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Polls: Americans back end to Afghanistan war but fault Biden's execution

Republicans are looking to use the chaotic withdrawal to damage the president politically. But foreign policy decisions rarely decide elections.
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WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden formally announced the end of America's longest war on Tuesday, he did so with a majority of voters supporting its conclusion, polls show.

But those same polls suggest his execution of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is broadly unpopular, which has forced him to absorb a torrent of criticism from Republicans as well as from Democratic allies, foreign policy luminaries and political commentators.

A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found that 54 percent of Americans say it was the right decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, while 42 percent say it was the wrong decision.

But just 27 percent rated Biden's handling of the situation as "excellent" or "good," while 29 percent rated it "only fair" and 42 percent rated it "poor."

An ABC News/Ipsos poll found that just 38 percent of Americans approve of Biden's handling of Afghanistan, while 59 percent disapprove.

Republicans are wielding the issue as a political weapon against Biden in the hope that it will damage the Democratic Party and help them recapture control of Congress next fall.

But will Afghanistan matter to voters? Experts doubt it.

"Foreign policy usually doesn’t drive midterms unless American lives or economic interests are directly at stake. The Kabul incident will hurt Biden in the short run but will drag down the party only if there is a hostage crisis or an Afghanistan-based terror attack," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "If there are no more major incidents, most voters will remember Afghanistan only dimly."

Foreign policy mattered little to voters in the 2020 and 2018 contests. A Gallup tracking poll found that in July 2021, just 1 percent cited foreign policy as their top issue, while wars and Middle East conflicts didn't rate.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is hoping 2022 will be different.

"I believe there should be accountability for what I see is probably the biggest failure in American government on a military stage in my lifetime," he told reporters Tuesday.

Biden rebutted the criticisms in his Tuesday speech from the White House, saying he was left with a difficult choice due to former President Donald Trump's deal with the Taliban to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He argued his "real choice" was either to quickly leave or bring in thousands more troops to fight the Taliban as they rapidly took over the country.

"I take responsibility for the decision," Biden said, before directly addressing those who argue the 20-year war could have ended in a more orderly fashion: "I respectfully disagree."

Surveys show some dangers for the president and his party, with a recent decline in his job approval, which tends to be a strong predictor of midterm election outcomes.

Overall, Biden's approval rating has fallen in the last month from a net positive of 8.1 points to a net negative of 0.4 points, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average of polls taken in recent days as the chaos in Afghanistan has dominated news coverage.

An NBC News poll released Aug. 22 found that Biden's approval rating declined to 49 percent positive to 48 percent negative, although the pollsters suggested that may have less to do with Afghanistan and more to do with the rise of Covid-19 cases this summer due to the delta variant.

Notably, the ABC News poll's findings hinted at a hidden benefit for Biden. While his handling of Afghanistan was 21 points underwater, his approval rating ticked up on the economy, immigration, crime and gun violence — issues that tend to matter more to voters.

"If next year is a foreign policy election, something very bad is happening and it isn't anything from this month," one Democratic operative who doubts voters will remember Afghanistan in a year said in a text message. "Repubs are just bouncing from thing to thing which is what you do I guess."

Biden's ultimate bet is that to the extent that Afghanistan motivates voters, they will reward him for making the difficult decision to leave and focus less on the chaotic final days of that exit.

He said he refuses to prolong a "forever war" with a "forever exit."

"I refuse to open another decade of warfare in Afghanistan," he said. "We've been a nation too long at war. If you're 20 years old today, you've never known an America at peace."