The South Asia Channel

Americans barely trust Obama on Afghanistan

Americans barely trust Obama on Afghanistan

Recent polls showing pessimism about U.S. prospects in Afghanistan seem to suggest that Barack Obama has lost the United States’ support for the war there. However, general exhaustion from years of war and specific support for Obama’s Afghanistan strategy should not be so easily conflated. A careful reading of the polling data on Afghanistan shows that while the public is weary, they haven’t yet given up on the mission or Obama’s redefined strategy…yet.

The U.S. public has significant doubts about Afghanistan. After a decade of war, U.S. citizens just aren’t sure that the investment of time, energy and resources will pay off. When asked to in early June to consider whether the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting (given all of the costs to the U.S. versus the benefits) 44 percent of those polled believed it was worth it, 53 percent did not. In the same ABC News/Washington Post poll, only a slight majority (by 3 points) believed the U.S. was winning the war in Afghanistan. A more recent Newsweek poll found that just 26 percent of Americans believe the U.S. is winning the war and 46 percent think the U.S. is losing — a 20 point margin. With June being the deadliest month ever for foreign forces in Afghanistan, the public has reason to think that the U.S. effort has lost its momentum.

At the moment, there is also little hope among the public for a successful conclusion to the conflict in Afghanistan. When asked if it is even possible to achieve stability in Afghanistan and the region, only 33 percent of those surveyed said yes.

Yet, for all of the pessimism about the war in general, the public isn’t ready to give up on its commander-in-chief. In poll after poll, the United States still approves of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan and gives high marks to his specific policies. In polling done by Third Way and Democracy Corps in February and May, the president gets much higher marks on his handling of Afghanistan than he does for his general approval rating (or even on domestic issues, such as the economy). More recent national polling shows that Obama maintains a five or six-point edge on his Afghanistan approval rating (46-41, 50-44).

Even more telling than generic approval ratings is whether the public supports the president’s strategy in Afghanistan. They do. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58 percent support the president’s timetable to begin withdrawing some troops in July 2011. And, although the question isn’t asked as frequently, other polls found significant majorities believe in the mission in Afghanistan even as they see U.S. efforts hitting obstacles. Sixty-one percent believe that "eliminating the threat from terrorists operating from Afghanistan is a worthwhile goal for American troops to fight and possibly die for," and 76 percent believe what happens in Afghanistan matters to their security in the U.S.

This demonstrates that the public is of two minds — they may not believe the war effort is going well, but they do believe in the mission.

Those surveyed also believe in the central principles of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan — that our main goal is to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and prevent their return to controlling Afghanistan. In Third Way-Democracy Corps polling, an articulation of this strategy and its tangible results in capturing or killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan resonated with 61 percent of the public. This includes a majority of independents and 86 percent of self-identified liberals. However, these are the same Americans who believe the U.S. is losing the war and won’t be able to bring it to a successful conclusion. So, how can these totally contradictory opinions about our effort in Afghanistan co-exist?

One answer is that the U.S. public understands the president inherited a mess and is withholding final judgment until Obama has an adequate chance to see his more focused, better-resourced strategy succeed. Third Way polling suggests that the public is willing to listen and trust the president on Afghanistan when he clearly articulates the mission, strategy, and goals.

This willingness to trust the president is not everlasting. Just as the public soured on Bush’s Iraq policy when there seemed to be no improvement and no exit, Obama faces approval ratings on Afghanistan hovering around 50 percent that are likely to drop off quickly unless the public sees tangible results from the president’s strategy. Americans are following the stream of negative news out of Afghanistan, which will tighten the already-slim margins of support the president still receives on his Afghanistan policy. Clearly and consistently reminding the public of the reasons for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the gains being made in taking the fight to al-Qaeda and the Taliban could go a long way in maintaining support for the president’s strategy. Equally important will be communicating results and letting the public know that there is an endgame in Afghanistan that most could support: bringing U.S. troops home responsibly after neutralizing the terrorist threat.

Kyle Spector is a policy advisor in the National Security Program at Third Way, a left of center think tank in Washington, DC.