There is broad consensus among those who follow U.S. politics closely that the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, including the loss of 13 U.S. service members, has done significant political damage to President Joe Biden. An administration that sold itself as cool and competent in the foreign policy arena has struggled to explain away the heart-breaking images Americans have seen in the media over the past two weeks.
Now that the last American troops have departed Afghanistan, however, there is disagreement among experts as to how long the U.S. public will remain focused on a messy end to a war that a large majority of Americans turned against long ago.
Some say the withdrawal could reverberate with the public into the 2022 U.S. election season, during which the Democrats will be struggling to retain their tenuous grip on both chambers of Congress. Others point to the demonstrably short attention span of the voting public, and predict that when voters go to the polls in 2022, the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a distant memory for many of them.
Republicans won't forget
Recent polling from Morning Consult, done after the attack that killed the 13 U.S. service members outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, found that Biden's job approval numbers have slipped into negative territory (49% disapprove, 48% approve) for the first time in his presidency.
Biden's opponents in the Republican Party certainly won't forget the effect the withdrawal had on Biden's popularity, and they will do their best over the coming year to keep reminding the American people.
Appearing on ABC's This Week on Sunday, Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, echoing many in his party, predicted that allowing the Taliban to return to power in Afghanistan will create a haven for international terrorist groups.
"The consequences are going to be a return of the Taliban that has been willing to provide safe haven to terrorists in the past," Sasse added. "We have so many different groups who want to turn Afghanistan into the global capital city of jihad, and the administration doesn't have a plan."
'Undercuts claims of competence'
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a partner with the Republican polling firm Echelon Insights, said that while foreign policy doesn't typically factor heavily in U.S. elections, the notable decline in Biden's polling numbers in recent days could signal a meaningful change.
Writing Monday in the Washington Examiner, she said, "Biden's strategy of avoiding controversies served him well in his campaign for president. But today, the administration seems determined to treat the Afghanistan tragedy as if it were purely a matter of concern to reporters and Twitter warriors."
She added: "Treating Afghanistan like a second-tier story does not make it so. Furthermore, the unfolding tragedy badly undercuts the Biden administration's claims of competence and commitment to rebuilding America's standing with our allies. And people are paying attention — in a polarized era where presidential job approval is extremely stable, Biden's sharp drop stands out."
Immediate action needed
John Zogby, a Democratic pollster, told VOA that Biden needs to act immediately to shore up his position with regard to the Afghanistan withdrawal.
"He's got to make sure that he grabs control of Afghanistan before it turns into the dominant conversation over a longer term," he said.
Zogby said Biden needs to be seen making an effort to get more Americans and Afghan allies out of Afghanistan, and even though it will be controversial, expanding the number of Afghan refugees being allowed into the U.S.
Renewed domestic focus
Not all experts agree, though, that the Afghanistan withdrawal poses a serious long-term problem for the president.
The withdrawal "does raise questions that are exploitable, fairly or unfairly, about his leadership and competence," said Bruce Jentleson, a professor of political science at Duke University who has advised Democratic presidential campaigns.
He said that what Biden and his Democratic supporters are going to need to do is focus very closely on domestic policy issues.
"They're not going to give up foreign policy — that's not in Biden's nature. But they're going to want to be able to say, 'We have done so well, a Democratic Congress working with a Democratic president, on things that really matter at home — jobs, COVID, voting rights — that that trumps foreign policy.'"
As dramatic and alarming as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was, Republicans likely will incorporate it into a fairly typical strategy for an out-of-power party in an off-year election, said Monika McDermott, a professor of political science at Fordham University.
"I think they can use it to say, 'Look, we need a check on the Democrats and on President Biden, and we don't have that with a Democratic Congress.'" she said.
"I'm assuming that's the tack they're going to take, which is usually the tack that is taken when you've got a unified government, and an off-year election," she said. The Republicans will argue that it is in the country's interest to diminish the Democrats' hold on the levers of power in Washington. "I'm assuming that's what they'll go for," she said. "And that's what usually works in off-year elections. The president's party suffers."
Americans' short memory
Other experts are dismissive of the idea that Americans will be thinking much at all about Afghanistan in 14 months, given the rapidity with which issues in U.S. politics have tended to flare up and then burn out in recent years.
"I don't think this changes the calculus very much," said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. "I'm sure Republicans will continue to try and hang it around Biden's neck ... but I just don't see it actually moving too many voters or really seriously affecting what next year's elections look like."
"It just seems unlikely that voters, 14 months from now, will still be reflecting on how things could or couldn't have gone better in a war that, presumably, will be long since over," said Masket. "Or at least, well outside of most American news coverage. I don't know what the political situation will be like within Afghanistan, but the odds seem pretty high that the U.S. won't have much to do with it at that point."