Our poll results on Afghanistan last week underscore the challenges facing the Obama administration in managing the war politically. Overall, the number of Americans who say it’s been worth fighting has slipped to a new low, 44 percent. And the public divides evenly, with vast partisan differences, on what President Obama should do next: send a smaller contingent of additional U.S. forces, chiefly to train Afghan troops; or a larger one, also to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Politically, his challenge is that Democrats, while predisposed to support Obama, are broadly skeptical of the war; and Republicans, while more supportive of the war, are broadly skeptical of Obama. Adding to the trouble: The one thing on which majorities across the partisan divide agree is their doubt that the government of Hamid Karzai is a reliable partner for the United States in Afghanistan. Sixty-eight percent think not.
This doesn’t leave Obama a lot of wiggle room. His approval rating on handling the war in Afghanistan has fallen farther than on any other issue, from a peak of 63 percent last spring to 45 percent now. Part of the reason is the defection of Republicans, whose support fell from a peak of 51 percent after he called it a ”war of necessity” last summer to 21 percent now. But crucially, independents, at the political center, have moved in the same direction. As recently as August, 59 percent of independents approved of Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan. It’s 39 percent now.
Obama retains 70 percent approval in his own party on the war. But that could prove tough to retain if he sends substantially more troops, as officials today told Jake Tapper they expected. (The president’s scheduled a prime time speech for next Tuesday.) Democrats by 65 percent to 30 percent prefer a smaller increase in U.S. forces (or none at all), confined to a training role. Republicans go 2-1 in the opposite direction. Independents, for their part, divide evenly, 47 percent for a smaller (or no) increase of forces, 48 percent for a larger one.
It's a challenge, though not an impossible one, to forge majority support from this equation. Unlike what occurred in Iraq, Americans have not turned broadly against the war in Afghanistan; the difference is the presence of al Qaeda and the Taliban and their nexus to the 9/11 attacks. Two-thirds in our October poll on the war said preventing the establishment of al Qaeda terrorist bases, and keeping the Taliban from power, should be high priorities for the United States there.
The question is how those priorities are accomplished, at what cost and with what end game. The political risks of an unpopular war are vast, as evidenced by the sharp loss of public support for both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush as the country became enmeshed in unpopular wars in Vietnam and Iraq. And in this war, while deterring terrorism is a clear, even overriding public priority, most Americans at the same time are not persuaded that withdrawal from Afghanistan will make the United States any less safe.
In the end, public support for any war depends on the existence of a persuasive rationale for sustaining its costs, in lives and dollars alike. The data today indicate that the rationale presented for the Afghanistan was has lost power; tellingly, in our October poll, the public by 2-1 said Obama does not have a clear plan how to proceed there. His task next week is to persuade the public otherwise. Failure, with Johnson and Bush as the templates, could be a grievous political wound.