Aug 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

GOP ad-makers jump on Afghan footage

Illustration of an elephant trunk holding a film footage reel.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Footage from Afghanistan is already starting to pop up in Republican political ads, and GOP consultants say it's going to provide TV-ready ammo for attacks heading into the midterms.

Why it matters: The haphazard U.S. withdrawal is the first major policy vulnerability presented by the Biden administration. The opposition expects it to play heavily in 2022 messaging — and even in the 2024 presidential contest.

  • Afghanistan marks the first major U.S. military withdrawal of the digital era. So, while a few images from Saigon in 1975 are indelibly seared in the American consciousness, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras now means tons more first-hand footage.
  • Those harrowing images — of people falling from airplanes and babies being passed over barbed-wire barricades — are a political-persuasion goldmine.
  • The Democrats remind it was a Republican — George W. Bush — who started the war, and two Republicans — Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo — who set in motion the final withdrawal and negotiated its terms with the Taliban.

What's new: The America First Policy Institute, a group staffed by high-level Trump administration alumni, has already started running ads using some of the chaotic footage.

  • The digital spot features Taliban fighters mobilizing in seized U.S. military equipment and occupying the presidential palace in Kabul. (It also uses one clip from 2007 of U.S. troops training Afghan army soldiers.)
  • Another GOP-aligned group, Citizens United, is running similar ads. They make the Saigon comparison explicit, juxtaposing images of U.S. helicopters airlifting personnel out of diplomatic facilities.
  • The ads from both groups contrast images and video from Kabul with Biden remarks last month predicting an orderly U.S. exit.

The big picture: The images and videos coming out of Kabul are "certainly film-ready when we get to the voter-contact stage this cycle," said veteran GOP operative Jeff Roe. His firm, Axiom Strategies, is advising numerous GOP candidates in competitive races this cycle.

  • The clips will feed a Republican line of Biden administration ineptitude, Roe said. So even years down the line, when Afghanistan is no longer front-page news, "this is gonna be evergreen because it's a gateway drug to political incompetence."
  • Roe compared it to George W. Bush's infamous speech below a "Mission Accomplished" banner in Iraq weeks after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
  • "There weren't a lot of Republican congressmen or senators defeated because of a 'Mission Accomplished' banner. But ... everybody that voted for it had to have that banner wrapped around their neck, and the same thing is gonna happen here."
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