The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans support Afghanistan pullout — but not the way it was done, a Post-ABC poll finds

U.S. Marines process evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 28. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Americans overwhelmingly support President Biden’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan, but by a 2-to-1 margin they disapprove of how he handled the chaotic and ultimately deadly withdrawal that included the evacuation of several thousand U.S. citizens and tens of thousands of Afghans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The Afghanistan withdrawal has contributed to a drop in Biden’s overall approval rating, which for the first time in his presidency is net negative. The poll finds 44 percent saying they approve of how he is handling his job, while 51 percent disapprove. In late June, the numbers were almost reversed, with 50 percent supporting and 42 percent disapproving.

Biden has suffered significant erosion among independents in perceptions of how he is handling his job. The poll shows that 57 percent of independents now disapprove of his performance, compared with 43 percent in late June. His approval rating among Democrats also has dipped, from 94 percent in June to 86 percent now. Republicans remain overwhelmingly negative in their judgment of his performance as president (89 percent disapprove, nearly identical to June’s 88 percent).

For years, polls have shown growing weariness among Americans over the long war in Afghanistan, which began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has since cost the United States roughly $2 trillion and the lives of 2,461 military personnel. That contributes to the popularity of Biden’s decision to end it.

Read Post-ABC poll results and how the survey was conducted

The new Post-ABC poll shows 77 percent of Americans saying they support the decision to withdraw all U.S. forces. Support crosses party lines, with 88 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of independents aligned behind the decision.

But the widespread support for the departure falls apart when it comes to views of how the departure unfolded, including the deaths of 13 members of the military who were helping refugees at the airport in Kabul.

Roughly half of all adults (52 percent) say they support getting out of Afghanistan but nonetheless disapprove of how Biden handled it, while a quarter (26 percent) support both the withdrawal decision and Biden’s handling of it. Another 17 percent disapprove of the decision to end the war, while 6 percent express no opinion. A bare majority of Democrats support both the decision and Biden’s handling of it, while a bigger majority of Republicans support the withdrawal but not how Biden handled it.

Asked more generally whether they approve or disapprove of Biden’s overall handling of the situation in Afghanistan, 60 percent say they disapprove, compared with 30 percent who approve. A lukewarm majority of fellow Democrats (56 percent) endorse Biden’s handling of the situation, but just 7 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of independents give him positive marks on that measure.

Biden also draws criticism for the deaths of the military personnel in the suicide bombing tied to the Islamic State that occurred outside the airport on Aug. 26. Fifty-three percent of Americans say Biden bears either a “great deal” or a “good amount” of the blame for the attack, while 43 percent say he doesn’t bear much or any blame.

The finding is colored by sharply different views based on party allegiance. About 7 in 10 Democrats say Biden bears little or no responsibility, while nearly 9 in 10 Republicans say he does. A slight majority (52 percent) of independents say Biden is to blame.

Biden has fiercely defended his decision to end the war, delivering a defiant speech the day after the last U.S. troops departed Afghanistan in which he took on his critics and called for an end to U.S. military intervention aimed at nation-building abroad. He has cast the recent evacuation as an “extraordinary success” — although the poll indicates that Americans see the effort as bungled.

He also has cast blame on his predecessor, President Donald Trump, arguing that a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban in early 2020 had tied his hands and forced him to choose between getting out hurriedly or being forced to significantly increase the number of troops on the ground.

Biden’s announcement earlier this year that U.S. forces would be gone by Sept. 11 was followed in August by the collapse of Afghan security forces in areas they still controlled and with it the Afghan government itself. Taliban forces quickly overran the remaining areas under government control and took over in Kabul with stunning swiftness, something that Biden had insisted would not happen in the way it did.

Americans had soured on the Afghan war long ago, even as it frustrated a succession of presidents, all of whom bear responsibility for mistakes or misjudgments. The last time a majority in a Post-ABC poll said the war was worth fighting was in late 2009, and then just a narrow 52 percent majority said so. The new poll finds 36 percent saying the war was worth fighting, compared with 54 percent who say it was not, with 38 percent overall saying they “strongly” felt it was not.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to say the war, which began under GOP President George W. Bush, was worth the cost. Among Republicans, 52 percent share that view, compared with 28 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents. The highest support among Republicans for fighting the war was measured in 2009, in the early months of the Obama administration, when 77 percent said the war was worth fighting; their support dipped as low as 39 percent in 2013.

The overwhelming support for Biden’s decision to end the war has nonetheless left some Americans with an unease about future terrorist threats.

Before the war, the Taliban had harbored al-Qaeda, which was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. With the Taliban back in control, questions have been raised about whether Afghanistan will again become a breeding ground for terrorism.

Just 8 percent say the decision to leave makes the United States safer from terrorism, while 44 percent say it makes the country less safe. Forty-five percent say the departure makes no difference.

The U.S. withdrawal left behind thousands of Afghans who helped in the war effort and who are now in danger of retribution from the Taliban. But at the same time, the evacuation has brought planeloads of Afghan refugees to the United States for resettlement.

Some Republicans, elected officials and others, have said the United States should not accept refugees, but overall Americans broadly support the resettlement efforts. Nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) say they support taking in refugees, after security screening, compared with 27 percent who oppose. Support also comes from a majority of Republicans, with 56 percent saying they should be welcomed to 39 percent who oppose it.

That level of acceptance is significantly higher overall than in 2015, when the issue was whether the United States should take in Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict in their country. At that time, 54 percent opposed taking in those refugees.

On the issue of security, 53 percent now say they are very or somewhat confident that U.S. officials can identify and exclude possible terrorists from entering the country alongside the refugees, though a far smaller 16 percent say they are very confident of that. Forty-six percent say they are “not so” or “not at all” confident of the government’s ability to screen out possible terrorists. Confidence in security screening differs heavily along partisan lines, with about 7 in 10 Democrats confident the United States can prevent terrorists from entering the country, compared with just over half of independents and just over 3 in 10 Republicans.

The swiftness by which Biden’s approval rating has gone from net positive to net negative is not unprecedented but puts him in a small group of presidents who have found their popularity plummeting in their first year in office. Trump was net negative in Post-ABC polls within months of his inauguration in 2017, as was President Bill Clinton, whose administration got off to a stumbling start before he won reelection in 1996.

But for most other recent presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, net negative numbers came in their second, third or fourth years in office.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 among a random national sample of 1,006 adults, with 75 percent reached on cellphone and 25 percent on landline. Overall results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.