With Exit in Sight, Americans Ready to End War in Afghanistan

During President Obama’s State of the Union Address last week, he reasserted that nearly all troops will be removed from Afghanistan by year’s end and, with the exception of a small force that could remain to train Afghan forces and carry out counterterrorism operations pending signage of a security agreement, “America’s longest war will finally be over.”  Despite the fact that 88{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans favored direct military action in 2001 (Gallup Poll, Oct 2001), the evolution of public opinion regarding the war in Afghanistan has resulted in some significant shifts after a more than a decade of fighting and with a public increasingly focused on domestic issues over foreign affairs.

While a majority of Americans (51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) still believe it was the right decision to use military force in Afghanistan (Pew Research Center/USA Today, Jan 2014), there has been a significant drop off from 2006, when 69{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans viewed force as the right decision (Pew Research Center, Jan 2006).  By comparison, only 38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans currently agree using military force in Iraq was the right decision (Pew Research Center/USA Today, Jan 2014), which is relatively unchanged from 2007 when 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said it was the right decision (Pew Research Center, July 2007), demonstrating that the public’s increased attitudes against military force in Afghanistan has been more gradual and later than in Iraq.

However, despite the fact that a slim majority of Americans still support the decision to use military force in Afghanistan, there has been a sharp decline since 2007 of whether the war has been worth fighting or not, considering the costs and benefits to the United States.   As the chart below demonstrates, two-thirds of Americans (66{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) do not believe the war has been worth fighting, which is a substantial change from nearly seven years prior (ABC News/Washington Post Poll, Dec 2013).

chart 1

This shift could partially be explained by the fact that a majority of Americans do not believe the U.S. has succeeded in achieving its goals in Afghanistan – only 38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans say we have “mostly succeeded,” while 52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe we have “mostly failed.”  For sake of comparison, these numbers are nearly identical to feelings towards the war in Iraq where 37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} say we have succeeded with our goals, while 52{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe we have failed (Pew Research Center/USA Today, Jan 2014).

Further, there is not much optimism for the future, as only 16{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe the situation in Afghanistan will get better in 2014 (Associated Press/GfK Knowledge Networks Poll, Dec 2013) and 58{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans believed the war in Afghanistan has turned into a situation like the United States faced in the Vietnam War (CNN/ORC International Poll, Oct 2011).

Interestingly, compare the war in Afghanistan to Vietnam and other major wars and military conflicts either shortly before or shortly after the end of the respective war on the measure of whether it was a “mistake” for the U.S. to send in military troops to that particular country.  The data shows Americans are more evenly split on Afghanistan than any other conflict.

 chart 2

Sources:
Afghanistan
: “In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Afghanistan, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Afghanistan, or not?” (CNN/ORC Poll, Sep 2013)
Iraq
: “In view of the developments since we first sent our troops to Iraq, do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, or not?” (CNN/ORC Poll, Sep 2013)
Kosovo
: “Do you think it was a mistake for the United States to become militarily involved with Kosovo, or don’t you think so?” (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners Poll, May 1999)
Gulf War
: “In view of the developments since the start of the war in the Persian Gulf, do you think the United States made a mistake sending armed forces to fight in the Persian Gulf or not?” (ABC News Poll, Feb 1991)
Vietnam
: “In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?” (Gallup Poll, Jan 1973)
Korean
: “Do you think the United States made a mistake in going into the war in Korea, or not?” (Gallup Poll, Jan 1953)
WWII
: “Do you think it was a mistake for the United States to enter World War II?” (Gallup Poll, Apr 1946)

While every war or conflict is different, and it is unclear how history may judge these conflicts in the future, public sentiment at the end of military operations do not always change with time.  Consider Vietnam, where in 1973 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans felt it was a mistake to send in troops and 40 years later that sentiment remains relatively unchanged as 57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believed it was a mistake (Gallup Poll, Mar 2013).  Same goes with the Korean War – in 1953, only 36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans felt it was a mistake to send in troops; in 2000, 34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} felt it was a mistake (Gallup/CNN/USA Today Poll, Jun 2000).

It’s difficult to say how history will ultimately judge the war in Afghanistan over time, but these numbers at least establish some precedent that American sentiments at the end of military operations are not prone to significant shifts in opinion.

Considering this, and the erosion of support in Afghanistan, a majority of Americans (57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) believe it is an absolute priority for the Obama administration and this year’s Congress to withdraw almost all combat troops from Afghanistan, while 30{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} believe it can be delayed until next year and only 10{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} do not think it should be pursued (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, Jan 2014).  However, most (55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) support the President’s plan to remove most U.S. forces from Afghanistan but keep some for training and anti-insurgency operations (ABC News/Washington Post Poll, Dec 2013).

With the end of most military operations in Afghanistan in sight amidst diminishing public support, how this war will affect future operations or diplomatic conflicts remains unclear.  However, after more than a decade of fighting al-Qaeda and other terrorist threats, there is currently doubt and ambivalence about how successful direct military intervention can be in safely and effectively protecting vital American interests.  As such, Americans are clearly ready to conclude “America’s longest war.”

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