The War in Afghanistan: Reassessment, Eight Years On

Oct 6, 2009 12:56pm

Significant public compunctions mark the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan – more a gradual shift in Americans’ attitudes than a sudden change, but a reassessment nonetheless, one that in many ways reflects the administration’s own. It’s underway elsewhere, as well, with particularly skeptical views in Europe, a challenge for NATO. At home, 51 percent in our ABC/Post polls in August and September alike described the war as “not worth fighting,” more than half, albeit barely, for the first time in polls since early 2007. Compare that to when the war began: On Oct. 7, 2001, 94 percent supported the start of air strikes against Afghanistan, and 75 percent favored sending in ground troops if necessary to overthrow the Taliban government. A month after 9/11, Americans were fighting mad.
Iraq soon overshadowed what came to be called “the forgotten war,” but eight years of continued conflict have taken their toll. In a CNN poll in mid-September, 58 percent opposed the war in Afghanistan, nearly the same as in August but a new high in 10 such measurements the past three years. Fifty-three percent in a CBS/New York Times poll said the war was going at least somewhat badly for the United States; that’s ranged from 52 to 58 percent since August 2008, other than a peak in December, 62 percent. In Europe, a multinational poll for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, conducted in June, found 62 percent of respondents in 12 countries pessimistic about the prospects of stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. Pessimism peaked at 75 percent in Germany, 68 percent in France and 65 percent in Spain; it was 60 percent in traditionally the closest U.S. ally in Europe, Great Britain. Nor did our last ABC/BBC/ARD poll in Afghanistan itself offer much respite: In January we found a sharp drop in Afghans’ support for the Kabul government and its Western allies alike, including a remarkable 36-point fall in positive ratings of the United States’ performance there, from 68 percent in 2005 to 32 percent last winter. Given these dour views, the commitment of additional troops is a predictably contentious issue. In our poll there last winter just 18 percent of Afghans favored increasing the number of U.S. and NATO forces in their country; 44 percent wanted them decreased. In this summer’s 12-country European survey, a mere 7 percent favored increasing their countries’ forces in Afghanistan; most instead wanted them reduced or withdrawn entirely. Support in the United States for increasing U.S. forces was 30 percent in that project, similar to its level in our ABC/Post poll in September, 26 percent. In our data support for increasing U.S. forces is down 8 points from its recent peak in January; in CBS/Times data, down 13 points from its recent peak in February, to a similar level, 29 percent. Views on troop levels are sensitive to the options offered. In another approach, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month asked support or opposition to increasing U.S. forces; 44 percent were in favor, short of a majority but substantially more than the result when reducing troops is offered as an option. That difference cuts to views on military engagements more generally. Support for “military action” can depend very much on what that action is – more remote, such as air strikes; or more committing, such as the insertion of ground forces. Once committed, views on troop deployments, likewise, can depend on the size, vulnerability, duration – and above all the purpose – of those deployments. Views also depend to some extent on the level of casualties. But most powerfully, public sentiment on war relies on whether or not a persuasive rationale has been presented to justify its costs, human and material alike. This is the issue on which Afghanistan long has been differentiated from Iraq. In the absence of evidence that Iraq was directly involved in terrorism, and the collapse of the contention that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, the rationale for sustaining the war’s costs failed. A majority’s called that war “not worth fighting” for more than four years straight; it’s averaged 62 percent the last two and a half years. The war in Afghanistan today is less unpopular. The Taliban’s nexus to al Qaeda, and thus to terrorism, was established. Thus even now, eight years in, the public divides, 48-45 percent, on whether success in Afghanistan is necessary for the broader U.S. campaign against terrorism to succeed. That’s a somewhat closer division than in polls the past year (e.g., 50-41 percent in February) – but still nothing like broad rejection of the war's chief purpose. In the last CBS/Times poll, just 27 percent said U.S. military actions in Afghanistan have decreased the threat of terrorism against the United States, but a substantial 43 percent said that threat would increase if the United States withdrew its troops. And in the last NBC/Journal poll, 47 percent said it’s important for the U.S. to build a strong, stable government in Afghanistan to deny terrorists a base of operations. Such views are central elements in the public’s current reassessment of Afghanistan – again, much like the administration’s. The rationale for the war has not been wholly rejected; rather the question is whether its ends, eight years later, are achievable, and if so how, and at what cost.

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