Public Opinion and the War in Afghanistan

As any observer of American politics knows, the U.S. is particularly polarized along ideological and partisan lines. Issues ranging from marriage equality to tax policy divide the American people. Many Democrats believe the Republican Party is dominated by radical extremists, while many Republicans view the Democratic President as a dangerous socialist. In this environment, the American people cannot be expected to agree upon much, so when fully 69% of respondents in a public opinion poll agree on an important issue it is noteworthy. It is also something to which policy makers should pay attention.

According to recent public opinion research 69% of the American people want the U.S. to end the war in Afghanistan. This number has probably been bolstered in recent weeks by the Koran burning incident and the killing of 17 Afghan civilians by Robert Bate which have both engendered backlashes against Americans serving in Afghanistan and drawn attention to what many perceive to be the futility of the the U.S. effort there. While these events have reduced support for the war among Americans, the war has not enjoyed the support of the majority of Americans for months.

It should not be axiomatic that if the American people, by a margin of greater than two to one disapprove of a war, than the U.S. should end that war. However, if public opinion runs that strongly against a war, or any foreign policy, the U.S. government should have a clear, compelling and realistic rationale for pursuing that policy. Unfortunately, no such rationale exists for the war in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of war, and despite some significant accomplishments, most notably the killing of Osama Bin Laden, victory in Afghanistan remains poorly defined and elusive.

Increasingly, it seems like the continuation of the war in Afghanistan is a triumph of inertia and bureaucratic logic over national interest, public opinion or a clear headed assessment of the war itself. For several years now the conflict in Afghanistan has been deadlocked with every month bringing a few steps forward and roughly the same number of steps back. During these years where the U.S. has not been gaining any clear advantage in Afghanistan the cost in life and treasure has kept piling up.

It is now clear that in addition to the financial and military reasons why winding down the war is a good idea, there are political incentives as well. Ending the war is now good politics; and the candidate or party that figures this out first will pick up an edge as the 2012 election approaches. It is unlikely, however, that either Romney or Obama will exploit this political opening. Obama is already very closely identified with the war; and Romney is seeking to demonstrate his conservative credentials by seeking to embrace a hawkish foreign policy.

The costs of ending the war in Afghanistan have been clear for a while and include the potential of a return of the Taliban there, the possibility that Afghanistan will reemerge as a hub of international terrorist activity and the dire human rights consequences, particularly for women, which could occur in Afghanistan if the U.S. were to leave. These consequences, while real, only tell half of the story. The other half of the story, which is increasingly important for ordinary Americans, is the near certainty of a rising cost, more American soldiers losing their lives, attacks on Americans working in Afghanistan and the seeming impossibility of the U.S. bringing any lasting peace, democracy or even stability to Afghanistan. Foreign policy, like all policy, should not be made on a simple basis of majority rule, but when the majority is so strongly against a war, and the arguments for that war are so shopworn and implausible, it is probably time to get out.

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Lincoln Mitchell joined Columbia University in January of 2006 as the Arnold A. Saltzman Assistant Professor in the Practice of International Politics. Before joining Columbia, Lincoln was a practitio ...read more

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