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Experts say political leanings largely drive perception of end of war in Afghanistan

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Following the end of the War in Afghanistan, political experts say the state of American politics today show the perception of the withdrawal and its execution will be viewed in a partisan lens.

Navin Bapat, chair of the curriculum of peace, war and defense at UNC-Chapel Hill, said following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the idea for the U.S. to act was an “incredibly popular policy.” Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, was the only federal lawmaker to oppose a broad authorization to carry out the war in Afghanistan that was presented just days after Sept. 11, 2001.

But as the war continues and fatalities grow, America begins to see a “fairly steady erosion of support” for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bapat said.

Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, said data show polarization really began in the 1990s, when both parties became “more sorted and ideologically coherent.” While the Republican party is shifting further to the right at the time, Democrats are confronting the tensions between moderates and liberals. These shifts set the stage for a “very divided election” in 2000 between former President George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“The division was evident,” Bitzer said. “It’s only gotten more intense, more deeper in the divide. It’s getting to the point where members of one party view the other party as the enemy.”

But following the 9/11 tragedy, Americans can recall a sense of unity and patriotism as they grappled with witnessing an attack on the nation. Bitzer says some of that unity began to break down when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 for the first stage of the Iraq War. Bush’s reasoning for invasion was the belief Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and that the U.S. needed to end former Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism in the region.

Bitzer said while Americans supported retribution against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, it’s when they learned there weren’t weapons of mass destruction in the region that “things began to fall apart.”

Overall, the policy of removing the U.S. from Afghanistan for good is popular, Bapat said. But criticism stems from the perspective of how the withdrawal was executed. Combine that with the speed at which the nation fell apart and the circulation of heartbreaking images, and “it’s hard for Americans to say we support that,” Bapat added.

“The speed at which Afghanistan fell apart was a shock,” he said.

Additionally, going from a lack of attention to the conflict in Afghanistan in recent years to a flood of such images opens the door for political interpretations, Bapat said. While supporters of President Joe Biden and his administration will see it as relatively successful, Republicans are likely to view it as chaotic and will hammer on the number of Americans left behind.

“It was never going to be a pretty exit,” Bitzer said.

By August, Biden averaged a 49% approval rating for all adults based on a number of national polls. Currently, the Cook Political Report shows Biden’s approval rating within the 90% percentile for Democrats, below 15% for Republicans and around 43% among Independents. The 43% rating denotes a decrease from 58% among Independents in April. Bitzer said the fluctuation in Biden’s approval rating will mostly be driven by Independents since both parties aren’t expected to sway from those rates by too much.

In general, American public opinion tends to have short-term memory on foreign policy issues, Bitzer said. But right around the corner are mid-term elections in 2022, which tend to be “referendums on the majority party.” For that reason, it’s likely Republicans will focus on Biden’s execution of withdrawing from Afghanistan to reclaim a majority in the House and/or Senate.

Bapat said Biden was skeptical of maintaining a presence in Afghanistan even during his vice presidency under former President Barack Obama and has maintained that same view during his current presidency. But his strategy doesn’t stray too far from former President Donald Trump, who had been eyeing a way to negotiate a way out during his tenure.

But Bapat says a few things might have contributed to the fallout in the area following the announcement of withdrawal. The announcement from Biden in April to end the war probably gave signal that the Afghan government and military couldn’t combat the Taliban forces, who had a stronger force there, Bapat said. Additionally, Bapat said while it’s not clear it would have improved the fallout, previous patterns show it’s best to withdraw after the “fighting season,” which typically ranges from spring to the end of October or early November. An alternative strategy, he said, might have been to withdraw forces after Sept. 11.

Looking ahead, Bapat says it’s likely the U.S. will engage in drone action against the new terrorist threat ISIS-K, which the Biden administration says is responsible for the death of 13 U.S. military members who lost their lives on Aug. 26 at the Kabul airport following a suicide bombing. The bombing also claimed the lives of at least 160 Afghans. This combined with the way the 20-year war ended may result in an increased skepticism of the U.S. among surrounding nations.

Following the U.S. invasion, most of Afghanistan’s wealth was put into U.S. reserves for safe keeping. That leaves the Taliban, who will soon need some form of currency and resources, with little to trade, Bapat said. The U.S. will likely place sanctions on the Taliban to prevent the access of those resources. Previous patterns following sanctions, he said, has shown a subsequent increase in human rights violations. He predicts any sanctions placed on the Taliban will likely lead to more violence in the region.

“It’s tragic anyway you look at it,” Bapat said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246. 

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