Joementum: Two new polls show support for Afghanistan withdrawal nosediving

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Lucky for Biden that 95 percent of Americans are going to love that dismal speech he gave yesterday.

Otherwise he might have had a real political problem on his hands here.

Americans like the idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years. But they don’t like national humiliations, which is what we’re enduring in Kabul at the moment, and they’re not prone to paying close attention to foreign policy. One would assume that they realized a full U.S. pullout from the country would likely mean a Taliban takeover, massacres of American allies, and brutal persecution of women when they said they supported withdrawal in earlier polls.

But we should never assume too much about what this country’s voters know and don’t know about what happens abroad. The American public checked out of following Afghanistan news long, long ago.

Morning Consult polled people from Friday through Monday about their support for a pullout as the country rapidly collapsed. The good news for Biden is that a near-majority still supports the policy thanks to heavy partisan solidarity from Democrats. The bad news is that the numbers are way down since April, from 69/16 then to 49/37 now. Support has dropped by at least 15 points across all three partisan groups.

Ominously for the White House, when you tweak the withdrawal question by asking if people would still support the policy if they knew it would end in certain worst-case scenarios, the numbers turn negative:

Biden may be a victim of his own bullsh*t. He and Tony Blinken assured the public that Afghanistan was at no risk of imminent collapse. Americans may have believed him. Combine that with their general inattention to foreign affairs and the public may have imagined that the country would stand on its own, at least for awhile, after we had left.

Or maybe they’re just fickle and myopic. They liked the idea of withdrawal when they didn’t have to think about the inevitable consequences, and now that they do have to think about them they don’t like it anymore. Oops.

Either way, we may need to revisit the assumption based on months of polling that Americans strongly support withdrawal. Once you remind them that that comes with a price, the numbers change.

Trafalgar also polled the question of withdrawal on Saturday and Sunday, as the debacle at the airport was unfolding. Hoo boy:

The numbers were even negative among Democrats at 39.8/48.2. Would they have been more favorable if our Afghan allies had been evacuated in a more orderly way? I’m thinking yeah, probably, which exposes the folly of the rhetorical sleight of hand Biden and Blinken have attempted over the past few days. They’ve tried to focus the public on the fact that we’re leaving, which is popular (maybe?), to distract from how we’re leaving. But that won’t work in a digital age, when videos of Afghans falling from the sky after clinging to departing planes in desperation are instantly accessible on every smartphone in the world. The fiasco is apparent, vividly so. It’s destined to color how people view the overarching question of whether we should have withdrawn, at least in the short term.

Of course, there are ways to steer the polling back in favor of withdrawal by further refining the questions. Ask Americans if they’re willing to keep troops there if they knew that a season of war with the Taliban would produce 5,000 new U.S. casualties and I expect the numbers in favor of retreat would surge again. But that cuts both ways. What if we refined the question to make clear something that I bet most voters don’t know, which is that for the past six years it’s the Afghan army that’s done most of the dying over there? The U.S. provided crucial logistical support and air cover but typically the people in harm’s way were their guys, not ours:

Since 2014 the U.S. suffered around 150 fatalities in Afghanistan. Not annually. Total. A third of those came in 2014. In the seven years since, around 100 Americans have died. See why Biden is so eager to convince the public that Afghans wouldn’t defend their own country? The casualty numbers prove that that’s not true, but the more voters believe we were carrying the load of front-line fighting, the more appealing withdrawal seems. What would happen to the polling if/when it became widely known to Americans that Afghans had taken the lead on the ground long ago? Or that fewer Americans died in 20 years of war than died on a typical day from COVID last winter?

Biden better hope things go smoothly, or as smoothly as they possibly can, as the very belated evacuation proceeds. It’s easy to imagine how they might not.

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