TURES COLUMN: When people soured on Afghanistan and what polls say about war withdrawal

Published 9:30 am Friday, October 1, 2021

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As American troops left Afghanistan, the political question on everyone’s mind is whether or not this would hurt President Joe Biden at the polls. When did the Afghan mission sour, and what do Americans think of Biden’s handling of the situation? My students are on the case again.

My undergraduate researchers (Kristina Calixto, Chase Davis, Kenya Ellington, DeQueze Fryer, Jacob Jeffords, Shedrick Lindsey, Mason McLaughlin, Erik Moran, Brennan Oates, Abbey Reese and Tamino Schoeffer) took on this task as part of a class assignment, where each researched a presidential withdrawal, and analyzed surveys from Gallup polling’s Presidential Job Approval Center. We found that in the past, withdrawing from a conflict actually boosted a president’s public standing. We also discovered that people’s negative views on the mission were formed long before Biden’s withdrawal, and may have coincided with the Iraq War.

Looking through history, we learned that Eisenhower rose slightly from 73% to 74% after the Korean War case, though some U.S. troops stayed in South Korea. Richard Nixon shot up from 51% to 67% when the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

Our group found that before America’s final pullout of Vietnam, Gerald Ford’s approval rating was 39 percent, which jumped to 40%.

Our research showed that Bill Clinton rose a point in the polls from 50% to 51% after our troops left Somalia. We then discovered that Barack Obama rose in approval ratings from 42% to 46% after leaving Iraq Trump, meanwhile, inched up from 45% to 46% after ordering U.S. troops to leave Syria. Biden’s six point drop in Gallup polls is a worse showing than most presidents who withdraw American troops. That’s not good for the Democratic Party leader.

Our next question was when did public support for the Afghan mission dissipate? Roughly 72% of people thought the war in Afghanistan was going very well or somewhat well.

By 2006, that number had fallen to 50 percent. Six years later, that number of supporters had fallen by half to 25%.The killing of Osama Bin-Laden led the percentage of Americans who thought the war as worth fighting spiked by 12 percentage points to 43 percent, but within a year, that support for the war declined to 30 percent.

When it came to deciding whether the war was the right decision, more than 55 percent thought so in 2013. That number did not change much (one percentage point) with the dead of Mullah Omar, the former leader of the Taliban. An airstrike called by Barack Obama that killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour did increase the U.S. President’s approval ratings by six points  By 2021, however, only 36 percent of Americans thought the war in Afghanistan was “worth fighting” while 54 percent thought otherwise, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.

As for Biden, the news isn’t great, as only 31 percent approve of his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but 69 percent thought leaving Afghanistan was the right thing to do, and a majority (54%) approve of his decision to do so, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Half of Americans admitted that he “did the best he could” in Afghanistan. The vast majority of Americans also support taking in Afghan refugees, a position Biden supports but Republicans oppose.

Biden’s political position is precarious, but evidence shows Americans are more upset with the results than his policy, and don’t hold him as accountable as the GOP does.  Moreover, Biden is a lot closer to the public on the refugee issue than Republican rivals are. What my students did find is that you’ll learn a lot more by looking through history instead of a single survey, and to examine multiple polls on a particular subject.