Did the American public want the U.S. out of Afghanistan?

I would have thought so. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden advocated abandoning the Afghans, so it seems likely that most members of their respective parties were fine this, at least in theory.

However, an analysis of polling on the question suggests that perhaps only the party bases really wanted us out. A great many Americans didn’t seem to care one way or another and those who did care seemed fairly evenly divided.

A look at the data reveals that a significant number of Americans surveyed don’t respond to questions about withdrawing troops, possibly reflecting a lack of strong opinions. In a recent poll conducted in the fall of 2020 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) for researchers Peter Feaver and Jim Golby, only 59% of survey respondents answered the question about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

In previous polls, one conducted by the University of Maryland in October 2019 and the other by YouGov in 2018, approximately one-fifth of respondents opted not to answer questions about troop levels in Afghanistan. Underlying this is the fact that American voters do not rank foreign policy highly in their list of priorities — a survey of registered voters in 2020 found that they ranked it sixth out of a list of 12 priorities — and Afghanistan is but one of several pressing foreign policy issues facing the United States.

Perhaps Americans are more poll-weary than war-weary.

What about those who did answer questions about withdrawing troops? They were divided on the question:

In the NORC fall 2020 poll, 34% of survey respondents said that they supported troop withdrawals (in exchange for the Taliban’s counterterrorism assurances as per the deal struck in Doha in February 2020), while 25% said they opposed them. While one would have expected the Doha deal to have normalized the idea of withdrawals in the fall 2020 survey, that hasn’t quite happened.

Polling prior to the Doha deal also offered mixed results: Thirty-four percent of respondents to the University of Maryland poll from October 2019 were in favor of maintaining troop levels in Afghanistan, 23% were in favor of reducing troop levels, and 22% were in favor of removing all troops in the next year. A similar question asked by YouGov in 2018 also revealed mixed results.

So until Donald Trump made his deal with the Taliban, only 22 percent wanted us to abandon Afghanistan, at least according to the University of Maryland poll.

Support for withdrawal rose after Trump’s deal and was much higher in a hypothetical case wherein the U.S. president went ahead and authorized a pullout. Thus, a president reading the polls might feel confident that withdrawing would be popular if he actually ordered it (assuming the withdrawal went well). But a president could not reasonably conclude that the public wanted him to authorize a complete withdrawal.

These poll results make sense when you think about it. In recent years, our commitment to Afghanistan has been scaled down to the point that hardly any Americans were dying in combat there. Noah Rothman points out that the last combat-related death of an American in Afghanistan occurred more than half a year ago.

Thus, there was no reason why ordinary Americans should have been clamoring for a withdrawal or, for that matter, even responding to pollsters’ questions about the subject. I suspect that if more Americans had been aware of how scaled-down our commitment had become, and how few casualties it was producing, even fewer would have told pollsters we should quit entirely.

But even with only a casual knowledge of the facts about Afghanistan, the American public was more astute about the matter than Joe Biden.

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