July 16, 2010 -- Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and President Obama's approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring – results that portend trouble for the administration as the violence there grows.
With Obama's surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.
Potentially complicating matters, the public by 51-37 percent opposes a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that would allow Taliban members to hold government offices if they agreed to stop fighting. That kind of deal commands far higher support in Afghanistan itself – 65 percent in an ABC News/BBC/ARD poll there in December.
As views on Afghanistan have grown darker, they've improved on Iraq, a clear indicator these conflicts are most popular when they're least intense. Just 42 percent say the war in Iraq has been worth fighting, essentially the same as for Afghanistan. But that's arrived from the opposite direction, up 8 points in the past year to the most since 2006.
Seventy-one percent support removing all remaining U.S. combat troops from Iraq, scheduled to happen by the end of next month; fewer but still easily a majority, 60 percent, support keeping up to 50,000 non-combat troops there in a supporting role.
In Afghanistan, 45 percent call Obama's plan to start withdrawing troops by next summer "about right," but an additional 31 percent say it should start sooner.
Have Afghan and Iraq Wars Made America More Secure?
The key question about these wars is whether they've achieved their fundamental goal – improving long-term U.S. security – and the lukewarm answers underscore their challenges winning broader support.
Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has improved the long-term security of the United States – a majority, but hardly an overpowering one. Fifty percent say the same about the war in Iraq. And many fewer – 25 percent in both cases – say these wars have done "a great deal" to contribute to long-term security, a weak result given their costs in lives and lucre.
It matters: Among people who say the Afghanistan war has improved U.S. security, 68 percent also say the war has been worth fighting. In Iraq, among those who see security gains, 72 percent say that war's been worth it. Among those who see no security gains, however, the sense that these wars have been worth fighting plummets to 14 percent in Afghanistan, 10 percent in Iraq.
Along similar lines, those who view the wars as worth fighting are far more likely to want to keep American forces in Afghanistan beyond Obama's intended withdrawal starting next summer, and to oppose removing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of next month.
Casualties likewise are up in Afghanistan and down in Iraq. U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan have jumped from fewer than 100 per year through 2006 to more than 300 in 2009 and nearly 250 so far year, including eight in attacks Tuesday night and Wednesday. In Iraq, U.S. fatalities have fallen from more than 800 a year through 2007 to about 150 in 2009 and fewer than 50 so far this year.
But there have been crosscurrents in their directions as the wars have come under Obama's leadership. The number of Democrats who say the war in Iraq has been worth fighting has gained 17 points from a year ago, while unchanged among Republicans. And the number of Republicans who say the war in Afghanistan's been worth fighting has lost 14 points in the same period, while holding steadier among Democrats.
Still, out of eight issues tested in this poll, Republicans give Obama their highest marks for his handling of Afghanistan and Iraq – 35 and 36 percent approval, respectively, vs. no more than 19 percent on any other specific issue and just 15 percent for his job performance overall.
Voter Approval of President Obama's Handling of War Trending Downward
Approval of Obama's work on the situation in Afghanistan fell from 63 percent a few months after he took office – the honeymoon phase – to 45 percent last fall. It then rose after his war policy speech, largely with increased support from Republicans, to 56 percent this April. Now, as noted, it's turned back down, an 11-point drop to 45 percent.
Further, in April equal numbers of Americans "strongly" approved and strongly disapproved of Obama's work on Afghanistan. Now strong disapprovers are more prevalent, by an 11-point margin.
Increased violence isn't the only reason for this change; Obama's in a slump more generally, chiefly given public discontent with the economy, and there's a spillover effect. Violence is down in Iraq, but his approval rating for handling that war, 71 percent in the honeymoon period shortly after he took office, is down to 48 percent today – about the same as the drop in his overall approval in this period.