Politics

How the Right Wing Is Using Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal to Start a New Culture War

Afghan people climb up on a plane and sit by the door as they wait at the Kabul airport.
After the Taliban’s takeover of their country, thousands of Afghans mobbed Kabul’s airport trying to flee. Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images

On Sunday night, hours after Kabul fell to the Taliban, former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller was on message. “It is becoming increasingly clear that Biden & his radical deputies will use their catastrophic debacle in Afghanistan as a pretext for doing to America what Angela Merkel did to Germany & Europe,” he wrote, referring to Syrian refugee resettlement. He added that “the Biden team” wants to grow the number of refugees “into the many hundreds of thousands.” As journalist Spencer Ackerman noted, Miller “is inventing this figure as propaganda.”

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For Miller, whose morning routine is sipping coffee and scanning the United States’ overnight birth certificates to check how well the Caucasians kept up, the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal  is just another opportunity to spread anti-immigrant rhetoric. But he’s also cleared a path for pro-withdrawal Republicans who would otherwise be facing a crisis of messaging: Biden has done something they wanted, and it’s earned him the sharpest criticism of his presidency. How can they get in on the fun without being too overtly hypocritical?

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The answer is to move the conversation from foreign policy to nativist culture war turf, by fearmongering about the acceptance of Afghan refugees.

The most Trump-friendly Republicans in Congress, concentrated in the House Freedom Caucus, backed the former president’s calls to withdraw from Afghanistan, a framework for which Trump negotiated with the Taliban in 2020. If anything, their criticism of Biden earlier this year was that he wasn’t withdrawing quickly enough.

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After the Biden administration suggested in February that it may not meet the Trump-negotiated May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus who had urged Trump in 2020 to “end the endless wars,” wrote a letter to President Joe Biden insisting that he pick up the pace.

“I respectfully urge you to continue to remove United States service members from Afghanistan in the coming weeks,” Biggs wrote, “with the goal of ensuring all our brave men and women in uniform return from the theater before May.” The Afghanistan Study Group’s “call for more time,” he wrote, “is an all-too-familiar slippery slope.” Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, meanwhile, tweeted with dismay that “we’ve been in Afghanistan more than half my life.”

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“We need to end the endless wars,” she wrote.

But now that Biden has ended the endless, the messaging is changing, with Freedom Caucus members and other opportunistic Republicans looking to turn regular Afghan people who had been our allies into dangerous infiltrators.

The seeds of this debate, which I fear is only going to get uglier as right-wing commentators cozy into their anti-immigrant BarcaLoungers, were visible a few weeks ago in Congress. House and Senate leaders were trying to pass a Capitol security funding bill into which they had tucked $1.1 billion for Afghan refugee assistance and the creation of 8,000 new Afghan Special Immigrant Visas, targeted toward evacuating Afghan allies who would be under special threat of reprisal from the Taliban. When asked about the provision, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told reporters he didn’t love it.

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“I think those who speak English and are our friends should stay and fight for their country,” Paul said. “I think if they all leave we’re more likely to see the Taliban take over.” The Senate was able to pass the bill unanimously—but only after working through delays from seven Republican senators who had problems with the Afghan SIVs. A week earlier, when the House was voting on Afghan SIV legislation as a stand-alone bill, 16 Republicans, almost entirely Freedom Caucus members including Biggs and Boebert, voted against it.

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Now that withdrawal has happened, the anti-refugee Republicans are ready with their talking points. “This withdrawal has been severely and catastrophically mismanaged, but this does not change the basic fact that it was the right decision, embraced by both President Trump and Biden, and one that I have long publicly supported,” Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale said on Monday. But then: “The chaos we’re seeing is not an excuse to flood our country with refugees from Afghanistan.”

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J.D. Vance, who was your typical hobnobbing, cosmopolitan venture capitalist until he decided he wanted to win a 2022 Ohio Republican Senate primary, similarly said that he “sincerely believe[s] that it’s time for us to leave” Afghanistan. But we must not, he said, listen to those “who want the American people to accept thousands of unvetted people from Afghanistan into our country.”

“While many of the Afghanistan people are good people,” he wrote, “there are bad ones too who do not like Americans or our Western way of life. Resettling them in the United States so that our country becomes a refugee camp is not the answer.”

By Monday evening, this was the official prime-time message of Fox News, with even more chilling imagery.

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“If history is any guide—and it’s always a guide —we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country in the coming months, probably in your neighborhood,” Tucker Carlson said. “And over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions. So first we invade, and then we’re invaded. It is always the same.”

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“Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?” Laura Ingraham asked. “All day, we’ve heard phrases like, ‘We’ve promised them.’ Well who did? Did you?”

By now, it should be unsurprising, I suppose, that the end of a 20-year military engagement with weighty global implications is just another opportunity for the far right to scream CARAVAN. But in a more just world, protecting those Afghans who put their lives on the line to help the United States  should be something of a personal obligation for the right-wing pundits and politicians who, despite their anti-war turns in recent years, used their platforms to propagandize the “forever wars” when they were infant wars following 9/11. Those pundits and politicians are in a squeeze here, trying to sneak into the best Joe Biden pile-on of the season when they don’t have a ticket. They’ve decided their way in is to do what they do best: seed the next nativist culture war.

For more on what went wrong for the American effort in Afghanistan, listen to this episode of What Next.

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