Afghanistan exit may leave a political stain on the president and his party

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WASHINGTON — Democrats may be giving themselves a false sense of security over the political peril of President Joe Biden’s Afghanistan exit.

Several current and former Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday that they aren’t worried that the execution of the evacuation will leave a permanent political stain on him or on them.

“If people are stonewalling or it looks like we’re simply defending everything without introspection, then it won’t work,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. But “if they say yes, mistakes were made, and here’s what we’ve learned from that … then the American people will be with us.”

But Republican lawmakers, many veterans and even some Democratic officials continue to hammer Biden over the chaotic withdrawal, his vow to remove U.S. forces by next Tuesday and his reliance on the cooperation of the Taliban to ensure the safe passage of Americans and the U.S.’s Afghan allies.

The damage from the bipartisan criticism — and the potentially long arc of the war’s aftermath — could put his fellow Democrats in further jeopardy in next year’s midterm elections and harm his agenda if they see a need to distance themselves from him.

Biden’s approval rating among U.S. adults has slipped modestly in recent months — from 53 percent in April to 49 percent now — according to an NBC News survey released his week. The pollsters who conducted the survey said that has more to do with the surge in Covid cases than the end of the war in Afghanistan, but internal division is seldom good for a political party. And some Democrats say Biden isn’t telling the public the truth about the situation in Afghanistan.

“The reality on the ground is that the conditions have not changed. They’ve gotten worse,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former State Department official who represents a politically competitive district, said Wednesday. “The Taliban is not cooperating in terms of allowing Afghans to come to the airport, and yet the reality on the ground is still that our military is operating under an order that we are leaving on August 31. I think that’s absolutely wrong.”

At the same time, some Democratic lawmakers say the administration has turned a corner from what they acknowledge was a difficult start to the operation.

“In the beginning, it was fair,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said of the criticism. “I think what the president is doing now is he knows he has to work with the Taliban, and by maintaining this date he is keeping the Taliban working with him, and so far they have. And I think if we can keep going at the pace we are now, we have a shot to do this.”

Ruppersberger declined to say whether he was worried about political fallout from the exit.

“It depends on the endgame,” he said. “You do your job the way you think you should do it, and then you’ll be judged by the people.”

The administration appears to be responding to pleas for greater transparency, which Khanna said is key to the political outcome, and calls to ensure the safety of Afghans who helped the U.S. over the last two decades.

Without getting into specifics, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday that he broadly takes responsibility for flaws in the evacuation of U.S. personnel and the U.S.’s Afghan allies. And for the first time, he gave an estimate of the number of Americans the State Department believes are in Afghanistan and looking to get out — as many as 1,500.

Still, he said U.S. officials need to be focused on evacuating people rather than second-guessing themselves.

“There will be plenty of time to look back at the last six or seven months, to look back at the last 20 years and to look to see what we might have done differently, what we might have done sooner, what we might have done more effectively,” he said. “But I have to tell you that right now my entire focus is on the mission at hand.”

Administration officials, who once emphasized prioritizing the evacuation of Americans, now say that they are just as committed to getting Afghans out — and that they expect the Taliban to facilitate departures for anyone who wants to leave after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“They have a very strong self-interest in acting with a modicum of responsibility,” Blinken said.

But Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said Wednesday that it is dangerous for the administration to put faith in a Taliban force that it was at war with for 20 years.

“For God’s sakes, we are the United States of America, and we’re going to let the Taliban dictate how we exit and when we exit from that country,” McCaul said at a joint news conference with Malinowski and Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J. “That’s precisely what’s happening now.”

Some Democrats see the potential for the withdrawal to leave a permanent mark on Biden’s legacy.

Matt Zeller, a veteran who is a co-founder of the Democratic national security group The Truman Project, told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday that the exit from Afghanistan will “haunt us forever.”

“This exit was not guaranteed to go this way,” Zeller said. “This was our nightmare scenario.”

Biden and his political allies have long seen the withdrawal as a political boon, because Americans have expressed their desire for the war to end. Others say voters won’t be swayed one way or the other by the evacuation.

“I don’t see long-term political consequences,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., a onetime chairman of House Democrats’ campaign committee. “First, because 80 percent of the electorate is already highly partisan and not persuadable. Second, foreign policy issues don’t usually motivate voters. Third, it’s unlikely that these tragic events will be dominating the campaign narrative over a year from now, when messaging crystallizes with midterm voters.”

No one suggested that Biden’s handling of the evacuation would help Democrats politically.

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