Poll: Support for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — and for Biden's foreign policy — tumbles as Taliban takes control

Amid the swift and sudden collapse of Afghanistan this week — and widespread coverage of the chaos that has engulfed the war-weary country as the Taliban seized control again — support for both the long-planned withdrawal of U.S. forces and for President Biden’s handling of foreign policy has declined significantly, according to a new Yahoo News poll.

At the same time, more Americans still favor the U.S. withdrawal than oppose it — and there are early signs that the political fallout for the president could be limited in the long run.

The survey of 1,649 U.S. adults, which was conducted from Aug. 16 to 18, found that while 50 percent of respondents said one month ago that they favored the decision to “withdraw all [U.S.] combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of August,” just 40 percent say the same today. Over the same period, opposition to Biden’s plan to withdraw increased from 22 percent to 28 percent.

Such a rapid shift is unwelcome if unsurprising news for the White House, which has struggled to explain how it failed to anticipate the speed with which the Taliban toppled the Afghan army and government, leaving diplomats and Afghans who assisted the U.S. effort scrambling to escape the country.

As a result, significantly more Americans now disapprove of Biden on foreign policy (48 percent) than approve (36 percent) — a sizable shift from last month, when the country was evenly divided on the question (42 percent disapproving to 41 percent approving). Notably, disapproval of Biden’s foreign policy increased by the same amount (7 points) among Democrats (to 18 percent) and Republicans (to 86 percent).

Still, nearly all of the new opposition to Biden on Afghanistan is concentrated among Republicans and, to a lesser degree, independents. Last month, Republicans were evenly divided on whether they favored (37 percent) or opposed (39 percent) the withdrawal; today far more Republicans oppose it (57 percent) than favor it (22 percent).

Likewise, independents swung from 53 percent to 20 percent in favor of withdrawal, to just 39 percent to 27 percent in favor of withdrawal, over the same period. Democrats, meanwhile, have become slightly more pro-withdrawal (60 percent to 10 percent) in the wake of recent events.

President Biden addresses the nation on the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on Monday.
President Biden addresses the nation about Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on Monday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As with most things in U.S. politics, partisanship and polarization is largely defining the public’s response to the upheaval in Afghanistan. While “strong” approval of “the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president” is down from 49 percent to 43 percent among Democrats from the Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted two weeks ago — and “strong” disapproval among Republicans is up from 69 percent to 78 percent — Biden’s overall job-approval rating (which includes those who approve or disapprove “somewhat”) shows much less change, moving just a point or two (from 48 percent approve to 44 percent disapprove two weeks ago, to 47 percent approve to 46 percent disapprove today).

By the same token, more Americans say they’re not sure what to think about the withdrawal (32 percent) than say they oppose it (28 percent), and less than half (45 percent) say they feel “strongly” one way or the other. This suggests that attention to the issue may be less intense among ordinary Americans than among Washington insiders and pundits.

For now, Americans are also unsure how to assign responsibility for Afghanistan’s collapse. The share who agree with Biden’s basic argument that the events of the last week were inevitable and would have happened at some point no matter what (38 percent) is virtually identical to the share who say recent events were not inevitable and could have been avoided with a different approach (40 percent).

They are similarly divided (along predictably partisan lines) over former President Donald Trump’s recent claim that "the withdrawal [from Afghanistan] would have been totally different if the Trump administration had been in charge” (38 percent agree, 37 percent disagree).

President Donald Trump speaks to the troops in 2019 during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump speaks to the troops in 2019 during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

While more Americans say Biden deserves a “great deal of blame” for the events of the last week (34 percent) than say the same about Trump (21 percent), Barack Obama (16 percent) or George W. Bush (19 percent), that pales in comparison to the number who say Afghan leaders (51 percent) or the Afghan army (46 percent) deserve a great deal of blame.

When asked to rate how the last four presidents handled the war in Afghanistan, 46 or 47 percent of Americans say they disapprove of all of them. Just 31 percent (for Bush) to 37 percent (for Trump) approve.

Ultimately, it’s possible that when the shock of recent events wears off, Americans may look more favorably on the move to get out of Afghanistan. Even today, a full 59 percent say they agree with the statement — taken verbatim from Biden’s speech earlier this week — that “ending U.S. military involvement now was the right decision” because “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” Just 17 percent disagree.

Similarly, more than two-thirds (67 percent) say “America should focus less on solving problems in other countries and more on solving problems in our country,” while a mere 13 percent say “America should focus more on solving problems in other countries before they become problems for our country.”

That said, Americans are very pessimistic about Afghanistan’s future. Few think the U.S. (14 percent), Afghanistan (13 percent) or the world (13 percent) is better off because of the war there, and a greater number predict the U.S. will be less secure (31 percent) than predict it will be more secure (9 percent) once all U.S. troops leave.

Taliban patrol after taking control of Herat, Afghanistan, on Aug. 18, 2021.
Taliban fighters patrol after taking control of the city of Herat, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. (Mir Ahmad Firooz Mashoof/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) also say they are “very” (29 percent) or “somewhat” worried (34 percent) about the consequences of the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan. Similar majorities worry about terrorist attacks being launched from Afghanistan against the U.S. (64 percent) or against other countries (64 percent), and nearly three-quarters worry about “human rights abuses against the Afghan people, particularly women and girls” (77 percent) and “retribution against Afghans who assisted the U.S.” (74 percent). If those fears become reality, this could have further political consequences for the president.

And yet while most Americans (51 percent) now believe the U.S. has “lost” the war in Afghanistan, a full 60 percent of those who believe the U.S. has lost also believe it was not “possible to win.”

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,649 U.S. adults interviewed online from Aug. 16 to 18, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education, based on the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7 percent.

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