It matters if Americans call Afghanistan a defeat

Third, and perhaps most important, the perception that the U.S. is cutting a deal and leaving Afghanistan in defeat could have a lasting, negative impact on American civil-military relations if such a narrative takes hold. A final deal has remained elusive because the Taliban has allegedly not yet agreed to denounce al-Qaeda or provide all the counterterrorism assurances U.S. negotiators have requested. The terms of a potential deal likely will shape how civilians and military will view the end of the Afghan War.

In our survey, we asked some respondents whether civilian leaders, military leaders, or America’s enemies deserved the blame for the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we asked other respondents who deserved the credit. When veterans were told the U.S. won the war in Afghanistan, more of them gave civilian leaders credit, and fewer of them gave military leaders credit. In victory, nonveteran civilians were similarly charitable toward the military; more of them gave military leaders credit, and fewer credited civilians.

When told the United States had lost the war in Afghanistan, however, civilian and veteran opinions polarized. Veterans were more likely to blame civilian leaders. Fewer civilians blamed civilian leaders, and more blamed military leaders. Moreover, the percentage of civilians expressing confidence in the military dropped by almost 10 points, from 75 to 66 percent, a lower level of public confidence in the military than at any time since 9/11. Among the control group of respondents who weren’t told the United States had won or lost in Afghanistan, 74 percent of civilians and 90 percent of veterans expressed confidence in the military. That civilian-military gap nearly doubled among those respondents who were told the U.S. had lost. Older veterans were particularly likely to blame civilians and express confidence in the military.