is reminded of the untold hundreds of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, some of whom are children, the United States left behind. Those reminders will continue indefinitely as Western governments and private interests continue the heroic work of extracting them from inside Taliban lines.
Moreover, Americans will continue to be reminded of the metastasizing terrorist threat gestating in Afghanistan. Only this week, Americans discovered that one of the Islamic State terrorists responsible for the deaths of 13 U.S. service personnel outside Kabul’s airport was released from a detention facility in Bagram Airbase by the Taliban just days prior to that attack. That revelation calls into question the Biden administration’s contention that Taliban and Islamic State militants are operating at cross purposes and, implicitly, will be too busy fighting each other to bother exporting terrorism to the West. Joe Biden’s generals certainly don’t seem to share that view.
Advocates of retrenchment from America’s post-9/11 obligations abroad now must defend their position against the undesirable real-world consequences their policy preferences produce. Full withdrawal from Iraq gave way to the rise of an unspeakably violent, abusive, and repressive terrorist caliphate, requiring America’s return to the theater. Full withdrawal from Afghanistan has so far given way to the very same thing, the full consequences of which are yet to come. They are making a more compelling case for American extroversion in ways full-throated advocates for U.S. engagement in the world never could.