When it comes to the conflict in Afghanistan, Americans are war-weary. A Washington Post/ABC poll this spring found that two-thirds of those surveyed now believe that “the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting.” Nearly the same percentage in an April Pew poll wanted to “remove troops as soon as possible.” And this followed on the heels of a March CNN/ORC International survey that had 72 percent of its respondents saying they “oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan.”
On one level this is hardly a surprise. For more than a decade American and allied militaries have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan, and, for multiple and complex reasons, progress has been slow. Nevertheless, it is striking that in the same polls mentioned above, a majority of Americans held different views at the end of the Bush years and at the start of Obama’s tenure as president. In December 2008, the CNN survey had 52 percent of those polled in “favor” of the war, while the Pew poll in September 2008 found 61 percent of its respondents agreeing that we should “keep troops there until the situation has stabilized.” And the Washington Post/ABC poll of December 2008 had 55 percent still saying the war had been “worth fighting.”
While it’s true that support for the war had been slipping, it’s also the case that this support has collapsed over the past year and half. These two sets of numbers can’t help but raise the question of the role played by President Obama in sustaining (or not) support for the war. Some insight into this question comes from looking at the graph below of a Washington Post/ABC poll question taken over time.
The first thing to notice is that support for the war had been declining prior to the 2008 presidential race but began to tick back up once the campaign went into full swing over the summer. Why? The most obvious answer is that both the candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, backed the Afghan effort. Indeed, candidate Obama in 2008 criticized President Bush for “taking his eye off the ball in Afghanistan” and said, if elected, he would focus on “finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.” This, in his words, was “the right war.”
With the election over, the focus on Obama’s domestic agenda, and reports from Afghanistan that the Taliban were increasing control of various parts of the country, support for the war dipped again. However, it spiked back up in early 2009 when the president announced that 20,000 more troops would be sent to the theater, with Obama saying Afghanistan had “not received the strategic attention, direction, and resources it urgently requires” and that nothing less than “the safety of people around the world is at stake.”
But then the president went into radio silence about the war, and by August 2009, the number of those who thought the Afghan conflict was “not worth fighting” had crossed over to being a majority for the first time. As the graph shows, there then was a brief period in which opinion seemed to bounce around in a very small range, probably reflecting the president’s own statement that this was a “war of necessity,” but also news accounts of the administration’s own internal debate over whether to adopt then-American commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new plan for the war requiring more troops and resources or begin to pull the plug on the counterinsurgency effort altogether.
The president resolved the debate in favor of a “low-end” version of the McChrystal plan. On December 1, 2009, at West Point, Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in his version of the “surge.” While noting that elements of the surge would come home in July 2011, the president punctuated his speech with lines such as “our cause is just, our resolve unwavering” and “let me be clear: none of this will be easy” and “the struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly.” And, as the graph below shows, there was a quick reversal in the number now saying the war was “worth fighting,” climbing back above the 50 percent mark.
But, as the graph also shows, it has been largely downhill ever since, with the exception of a not insignificant uptick in favor of the war following Osama bin Laden’s killing in May 2011. However, instead of building on that success, the White House used it as the opening to begin shifting the principal goal of the war from stabilizing Afghanistan to defeating al Qaeda. And with al Qaeda increasingly on its heels, the United States could begin to wind down its combat role in the conflict. Accordingly, in June 2011, the president announced the unexpectedly rapid drawdown of all the surge forces, putting up the straw man that we were not in the business of trying “to make Afghanistan a perfect place” but to ensure it was no longer a safe haven for terrorists. This was to be “the beginning . . . of our effort to wind down this war.”
This shift is explained by the fact that, as David Sanger of the New York Times has reported, Obama was never actually on board with McChrystal’s design of an enhanced counterinsurgency. For the troops and their commanders, the surge was part of a larger strategic game plan; for the president, it was a tactical maneuver, allowing him space and time to begin the drawdown and incentivize the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. (In this respect, Obama’s thinking appears eerily similar to President Nixon’s in the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972.)
Sanger’s reporting also helps explain why, outside of his first year in office, the president has not made much of an effort to defend the war in Afghanistan or talk about the surge’s successes. Instead, the president’s rhetoric has focused on “our troops coming home,” with the codicil that, of course, we’ll make the transition “responsibly.” (Again, one can’t help but hear echoes of “Vietnamization” and “peace with honor.”)
But, as with Vietnam, the American public knows in its bones that the president has, in the run up to November’s election, decided to pull the plug on the Afghan war, cutting short the progress that was being made on the ground and leaving America’s returning troops with an uncertain result as their legacy. This, perhaps as much as anything else, explains why some two-thirds now believe the Afghan war has not been worth fighting.
No doubt Americans are war-weary today. But only a year ago, a majority of Americans in a CBS/New York Times poll believed the war was going well or, at least, somewhat well, a poll result very similar to that of a Princeton/Pew survey taken the same month. Moreover, unlike Vietnam, this is not a war with hundreds of thousands of draftees fighting and tens of thousands of troop fatalities.
It’s certainly true that success in putting down an insurgency takes time and patience. But it’s not true that Americans are simply too impatient a people to sustain the effort needed. Americans have engaged in prolonged wars, cold and hot, in the past. What’s key is a sense that success is possible and, in turn, a president willing to make the case that success is not only possible but necessary. Unfortunately, this is not the president we have.