A Washington Post/ABC News poll of the American public released before Christmas may have been ignored for the negative tone typical of surveys of this type. Thirteen years into the war in Afghanistan and months away from a definitive withdrawal, the conflict is far from popular. But buried in the poll and the story, which also includes a recent AP/gfk poll reporting similar results, is an ominous trend of American public opinion that could slam the door on our political effort in that country, turn us away from the Afghan people, and irreparably rend the strategic relationship we have built in Central Asia. This only becomes clear when you understand the nature and history of public opinion and American entanglements overseas.
The Washington Post/ABC poll reported that a record high number of Americans believe the U.S. effort in Afghanistan “has not been worth it”. This characterization is different from saying they support the war or support the troops, the President or his foreign policy. This is a referendum on the entire effort.
The AP/gfk poll used similar language, with 57 percent of American suggesting that we “did the wrong thing” by invading the country in 2001-2002. The Washington Post poll demonstrates a majority of Americans have felt this way for some time, at least since early 2010.
The language is similar — but importantly not identical — to language that Gallup used to track American public opinion in Vietnam and Iraq, and this is why we should look very closely at the Post language and wait to see if Gallup might confirm it. Because the Gallup language is the absolute bellwether of political support for counterinsurgency efforts like those we are undertaking in Afghanistan.
Specifically, Gallup asks whether the effort (in Vietnam, in Iraq) was “a mistake”. And once U.S. public opinion tips definitively to a majority believing the effort was “a mistake,” political support for the war has been irreparably undermined. The geopolitical consequences are obvious. Americans believed the war in Vietnam was “a mistake” after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and material American support for the South Vietnamese government began to evaporate leading up to a full withdrawal in 1972. Saigon collapsed under North Vietnamese assault in 1975 and Americans effectively ignored the takeover by Khmer Rouge communist radicals of neighboring Cambodia the same year.
Americans similarly turned on the war in Iraq definitively in September 2006 — remember the “thumpin'” President Bush and Congressional Republicans received in November that year — and only a token military presence remains in the country today. Longstanding political-military efforts like these cannot last without broad-based political support at home. All major American engagements since World War II started with high public approval rates at the outbreak of hostilities.
“Mistake” seems to be the all-important language defining the collective change of mind, and the other polls’ characterizations don’t quite capture its definitive connotation. But they come close, and that’s ominous. Insurgencies like the one we are fighting, and supporting the Afghan government in fighting in their country, on average last about 15 years. As the old expression goes, the insurgent has the time while we hold the watch. That is especially true for democracies. But that does not mean we and our Afghan friends cannot prevail.
That requires leadership. I have written before about how the President does not seem to carry his rhetorical talent over to matters of war and conflict. I have also written about how we may not have the language to articulate progress and contextualize setbacks in an insurgency. And this past year has certainly assailed the President on other issues. But he has also consistently demonstrated that when he has needed to rally the public to him, he can. Now is the time to do so, before it’s too late. Fortunately, the same Washington Post poll also reported that 55 percent of Americans also supported leaving some U.S. forces in Afghanistan to continue counterinsurgency operations, which suggests that we have not quite made our minds up about this endeavor.
Because too much is at stake. We have committed too much to our friends, taken the fight too hard to our enemies, and borne too much sacrifice, to walk away from the struggle. The struggle is not so much with al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or their kith, but for the desire to establish a decent society with commerce and institutions that promote and preserve the dignity of people in a region that has long lacked these things. It is that lack that our enemies have exploited.