A WaPo/ABC News poll released yesterday reported that a ” majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country.” Another number in the poll must be of some concern to Obama: 7 out of 10 Democrats, his “staunchest supporters,” don’t think our fight for the hearts and minds of Helmand is worth “the costs,” and only 1 in 5 support a troop escalation.
Why might that be?
Juan Cole, writing over at Salon earlier this week, gives us a clue. Citing U.S. advisor Greg Mills, Cole writes:
Mills says that U.S. goals in Afghanistan are unclear. If they are to prevent a Taliban takeover of the country, then what NATO and the US are currently doing could succeed. If they are to prevent Afghanistan from reemerging as an al-Qaeda base, they are misplaced, because al-Qaeda is over in Pakistan and anyway it is local cells in the West that are most worrisome for North Atlantic countries. If they are aimed at doing state building in Afghanistan, he says, they are woefully inadequate, and anyway state building is a tall order when you are dealing with the fifth poorest country in the world, which has low literacy, little industry, and little managerial expertise.
This gets at a point I’ve touched on at length before–we’re sort of trapped by a mixture of confusion, wishful thinking, and inertia. Obama is selling the war, a la Bush, as a fight against terrorists. We don’t want a repeat of 9-11, says Obama, therefore Helmand must be saved. (Though, as we know, 9-11 could have been stopped with bit more competence among our numerous well funded agencies that are supposed to protect us from those kinds of things.) The war we’re actually fighting is a fight against the Taliban and other local factions. We may be able to beat the Taliban, help Karzai consolidate his power, but that probably won’t make us that much safer against terrorist attacks, which is the reason why we’re supposed to be there in the first place.
I think, on some level, Americans get this. The war in Afghanistan isn’t really making us much safer, it’s expensive, Americans are dying, we’ve been there for nine years, so what’s the point? (For instance: If we’re concerned about terrorist attacks, it probably makes a little more sense to put, say, 100,000 U.S. soliders on the porous border between the U.S and Mexico, then on the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the other side of the world. Just a suggestion.) We also know, from recent historical experience, that only 7 percent of terrorist organizations are ended by military means–the vast majority are vanquished with a combo of law enforcement, intel, and diplomacy.
So Obama has an interesting situation on his hands, as they say. The plebes aren’t to psyched about his war in Afghanistan, and Obama isn’t very psyched about that other war(that one in Iraq) he’s been handed. Which, as yesterday’s bombing that killed 101 seems to suggest, might not go away very quietly.
The other thing we kind of know is that once a war loses its shine, it’s pretty hard to get it back. Even Post-Surge, the Iraq war hasn’t regained its popularity among the masses. And, as the poll points out, opposition “to the Iraq war reached similar levels in the summer of 2004 and grew further through the 2006 midterm elections, becoming issue No. 1 in many congressional races that year.”
Final point: the reason why it took so long for Afghanistan to become unpopular is because we’d done a good job of ignoring it over the past few years, focusing more on the genius of our foray into Iraq. So not enough Americans were dying(because there weren’t very many there) for it to register. Now that Obama has shined a light on it, made it his foreign policy centerpiece, the majority of Americans haven’t really liked what they’ve seen.