A year on, Afghanistan withdrawal becomes campaign issue in US midterms

Republicans increase anti-Biden messages while Democrats say the withdrawal put American interests first

A year after the Taliban takeover, Afghans who failed to get on evacuation flights say they are still struggling to find safe and legal ways out of the country. AP
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A year after the last US soldier left Afghanistan, Republicans and Democrats are seeking to capitalise on the end of America's longest war to suit party interests before the midterm elections.

Mr Biden's decision to pull US forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of western intervention sparked an indelible series of events that came to define his early presidency.

They included the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the ensuing chaos at the capital's airport, and an ISIS attack that killed 13 US troops and scores of Afghans.

Republicans have used such scenes to depict the Biden administration as reckless, and as a rallying point for campaign fundraising in November's midterms that will serve as a Litmus test for White House popularity.

The US House and Senate could both flip from Democratic to Republican-controlled in midterm elections.

Source: Cook Political Report

Marking the anniversary of the US withdrawal on August 31, 2021, House Republicans said Mr Biden's "catastrophic failure in leadership is to blame for the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan".

"In a new Republican House majority, we will leave no stone unturned in our effort to provide oversight on this deadly withdrawal and honour the 13 brave service members who lost their lives serving our country," they said.

Republicans increased pressure on the administration when the House foreign affairs committee released a minority report detailing how the government misled the American public as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated.

The report said the administration rebuffed offers of help from Pakistan and made “minimal effort” to quickly help thousands of Afghans.

Republicans have invested heavily in social media campaigns to push their message.

Since August 2021, thousands of Facebook "issues, elections or politics" advertisements have highlighted the Afghanistan withdrawal, data from Facebook's parent company Meta showed.

That includes an ad from House minority leader Kevin McCarthy's page on “Biden’s Afghanistan lies”, which encouraged users to “rate” Mr Biden.

The ad's link leads to WinRed, the Republicans’ online fundraising platform.

Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, flanked by other Republican legislators, prepares to speak on President Joe Biden's first year in office on January 20. EPA

One of the ads with the most engagement is from the National Republican Congressional Committee demanding that Mr Biden "resign in disgrace" over the withdrawal.

Meta analytics showed the ad's estimated audience size is between 500,000 and one million viewers — most of them in key swing-states Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Republican candidates are also using the Afghanistan issue in more direct political contacts.

JD Vance, a Trump-backed Senate candidate in Ohio, sent emails to supporters with a poll question: “Do you think Joe Biden handled the situation in Afghanistan horribly?”

Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing their own message, saying Mr Biden did what had to be done.

VoteVets, a Democratic-aligned political action group of US veterans, said ending the war was the right call after former president Donald Trump's 2020 deal with the Taliban.

"Republicans have no credibility on this," Jon Soltz, Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets, told The National.

"It was their president who ceded to the Taliban with a deal that shut out the democratically elected government in Afghanistan. A smarter, more competent administration would never have done that

"We’d be better off if they stopped creating huge messes that Democratic presidents were left to clean up."

In an August 2021 Pew Research poll, 54 per cent of US adults surveyed said the decision to withdraw was the right one, while 42 per cent said it was wrong.

"Voters are still very supportive of us ending the war," Mr Soltz said. "The ones who are out of tune with voters are the ones who said we should have just stayed there and kept fighting the war."

When Mr Biden announced his decision last year, he pitched that ending the war in Afghanistan would save American lives and tax dollars.

"I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome," he said.

Democrats are pushing hard on that messaging.

Democratic chairman of the House armed services committee, Adam Smith, took to right-wing Fox News this week to plead the administration's case.

"Twenty years of effort by four different presidents and more generals and diplomats than most of us can now remember make it clear that this is not the case," Mr Smith wrote in an opinion piece for Fox.

"If we had stayed, we would have simply lost more American lives and spent more money — only to wind up in the same place five, 10 or 20 years from now."

Adam Smith greets Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen Mark Milley after a House armed services committee hearing on Afghanistan. AP

Foreign policy has rarely affected US elections, but the consistently high polling numbers for citizens with an opinion on Afghanistan are a stand-out against other international issues.

Although most Americans agreed with the withdrawal, Pew Research polling suggested a large majority also thought the Biden administration handled it poorly.

In August and September 2021, about 70 per cent or more said that the administration had done only a fair or poor job ending the war.

Updated: August 30, 2022, 11:45 PM
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