More than ten years after going to war against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, and more than ten years after deposing the Taliban, Americans may have finally had enough of the Afghanistan war. In a new poll released today by Rasmussen, a majority of likely voters contacted on Thursday and Friday want an immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan, and not coincidentally, the exact same majority now find it impossible to “win” a war there:
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 53% of Likely U.S. Voters support the complete pullout of U.S. forces from what has become America’s longest-running war. Just 31% are opposed, while 16% are not sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)
Sixty-two percent (62%) of Democrats and 57% of voters not affiliated with either major political party favor an immediate withdrawal. Republicans are opposed but by a narrow 47% to 42% margin.
Most recently, in November, 40% of all voters said U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, while 19% more said a firm timetable should be set to bring them all home within a year. Just last month, 67% agreed with President Obama’s decision to end the U.S. combat military mission in Afghanistan by the middle of next year. But things have worsened for U.S. forces there since then following a Koran-burning incident and a massacre of Afghani civilians by a U.S. Army sergeant.
Sixty-three percent (63%) of voters are now more worried that the United States will remain in Afghanistan too long rather than it will withdraw forces too quickly. That’s up from 54% in December. Unchanged from the earlier survey are the 30% who are more fearful that the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan too quickly.
How many voters think that victory can be won in Afghanistan? Only 24% — and only 36% of Republicans. In fact, the internals of this poll are as consistent as any you’re likely to ever see. I could write about all of the demos that don’t have majority support for an immediate withdrawal of all troops, as the question specifically asks, but it’s easier to note which demos don’t have majority support for that position:
- 40-49YOs – Favor immediate withdrawal 48/33
- Republicans: 42/47
- Conservatives: 45/40
- Unsure of ideology: 24/39
- $75-100K income: 47/38
- $100K+: 46/38
- Union members: 46/35
- Tea Party members: 41/47
Most of these have pluralities favoring immediate and total withdrawal, so that narrow plurality of Republicans opposed to the idea are very isolated on this point. Complicating the problem is the fact that only 29% of voters think of Afghanistan as a “vital national security interest” any more; literally no demographics in this poll think otherwise, majority or plurality. If Afghanistan is not a vital national security interest any longer, then most people would draw the rational conclusion that the reward hardly matches the risks and the costs of continuing the effort.
That’s not to say that the case can’t be made, though. Marc Thiessen reminds us at the Washington Post what an immediate and total withdrawal would mean:
In the wake of the recent events in Afghanistan, sentiment is growing to speed the U.S. military exit. Half of the American people now want to get out faster, and Obama administration officials are reportedly debating doing just that. Which raises a critical question: What would happen if we pulled out of Afghanistan? Here are the top five disastrous consequences of a precipitous American withdrawal:
1. The drone war against al-Qaeda in Pakistan would likely cease. Eighty-three percent of Americans support targeted drone strikes against al-Qaeda leaders hiding in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Those strikes are dependent on forward bases in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. The U.S. no longer operates drones from inside Pakistan. We cannot effectively conduct targeted strikes from Navy ships because Pakistan’s tribal regions are more than a thousand of miles from the sea. Bagram airbase near Kabul is also too far away for anything other than dropping bombs from F-15s. So if we want to continue the drone war against al-Qaeda, we must have a U.S. military presence not just in Afghanistan but in the Pashtun heartland — and we can’t have that presence if the Pashtun heartland is on fire. The Afghan government is not likely to allow us to keep bases in this area if we were doing nothing to stabilize the country. And if the region falls to the Taliban, we will lose access to these areas completely. Loss of these bases would also mean the loss of the intelligence networks on both sides of the border enabled by the U.S. military presence — and thus much of the targeting information we depend on. As a result, direct strikes in Pakistan could effectively cease, the pressure on the terrorists would be lifted, and al-Qaeda would be free to reconstitute.
2.The risk that Pakistan (and its nuclear arsenal) falls to the extremists grows. With the pressure from the United States lifted, al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban would be free to ramp up their efforts to destabilize Pakistan. In a worst-case scenario, they could topple the government and take control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. In a “best-case” scenario, those within the Pakistani government who supported cooperating with the United States will be weakened, while those who have long argued for supporting the Islamists and terrorists against the United States will be strengthened. Either way, Pakistan becomes a facilitator of terror.
Read it all, and when you’re done, Theissen also has four more points to keep in mind at The American Enterprise, with this conclusion:
4. We’d have to go back and start all over again. If Afghanistan did fall apart, the Taliban regained lost territory (or, worse yet, returned to power), and al Qaeda made a comeback in the country where they planned the 9/11 attacks, does anyone imagine for a moment that America would be able to sit back and allow this to happen? We would eventually have to go back and drive the Taliban and al Qaeda out all over again. We would expend more American lives and treasure—all to restore military gains that we had already paid for with American lives and treasure.
Bottom line: all these consequences are preventable. But preventing them requires leadership from the commander in chief. The president needs to start standing with his military commanders on the ground and give them the time and resources to implement their war plan. And he needs to use his bully pulpit to rally the American people, by explaining our strategy for success and the consequences failure. Today he is doing neither.
That all began with the announcement of the withdrawal timeline in 2009, a mistake of large proportion not just in regards to the message it sent the enemy, but the message it sent American voters, too. Obama never used the word “victory” in explaining his Af-Pak policy, which has given people the (accurate) perception that his goal was to do as much damage as he could to the Taliban and al-Qaeda while managing toward an exit in 2014. That’s not a recipe for maintaining popular support for the effort, but for eroding it rapidly — and these are the consequences.
Under those conditions, though, we’re doomed to fail on Thiessen’s points anyway. If that is all Obama is willing to do, then immediate withdrawal does make more sense. And if popular support has dropped this much, Obama may accelerate the withdrawal if he believes he can’t win another term in an election focused on the economy, although at this point he can’t possibly withdraw from Afghanistan before November unless he makes it a rout.
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