Support for the war in Afghanistan has ebbed to a new low in ABC News/Washington Post polls, with concerns over strategy and broad doubts about the reliability of the Afghan government leaving Americans sharply divided on where to go from here.
Just 44 percent now say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, the fewest in a question dating to early 2007. Fifty-two percent instead say the war has not been worth it, up 13 points from its low last December – still well below Iraq levels, but majority negative nonetheless.
On how to proceed, preferences underscore the difficulties facing President Obama: Assuming he does decide to send more U.S. forces, the public divides, 45-46 percent, on a smaller increase mainly to train the Afghan military, or a larger one to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban as well as to train Afghan forces. (5 percent volunteered that they'd prefer no increase, or withdrawal.)
One source of doubt is the reliability of the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, declared winner of a second term early this month after a disputed election marred by irregularities. Only 26 percent of Americans see Karzai as a reliable partner for the United States, and just 38 percent think his government will be able to train an effective army to take over security at some point.
Another open and basic question is whether withdrawing from Afghanistan or remaining there poses a greater risk of terrorism to the United States. Nearly a quarter see withdrawing as the greater risk, and they broadly support the war. But nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, say the risk is the same either way – and that big group, by 62-34 percent, says the war has not been worth fighting.
POLITICS – Obama's flat at 45 percent approval for handling the war in Afghanistan, well down from a high of 63 percent last spring; 48 percent disapprove. He's challenged in another way, holding a narrow 5-point edge over the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle the situation in Afghanistan. That compares with 13- and 15-point Obama leads on health care and the economy.
That said, 55 percent express confidence Obama will come up with a successful strategy for the United States in Afghanistan, a level of expectation in line with his overall job approval rating. But reflecting the uncertainties, far fewer – 17 percent – are "very" confident of it.
One issue is whether Obama's giving appropriate weight to the advice of U.S. military leaders. Few say he's giving them too much influence, just 9 percent; 35 percent think he's given them too little influence; 51 percent, about the right amount.
As in most of these questions, there are large partisan and ideological divides on the issue. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans and 53 percent of conservatives say he's giving military leaders too little influence; just 17 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of liberals agree.
There also are some differences between the sexes; women typically are less apt than men to support military action, and such is the case here: Women by 51-38 percent favor a smaller, training-only mission for additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan; men, rather, favor a larger force with more combat responsibilities, by 54-39 percent. Women also are much more apt than men to think the Karzai government can create an effective Afghan army.
In the only other difference between the sexes, women are more apt than men by 7 points to say the war has not been worth fighting; this, though, simply reflects the fact that substantially more women than men identify themselves as Democrats.
TERRORISM and STRATEGY – Concerns about Afghanistan tie in with the threat of al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism, and there's a sign of slippage for Obama on terrorism overall. The number of Americans who say his policies are making the United States safer from terrorism has lost 5 points since early summer, from 32 percent in June to 27 percent now. However, there's been no change in the number who say his policies are making the country less safe, steady at 22 percent. The rest say his policies aren't making much difference in security either way.
Confidence in Obama to come up with a successful strategy again largely is partisan; 78 percent of Democrats are confident, falling to 49 percent of independents and 33 percent of Republicans.
It follows, given their political predilections, that people who are confident in Obama's decision on the war favor smaller rather than larger troop deployment, by 55-38 percent. Those who are not confident in him, by contrast, favor a larger increase with a broader mission, 57-33 percent.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Nov. 12-15, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.