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The AWOL Commander

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By GARY SCHMITT
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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.

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