The bottom has fallen out for support for the war in Afghanistan from U.S. voters and is putting the squeeze on GOP presidential candidates, who must navigate between their party’s hawkish line and the public’s growing impatience
One recent poll shows 69 percent of voters saying the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan and almost as many who believe the fight is going “somewhat” or “very badly.” Forty-four percent of voters polled want withdrawal sooner than the current 2014 deadline. Another recent poll says that only about two-in-five voters, or 38 percent, are “very confident” or “moderately confident” that the Obama administration will be able to “finish the job” in Afghanistan. Public opinion was on the decline even before the March 11 incident in which a U.S. soldier is suspected of killing seventeen Afghan civilians.
“It’s a role reversal for the parties from 2008, when a Republican president was mired in a long and unpopular war and Democratic candidates, including Obama, tried to convince voters that they should take the reins,” says the Associated Press. Four years later, it is Republican candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich who have been saying it is time to end action in Afghanistan, with Santorum saying allies there need to redefine the goal or “get out” and Gingrich saying the conflict there is simply not win-able.
President Barack Obama has remained steadfast that the United States would stick with the current timeline for withdrawal, including bringing 22,000 troops home by September. GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has advocated the opposite, saying the United States should be adding troops and that announcing Afghanistan withdrawal dates was “a mistake.”
“My view is we should be adding 100,000 active duty personnel, not reducing our military budget and reducing the number of people who can be in that conflict protecting America,” Romney told Jay Leno. “It’s a dangerous world. Let’s not reduce our military.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this week that he understands the position of war-weary voters, but that public opinion and politics cannot be the primary drivers of military decisions. “We cannot fight wars by polls. If we do that we’re in deep trouble” (AP), Panetta said. “We have to operate based on what we believe is the best strategy to achieve the mission that we are embarked on. And the mission here is to safeguard our country by insuring that the Taliban and al-Qaeda never again find a safe haven in Afghanistan.”
For more on the candidates’ stances, check out CFR’s Issue Tracker on the candidates and Afghanistan.
Suggested Other Reading:
In TIME Magazine, Joe Klein says ten years of war are enough and that Obama’s withdrawal plan should be expedited.
Senate Armed Services Committee members John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, say in a Washington Post op-ed that President Obama should “resist the short-sighted calls for additional troop reductions” and stay the course toward “a long-term political, economic and military relationship in Afghanistan.
“Forget about President Obama expediting U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan this year,” writes CFR President Emeritus Leslie Gelb in The Daily Beast. Obama is not going to risk a possible collapse of the Kabul government and a Taliban takeover after ten years of American sacrifice, he says, or hand Republicans a campaign issue.
— Gayle S. Putrich, Contributing Editor