Foreign Policy Blogs

Afghanistan Public Support: A Challenge for Obama

After President Obama’s announcement last month that he was sending in 17,000 more US troops to fight for stability in Afghanistan, it seemed that there were few who thought it a bad idea, though some surely did, and the American people seemed to back the plan according to several polls and newspaper articles. The main caveat was that people, both elites and the regular citizenry, just wanted to hear Obama layout a plan or strategy for victory and to define what that was as well.

I had been meaning to look deeper into the poll numbers to see just how strong support still was for the US presence in Afghanistan, mostly to see if trends could be seen as to whether or not US citizens thought the war worth fighting and if it was winnable. Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council staffer and now writing for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government, not only beat me to this (though I’ll have more to say on the polls later), but also has a book coming out which looks at public support of wars.

His theory of sustained public support for any war is twofold; 1. the retrospective attitude of whether the war was the right thing in the first place, 2. the prospective attitude of whether the war will be won. It is the latter which we need to concern ourselves on with Afghanistan. Feaver fears that the poll numbers showing support and more importantly whether Americans can ‘win’ in Afghanistan are shaky and may decrease quicker than Obama may predict.

us-president-barack-obama-002There is not much fear that Americans will not see the war as ‘right’, question one, but there is concern that they may more and more see it as unwinnable, question two. In fact there is poll data that shows that only 55% of Democrats believe the invasion of Afghanistan was the right thing to do. Feaver warns that Obama’s lack of public appeal about the conflict (to announce the 17,000 troops he put out a written statement), his seemingly lowering of objectives and goals, and the fact there is no clear strategy at the moment may further erode public support.

If Obama cannot maintain a majority of support for the Afghan conflict he will find it much more difficult to send in more troops and ask for more time. Feaver concludes: ‘Obama may find himself spending far more time trying to mobilize public support to continue this war than he ever expected. And if he does not find a strategy that will reverse the situation on the ground in Afghanistan — and if he cannot explain this strategy to the American people — then he may find public support dropping faster than he can prop it up.’