As Biden administration officials met to hammer out plans for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, members of their communications and political teams worked to keep the American public on board with the drawdown—even if conditions got much, much worse.
As part of those deliberations, White House and other Biden administration communications officials quietly circulated polling data, including some from a once Trump-allied group, that reassured themselves that—even if the pullout is quickly followed by horrifying developments in Afghanistan—they would have the political cover to decisively weather that fallout, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
The White House did not provide comment for this story by press time. But one person familiar with the matter bluntly assessed, “Probably, this is all going to shit. But we also have confidence that we’ll have political cover, that no one’s going to give a shit.”
According to the sources with knowledge of the situation, some of the polling that had been shared among Biden administration officials prior to the official withdrawal announcement included a survey conducted by Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), a Koch-backed organization pushing for a full drawdown of American troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. CVA had also amassed considerable clout with the preceding administration, and had regularly shared similar data on withdrawal support with its allies in the Trump White House, as then-President Donald Trump frequently stalled on his pledges to pull U.S. forces out of overseas conflicts. The group was previously fronted by Pete Hegseth, an Iraq War vet and Fox News host who privately advised then-President Trump on several policy areas.
The January memo from CVA found that “a full two-thirds of veterans (67%) would support a move by the president to withdrawal all troops from Afghanistan—an increase of nearly 10 points (8%) from 2019,” and that a “vast majority of the general public (80%) believe our military engagement around the world should be reduced or stay about the same. Only 6 percent believe we should be more engaged.”
Another poll that circulated within the West Wing, according to a Biden administration official, was a Morning Consult survey published last month, which showed not just enormous Democratic support for a pullout this year, but also a 52-percent approval among GOP voters.
Of course, public opinion can be fickle and sometimes the situation on the ground can become so horrific, it changes opinions at home. In 2011, fully-three quarters of the American public backed the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq. In 2014, that number was down to 61 percent. By 2015, after ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, a majority of Americans supported sending in troops to fight the self-proclaimed caliphate.
In the weeks before and after Biden’s announcement that he would pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the president held various discussions with administration brass, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on what he and top officials had already determined to be likely developments. Since the dawn of his presidency, Biden and his team had gamed out several “nightmare scenarios,” in the words of the administration official, that could arise following a U.S. pullout: Taliban consolidation of power, an uptick in reports on violence and oppression of women and girls, and further extremist attacks, for instance.
In these discussions, people familiar with the matter say, Biden was clear: this all needed to be factored into the calculus, and the possible horrors and public-relations backlash to it should not deter the administration from its goal of disengaging from America’s longest foreign war.
Two weeks before the announcement was made, the Biden White House actively reached out to allied organizations on both the left and the right, particularly veterans’ groups, and encouraged them to ramp up their messaging blitzes to give them added political cover on why the U.S. should get out of the Afghanistan conflict, two other individuals with knowledge of the matter said.
When the withdrawal was announced last month, Biden vowed that the nation’s “diplomatic and humanitarian work” would continue in Afghanistan, and that the United States would “continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian and development assistance” in the region.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that such support would remain strong after a U.S. withdrawal, and expressed confidence that “predictions that the Afghan forces will collapse right away” are incorrect.
But asked by Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), the committee chair, whether the Taliban has truly evolved in its treatment of women or its affiliations with terror groups, Khalilzad admitted that the record is “mixed.”
“We share your concerns,” Khalilzad said. “We will have to see—their statements indicate as if they have learned, as if they have evolved, but we don’t take their word for it. We will have to see what happens.”
Such semi-assurances did little to quell the concerns of human rights organizations which began calling the administration almost immediately after Biden announced the withdrawal timeline. The NGOs feared that the Taliban would once again enforce harsh strictures on women and religious minorities. In the lead-up to the 2001 invasion, the U.S. government pointed to Taliban laws forbidding women from attending school, holding most jobs or from even appearing in media as a selling point for the war—proof, supposedly, that invasion was as much about expanding human rights as it was seeking vengeance for the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
For NGOs that have been working to advance women’s rights, the withdrawal announcement began a countdown to the potential end of two decades of progress.
“We were not given a heads-up about the withdrawal announcement, perhaps not surprisingly,” the head of one non-profit working to foster equal rights for women in Afghanistan told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity in order to discuss sensitive conversations. “We found out about it probably at the same time the rest of the world did.”
In subsequent conversations with points of contact in the State Department, the administration reassured the non-profit leader that Biden’s commitment to human rights in the region was not conditioned on “boots on the ground,” they said. But they told The Daily Beast that they were deeply concerned by a report released by the Director of National Intelligence’s National Intelligence Council earlier this month, which found that the broader gains in Afghan women’s rights over the past 20 years are in potential peril if the Taliban regains control of the nation.
The report found that those advances owe “more to external pressure than domestic support,” indicating that protections for women “would be at risk after coalition withdrawal, even without Taliban efforts to reverse” them.
“That’s our biggest fear, right?” the non-profit head said. “We’ve made it clear to the Biden-Harris administration that if the human rights conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, we will not accept it quietly—it’s unacceptable.”
But for now, both President Biden appear ready to accept such scenarios as a predictable cost of getting American forces out of the war zone. So does his predecessor. In recent weeks, Trump was urged by some of his former administration officials to be supportive of Biden’s decision—but also reminded to amply claim credit for getting the U.S. to this point, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
“Afghanistan being messy post-American withdrawal won’t be new. These types of tragic and horrific attacks were happening when the United States had tens of thousands of troops there, and when the coalition had over a hundred of thousand troops there,” said the Charles Koch Institute’s William Ruger, who was Trump’s final and unconfirmed nominee for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “Afghanistan has been involved in a civil conflict for a long time… It’s regrettable and tragic, but this was happening when we were there, and it will be happening when we leave.”
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman