When President Joe Biden announced that the United States will withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the decision was met by immediate pushback from the usual roster of politicians and foreign policy analysts.
“Rushed,” “hasty,” “precipitous“—all buzzwords were invoked to describe why it was somehow too soon to end a war after two decades of evident failure. But loud as these Washington voices were, they are in fact the minority.
While you wouldn’t know it from following the beltway discourse, President Biden’s plan to withdraw from Afghanistan is incredibly popular.
One poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 58 percent of the U.S. public approves of the withdrawal, while only 25 percent oppose. Within that, almost a third of the country strongly approves, while a mere 11 percent strongly opposed. A subsequent poll by CBS News reported an even higher 77 percent approval rate. Such broad, deep support would be the envy of any policymaker.
This overwhelming approval is not limited by party lines. While support for withdrawal is higher among self-reported liberals, 65 percent of conservatives approve of Biden’s plan.
And though politicians are quick to speak on behalf of members of the U.S. military to justify their warmaking, the evidence shows that support for withdrawal is actually higher among veterans than in the general public.
This isn’t just a domestic phenomenon. Eighty percent of Afghans now believe that only a political (non-military) solution will bring about peace, and only one third would prefer U.S. and NATO forces remain in the country. Meanwhile, globally, U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been found to be a major driver of anti-U.S. sentiment.
In as polarized a world as ours, the widespread support for ending the long U.S. war in Afghanistan should rightfully hold a place of prominence in our assessment of Biden’s decision. Instead, the popularity among the wider public has gone underreported, as the same old Washington voices make their same old cases for war.
In the corridors of foreign policy power, there remains a prevailing belief that foreign policy should be determined by “experts,” insulated from democratic considerations. While there’s no doubt that scholarship has a critical role to play in policymaking, and it’s quite possible for the public to be wrong on a given issue, the reality of this near-total dismissal of democratic control has been the capture of foreign policymaking by powerful, special interest groups that have disproportionate access: weapons manufacturers, industry power brokers and abundantly funded foreign lobbyists, to name a few.
While our public debate is dominated by these groups and their belief that our nation’s longest war should go on just a little bit longer, the vast majority of the U.S. public—to say nothing of Afghans or the rest of the world—want this war to end. Those are the voices we should be listening to. We would never accept the casual disregard of public opinion in domestic politics. Foreign policy should be no different.
The gap between public opinion and U.S. policy goes well beyond this one war. The data is clear: The U.S. public supports a long list of progressive foreign policy priorities that remain marginal within the circles of power. That includes ending our existing wars, opposing new military interventions, restricting and conditioning military assistance, cutting the Pentagon budget, prioritizing diplomacy over confrontation with Iran, stopping the growing Cold War with China and much more.
Such profound popular support for a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy should give the Biden administration heart that it has taken the right tack on Afghanistan. It should also embolden it to go further.
Currently, Biden’s Afghanistan plan is limited to a withdrawal of combat troops—it does not preclude an increased reliance on other forms of militarism, from private contractors to weapons sales to drone warfare. Elsewhere too, progress toward fixing U.S. foreign policy has been restricted to half steps: Biden’s announcement of an end to U.S. support for “offensive operations in Yemen” has been followed by a disheartening dearth of concrete commitments.
If U.S. foreign policy was democratic—if it were made by and for the people—such tinkering around the edges would not be the limits of our ambitions. The public wants an end to our endless wars and a new, more peaceful U.S. foreign policy, in Afghanistan and beyond. It’s high time we listen.