Barack Obama's ratings for handling the war in Afghanistan have dropped sharply, with Americans by 2-1 saying he lacks a clear plan there. But the public itself is divided on how to proceed, torn between the difficulties of the war and the threat of Taliban or al Qaeda-backed terrorism.
Forty-five percent now approve of the president's handling of the situation, down by 10 points in a month, 15 points since August and 18 points from its peak last spring. His approval rating on Afghanistan has fallen farther than on any other issue in ABC News/Washington Post polls this year.
The chief reason for the latest shift is the departure of Republicans: Last month, after his August speech calling it "a war of necessity," 51 percent of Republicans approved of how Obama was handling Afghanistan. Now, with his strategy review underway, just 22 percent still do.
That shift describes the political box in which the president finds himself. If he sends more troops to Afghanistan he risks losing support from Democrats, who are far more skeptical of the war; if not, he risks alienating Republicans and a substantial share of independents.
Underscoring the divisions, 47 percent of Americans say the war has not been worth fighting, essentially steady since summer, with vast partisan and ideological gaps. The public similarly divides on whether the president should accede to the military's request for perhaps 40,000 additional forces: Forty-seven percent think so, 49 percent not, again with sharp political divisions.
One concern: Thirty-five percent now see a Vietnam-like entanglement for the United States in Afghanistan – still well under half, but double the number who said so early in the war, in March 2002.
Meantime, there's 2-1 agreement – negatively – in views on Obama's strategy. Just 31 percent think he has a clear plan for dealing with the situation, while 63 percent think not. Even in his own base, among Democrats, just 44 percent say the president has a clear plan; that falls to 31 percent among independents and just 12 percent among Republicans.
There's also agreement on another front: Two-thirds of Americans think there was widespread fraud in this summer's presidential election in Afghanistan. A runoff was scheduled yesterday, to be held Nov. 7.
GOALS – Afghanistan's not an easy issue; doubt about the war is countered by deep antipathy toward the Taliban and al Qaeda. Indeed "preventing the Taliban from returning to power" receives equal emphasis in public opinion as "preventing the establishment of al Qaeda terrorist bases"; 75 percent say both should be done by the United States, and two-thirds say both should receive "a high priority."
Fewer, but still 53 percent, give a high priority to attacking leaders of the Taliban, al Qaeda and similar groups across the border in Pakistan; substantially fewer still, 33 and 38 percent, respectively, give a high priority to providing economic aid or establishing a stable democratic government in Afghanistan. Most, though, do say these should be done, if not as a high priority.