Public Support Surges for Trump-Backed Afghan Peace Plan

Nearly two-thirds of Trump and Biden supporters said they “strongly” or “somewhat” support the peace deal that would get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan next year.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani and US President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2017 in New York City.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 21, 2017. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Public support for Trump administration-backed peace talks to end the 19-year U.S. war in Afghanistan is surging, according to a report provided to Foreign Policy, as Afghan and Taliban negotiators began talks in Qatar this weekend.

Though the talks remain mostly shrouded in secrecy from the U.S. Congress and the American public, the Eurasia Group Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit, found strong public support among both Republicans and Democrats for the planned withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops over the next 14 months. Meanwhile, the portion of those calling for U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan to ensure the defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda has halved since last year, to just 15 percent of respondents.

The survey found that fatigue with the Afghan war is dovetailing with a broader public desire to see the U.S. Defense Department reduce its footprint overseas and for Congress to slash military spending while reasserting its authority over U.S. war-making authority.

Though the start of the talks has been delayed for months as the Taliban continued military offensives despite pledging to reduce violence, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper touted the start of Afghan negotiations as a “historic moment” in a statement on Saturday. “It is crucial for both sides to take advantage of this opportunity to make a truly Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process a success,” he added.

Nearly two-thirds of supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump said they “strongly” or “somewhat” support the peace deal that commits all U.S. forces to leave the country within 14 months, a number nearly matched by supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. (Biden wants the Pentagon to leave a small troop presence in the country to contain any terrorist threat, as he advocated during his time as vice president.) Last week, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that the Pentagon would cut the number of troops in Afghanistan to 4,500 by November.

“Young people’s experience of American foreign policy has been long and inconclusive wars in the Middle East,” said Mark Hannah, a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and a co-author of the survey. 

“We’re going into the 20th year of this war where people who were not even born on Sept. 11 are being called to serve [in Afghanistan],” Hannah said. “I think there’s a sense that … the original motivation for going into Afghanistan in the first place has receded into the rearview mirror.”

But it’s not just Afghanistan, and it’s not just overseas deployments: Many voters are souring on the full range of overseas U.S. commitments, and younger voters want to slash defense spending. 

Some 44 percent of those surveyed called for the United States to draw down troops in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East and shift away from security guarantees in those regions—a constant refrain in Trump’s foreign policy since before taking office. The finding shows voter skepticism of U.S. alliances remaining a consistent theme of the Trump years: In last year’s survey, more than 57 percent of respondents called for the United States to reduce its military presence in Asia, and only half said the United States should respond militarily to a Russian invasion of the Baltic countries.

Meanwhile, a plurality of voters under 30 called on the United States to decrease defense spending, after years of inconclusive wars and economic dislocation on the homefront. “It’s not surprising to us that younger Americans are less bullish on military spending,” Hannah said.

While most respondents support the Trump administration’s effort to scale back military commitments, that doesn’t mean they share the administration’s lurch toward unilateralism, highlighted by the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization, as well as the administration’s persistent efforts to cut spending on U.S. diplomacy. Nearly 56 percent of those polled said the United States should engage more in international negotiations, such as rejoining talks with adversaries and international organizations that the Trump administration has withdrawn from.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch