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Why The Domestic Political Fallout From The Afghanistan War Is So Hard To Assess

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): In April, President Biden announced that it was time to end the “forever” war in Afghanistan by sending home the roughly 2,500 Americans troops that remained there. 

It wasn’t apparent at the time, but that decision now appears to have set in motion the collapse of the Afghan government. Over the weekend, the Taliban, the ousted militant group that came to power in the country in the mid-1990s, seized control of the capital, weeks before the U.S. was set to withdraw its remaining troops.

The Afghanistan War has spanned four presidencies now, so it’s hard to blame Biden entirely for what’s happened there (and it’s not clear at this point that Americans will). But Biden’s exit strategy certainly has people asking what the last 20 years were for.

What Americans think about ending the war in Afghanistan

So let’s talk about how the Afghanistan War became a 20-year conflict in the first place; how Americans feel about the Afghanistan War and whether Americans’ thoughts on war are changing; and finally, the potential domestic political repercussions of the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

First, how did the war last for 20 years? And how different were our perceptions of the war from what was happening on the ground?

tanisha.fazal (Tanisha Fazal, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota): One reason the war lasted as long as it has is because most Americans don’t grasp the costs of war. Less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military, meaning most people don’t know someone who serves. The human costs of war have also changed. U.S. military medicine has improved dramatically over time, especially since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. What this means is that most U.S. casualties today are nonfatal casualties, so a lot of the human consequences of war are less visible to Americans.

Also, the way the U.S. pays for war has changed. As political scientist Sarah Kreps has written, we used to finance wars via taxes, but today, we finance wars by adding to the national debt. Put all this together, and you have a very small group paying the most immediate, visible costs of war. The rest of us are also paying those costs, but they’re much harder to see.

adam.berinsky (Adam Berinsky, professor of political science at MIT): As a public opinion scholar, I would also add that ongoing military action — even war — just isn’t something that’s super important to most Americans. We saw this with the Iraq War, and it was true with Afghanistan as well. This kept a lot of things that were happening in Afghanistan off the American public’s radar.

A shot of a military helicopter flying over Afghanistan

related: Afghanistan Has Fallen To The Taliban. How Will Americans Judge Biden’s Decision To Withdraw? Read more. »

tanisha.fazal: Consider, too, that the military is now an all-volunteer force. There was a draft for the Vietnam War, requiring many young men to serve, which is at least one reason why that war saw so many protests compared to Afghanistan, which saw relatively few.

adam.berinsky: I think you got a little of the dynamic that Tanisha is talking about during the Iraq conflict, when National Guard units were called into service. But as she notes, widespread direct involvement in military action is much lower today relative to the Vietnam War era.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Right, Afghanistan wasn’t really on most Americans’ radars. Weekly polls from the Economist/YouGov used to ask people regularly how important they thought the Afghanistan War was: As recently as February 2020, only 29 percent of Americans thought it was “very important,” whereas 69 percent said the economy was very important.

However, this doesn’t mean Americans didn’t necessarily care about terrorism — the direct catalyst for the war back in 2001 — more broadly, as 53 percent did say terrorism was “very important” in that same poll. It’s just that the concern didn’t necessarily connect with the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.

sarah: Another thing that stood out to me from the Washington Post’s 2019 investigation into the Afghanistan War was all the ways in which the military and various presidential administrations weren’t honest with the American people about the war, routinely saying things were going far more smoothly in Afghanistan than they actually were.

So there’s the fact that the Afghanistan War wasn’t an important issue for most Americans as you’ve all mentioned, but it’s hard for me to disentangle that from the flawed public perception of how things were going in Afghanistan.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): I also thought this stat from Marquette Law School pollster Charles Franklin was telling: 

adam.berinsky: To Nathaniel’s point, in researching my book on American public opinion and war, I found that after the end of 2002, pollsters basically stopped asking questions about Afghanistan. There was some polling done in 2003 and after, but very few polls were conducted compared to the early stages of the war.

sarah: Why was the Iraq War polled more than the Afghanistan War?

adam.berinsky: I think in part it was because Afghanistan seemed at first to be a “settled” public issue. The Taliban government fell quickly after the 2001 invasion, and the international community turned to trying to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan soon after. Support for the Afghanistan War also stayed above 80 percent through all of 2002, while support for the Iraq War never reached those levels. The Afghanistan War simply seemed to have more of an “over and done with” perception even though U.S. troops were still in the country.

The media also moved onto other domestic and foreign policy issues. And even when support for the Afghanistan War fell, it still hovered around 60 percent for several years.

nrakich: Yeah, and Iraq was obviously more in the headlines during the later years of the Bush administration as it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction and as violence among Iraqis increased.

tanisha.fazal: The “mission accomplished” slogan in Afghanistan speaks to what Sarah said earlier about the Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” investigation. The reasons for Afghanistan War appear to have shifted over time and, in the end, were ultimately quite unclear.

sarah: We’ve touched on this a bit already, but how have Americans’ thoughts on the Afghanistan War changed? Do Americans think the war was broadly worth it?

geoffrey.skelley: Gallup has asked Americans since 2001 whether they thought it was a mistake to send troops to fight in Afghanistan. Initially, most Americans didn’t think the war was a mistake, but the latest poll (taken in July) found the country about evenly split on it.

adam.berinsky: You can see in the chart that from 2007 to 2014 increasing numbers of Americans thought their country made a mistake in sending troops to Afghanistan, but other polls show that there hasn’t been a lot of movement after that span. Rather, most polls show American support for the war has been relatively flat.

nrakich: The most recent poll, from YouGov/The Economist on Aug. 14-17 (so after it was clear Kabul would fall to the Taliban), found that 38 percent of Americans thought it was a mistake for us to intervene in Afghanistan in the first place. But only 28 percent thought it was not a mistake — so plenty of Americans aren’t really sure. 

adam.berinsky: It’s also important to remember, though, that most people, most of the time, don’t pay much (if any) attention to issues of foreign policy — even war.

That means even though there have been a lot of dramatic images this week of Afghans trying to flee for safety, with many Americans now reconsidering their opinions of the war, that will likely be short-lived. Within a few weeks, I’d guess interest will return to the low levels we’ve seen in the last decade.

Even now, with interest in Afghanistan high, the share of “not sure” responses is still pretty high, suggesting that this issue will fail to resonate strongly with many Americans.

geoffrey.skelley: Bingo. As Nathaniel discussed last year, based on Adam’s work, Americans often take their cues on foreign policy from leaders in their party because they aren’t as informed on it and don’t have obvious ideological corners to run to.

nrakich: To your point, Adam, when Afghanistan has gotten cable-news attention in the past, it has just as quickly faded from the headlines. Check out these numbers from Robert Griffin, a senior research advisor at Democracy Fund:

tanisha.fazal: I do think, though, that Americans’ general relationship to war has changed in that the immediate costs of war are just a lot less visible, as I said at the outset.

In thinking about the broader foreign policy context, the withdrawal from Afghanistan also signals a greater shift in where America is focusing its international strategy: China. And any military conflict with China would look very different from the Afghanistan War.

sarah: That’s a good point, Tanisha. One thing we wrote about in 2019 was how Americans don’t think recent military conflicts have been justified, starting with the Vietnam War. So I do think, to your point, the American public’s relationship to war is changing. There’s just less support for military conflict, broadly speaking. 

But as you point out, China is increasingly where America is focusing its attention abroad, and at least right now, both Democrats and Republicans seem to view China negatively. I do think, then, that any potential military conflict would be thought of differently.

Turning back to Afghanistan, do we have any sense for how Americans are reacting from the events over the weekend?

nrakich: Overall, Americans are unhappy with how the withdrawal was handled. According to Morning Consult/Politico, only 25 percent of registered voters believed the Afghanistan withdrawal was going “very well” or “somewhat well,” and 57 percent thought it was going “not too well” or “not well at all.”

There was also a drop in the share of Americans who support withdrawal — from 69 percent in April to 49 percent this month. But more Americans still support withdrawal than oppose it, 49 percent to 37 percent.

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sarah: What has this meant for Biden’s approval rating so far? 

nrakich: Reuters/Ipsos found that Biden’s approval rating dropped 7 points between Friday and Monday. It seems likely that that was due to the Afghanistan news. But his approval rating was also dropping before the weekend, so his current low point definitely isn’t all because of what’s happened in Afghanistan.

adam.berinsky: It’s going to be really hard to peel apart what’s happening to Biden’s approval rating because of Afghanistan and what’s happening because of COVID-19.

tanisha.fazal: Yeah, that’s right, Adam. In the longer term, I would guess that any relationship between Biden’s approval rating and Afghanistan (insofar as you can disentangle from everything else, like COVID-19) is going to depend on whether there are terrorist attacks against American citizens, especially on U.S. soil.

It’s interesting that the Taliban have been signaling that they will be more restrained when it comes to international terrorism; they seem to want to be able to engage with the rest of the world. That said, they’re not exactly trustworthy, and I worry Afghans are in for a really horrible time, as the chances for human rights violations under this regime are very high. But the Taliban do have incentives to try and restrain themselves, and are also under some pressure from Russia and China. So we’ll see.

To Nathaniel’s point on the withdrawal question, it seems that we’ll want to be careful in distinguishing responses on “should we withdraw” from “what do you think of the withdrawal.” Lots of people supported withdrawal but still recognize that this process is going terribly.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah. I’m curious, though, if the fact that a plurality of voters still supported withdrawing troops suggests that number will bounce back up after the overwhelming news coverage of Afghanistan fades. 

At the same time, the issue might not fade that quickly if there continue to be new developments and disturbing images coming out of Afghanistan, so perhaps people’s opinions will be more sticky.  

sarah: The threat of terrorism, as Tanisha mentioned, strikes me as the biggest unknown here. Obviously, Adam’s and others’ research shows that foreign policy isn’t often a super important issue for voters, but I imagine we’ll see an uptick in the share of Americans who are concerned about a terrorist attack. 

Consider that earlier this year, the Pew Research Center’s annual poll on policy priorities found that 63 percent of Americans thought defending the nation against terrorist attacks should still be a high priority.

nrakich: According to this week’s YouGov/The Economist poll, though, just 19 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack against the U.S. is “very likely” in the next 12 months; 29 percent think it is “somewhat likely”; 19 percent think it is “not very likely”; and 8 percent think it is “very unlikely.” 

geoffrey.skelley: Adam and Tanisha, in my article about public opinion and Afghanistan, I noted that we might see sharper partisan divides over policy in Afghanistan given it’s in the news and Republican leaders in Congress — and outside the Capitol — are hammering Biden on it. But previously, there hadn’t been as much of a split on the issue of withdrawal. Do you think that will change?

adam.berinsky: I think that’s right, Geoffrey. Republican politicians are criticizing Biden for what happened, so I expect that Republican voters would also say that this week’s events are a disaster. And if Democratic politicians jump on board as well in their criticism of Biden, we could see a real drop in his approval. Although, I’d caution that things are much more locked in today when it comes to a president’s approval rating, given how polarized our politics are.

But if both Democratic and Republican elites criticize Biden, we would essentially move to what political scientist John Zaller calls a one-sided information flow — or that when elites from both sides speak the same message, the public largely unifies behind them. Think of it as a sort of reverse “rally around the flag” effect.

tanisha.fazal: I do wonder how the arrival of Afghan refugees might play into all of this, especially given polarization around immigration and, frankly, race.

nrakich: Right now at least, support for accepting Afghan refugees is very high. According to YouGov, Americans support accepting Afghan refugees who worked with Americans into the U.S. 65 percent to 15 percent. And the numbers are similar if you ask respondents about accepting Afghan refugees who backed the U.S. military to “[their] own state,” although there does seem to be a small “not in my backyard” contingent. But I definitely think there is potential for former President Donald Trump and other nativist politicians to racialize that issue as you hinted at, Tanisha.

sarah: To what extent will the withdrawal from Afghanistan affect Biden’s presidency? Do we have a sense yet of what this means for Biden?

nrakich: I think the questions for his legacy are interesting, Sarah. But in the short term, my bet is that Afghanistan will quickly fade from the headlines and this won’t affect the 2022 midterms or Biden’s reelection campaign.

adam.berinsky: Think back to the Iran coverage in early 2020 and its possible effect on the 2020 election — and how that never materialized.

tanisha.fazal: I agree with Nathaniel and Adam. The one caveat is if there’s a terrorist attack. Otherwise, I think COVID-19/the economy will have a much bigger effect on Biden’s presidency.

nrakich: Polarization has made presidential approval ratings extremely steady, as we’ve written repeatedly. And I think you can bet on about 10 major news stories breaking between now and November 2022, each of which will be touted as a “game changer” and then promptly forgotten about.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Tanisha Fazal is a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who studies international relations with an emphasis on armed conflict, sovereignty, international law, and military medicine.

Adam Berinsky is a political science professor at MIT and serves as the director of the MIT Political Experiments Research Lab. He is also the author of “In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq.”

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.