In the two-week period leading up to President Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, six major American newspapers -- the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today -- primarily featured centrist or right-leaning figures to discuss the departure, many of whom were angry at the conditions of withdrawal and blamed Biden for the chaos.
In fact, just 17 opinion pieces (we looked at editorials, op-eds, and columns) across all six papers from the study period covering the story were bylined by writers from a left-leaning perspective. That's compared to 61 pieces from right-leaning authors and 67 from centrist or non-ideologically aligned sources, suggesting a bias from these U.S. print outlets slanted toward critics of the Afghanistan withdrawal rather than supporters of ending the war.
Following Biden’s July 8 announcement of his intent to withdraw from Afghanistan, mainstream media voiced intense criticism of that policy, warning that withdrawal was a “historic mistake” that “proves Osama bin Laden right.” Mainstream media also turned to former George W. Bush administration officials and other architects of the war in Afghanistan to provide commentary and condemnation of the withdrawal process. Despite the devastation and chaos that had occurred in Afghanistan over the nearly 20-year-long occupation, coverage of the withdrawal itself from week to week primarily framed the war from the perspective of those who wanted the U.S. military to stay there. (In comparison, polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans support the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.)
After the Taliban swept through the Afghan army’s defenses across the country, the capital city of Kabul was captured on August 15 and American news media declared that the war effort was fundamentally over. However, U.S. troops still remained to evacuate refugees and Americans stuck in Afghanistan until August 31, when the war was officially ended by the Biden administration. These two weeks generated a huge amount of interest from the press, particularly with the news of evacuations and a deadly suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport, and that coverage is the focus of this study.
Media Matters found 143 opinion pieces about the Afghanistan withdrawal published between August 16-30 in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today.
We categorized the 98 writers and seven editorial boards that authored those articles as being either left-leaning, right-leaning, or neutral/centrist based on either self-identified political ideology or public affiliation with an openly ideological or partisan organization. Because we employed this strict definition to determine their ideology, we coded some writers, like frequent Fox News contributor and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane or alleged war criminal and former commanding general of the Afghan National Army Sami Sadat as neutral or centrist (although many of those who fell into this camp also argued against the U.S. withdrawal along the same lines as right-leaning columnists).
Out of the 143 opinion pieces we identified during the two-week period between the fall of Kabul and the official end of the U.S. withdrawal, neutral or centrist figures authored 47% of them, right-leaning figures authored 43%, and left-leaning figures authored only 12%.
Right-leaning writers had bylines in 89% of The Wall Street Journal’s published opinion pieces on the Afghanistan withdrawal -- for a total of 42, which was the most of any other paper -- while it printed just one op-ed from a left-leaning writer. In a distant second, right-leaning writers bylined 29% of The Washington Post’s opinion pieces on this subject -- 13 total -- while left-leaning writers authored only three.
No outlet published more than five opinion pieces by a left-leaning writer discussing the story, although two outlets, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, each had one more piece from a left-leaning writer than they had from a right-leaning writer.
While these numbers give an impression of the mainstream media’s general sentiment toward the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a closer look at some of the articles highlight their apparent bias. The usual pro-war crowd was given a platform, as evidenced by two Washington Post op-eds from frequent war hawk Max Boot along with separate pieces by Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton and former Trump official Nikki Haley. The New York Times published two op-eds from conservative columnist Bret Stephens, who argued for expanding the principles of “broken windows” policing to our foreign policy.
There were 11 former George W. Bush administration officials among these writers, including former White House chief of staff Karl Rove, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who argued, “Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.”
Here are a few examples of particularly skewed opinion pieces.
- In an August 16 op-ed for USA Today, former Obama administration official Brett Bruen urged Biden to “fire his national security adviser and several other senior leaders” because they had urged him to “recklessly retreat from Afghanistan.” Bruen claimed that the withdrawal process was evidence that “the people, plans and processes the president has put in place to keep America safe are not working.”
- Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote for the Los Angeles Times on August 17, “The collapse of the Afghan government wasn’t inevitable until we made it inevitable,” claiming that the U.S. withdrawal signaled to the world that “we can’t be counted on.”
- Former Vice President Mike Pence penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “Biden Broke Our Deal With the Taliban” on August 17, claiming, “Weakness arouses evil—and the magnitude of evil now rising in Afghanistan speaks volumes about the weaknesses of Mr. Biden.”
- Former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote on August 19 that Biden should “accept the chastening decision to send in more troops and air power if needed,” adding, “If it means blowing way past the Aug. 31 fixed departure day, blow past it,” in a piece headlined “What Biden Can Still Save in Afghanistan.”
- On August 21, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan C. Crocker wrote for The New York Times that the decision to leave Afghanistan had “destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure.”
- Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley wrote “America must not recognize the Taliban” on August 22 for The Washington Post, claiming that Biden’s withdrawal had made “the United States weaker and less safe.”
- Washington Post columnist Fred Hiatt compared Biden’s withdrawal to George W. Bush’s use of faulty intelligence to justify invading Iraq, calling the pullout from Afghanistan “a similar mistake, in the opposite direction,” in an August 24 op-ed headlined “In justifying one blunder, Biden may commit another.”
- Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote in his August 26 op-ed, “True, our side lost the Afghan civil war. But the larger war, the terrorists’ war on us, is not over. The enemy is determined to go on fighting. And now we have to fight back from a weaker position.”
- In an August 26 op-ed, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief Susan Page criticized Biden’s withdrawal process as “the worst-case scenario” following an attack on U.S. troops and Afghan refugees at Kabul airport, writing that “his administration had failed to foresee or effectively plan for the catastrophe.”
- On August 27, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz argued in The Wall Street Journal that withdrawal meant the Taliban victory “could reverberate far beyond Afghanistan’s borders and inspire terrorists around the world.”
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database from the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for any variation of the term “Afghan” from August 16 through 30, 2021.
We included opinion, editorial, and op-ed articles about the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, which we defined as articles with any variation of “Afghan” in the headline or lead paragraph published in the papers’ editorial sections.
We then coded authors by their ideological or partisan self-identification or their public affiliation with any openly ideological or partisan organization or institution. We coded openly progressive and Democratic authors as left-leaning and openly conservative and Republican authors as right-leaning. We coded as centrist/neutral any authors without a stated ideology or ideological or partisan affiliation.
Percentages do not necessarily add up to 100 because articles could have multiple authors, and each author could have different ideologies.