Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires…and Presidencies?

Even for someone as personally cautious as he appears to be, President Barack Obama's decision about the future direction of U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been a long time coming. This has produced charges that he is "dithering" from his Republican opponents and feelings of unease from his Democratic allies. Still, the president's caution is understandable. What he decides now will directly impact the lives of the young Americans who serve in the nation's armed forces, have important national security and economic ramifications, and influence his party's and his own election chances in 2010 and 2012.  Given the stakes, hasty decision-making is really in no one's best interests.

Moreover, as a student of history, Obama certainly knows that caution is a useful watchword when it comes to Afghanistan. It has successfully resisted foreign incursions since the time of Alexander the Great, who had good reason to call it the "Graveyard of Empires."

Unfortunately, this is one matter on which public opinion offers the president little clear guidance to inform his decision-making. Recent survey results on the issue are almost as complex, contradictory, and cloudy as are events in Afghanistan itself. If anything, the murky polls on the issue go a long way toward explaining why President Obama is moving so slowly in making and announcing a decision.

At this point, only one thing is unambiguous: since mid-Summer Obama's personal favorability, his job performance ratings, and his marks on most specific issues such as health care reform, the economy, and foreign policy have generally fluctuated within narrow boundaries. By contrast, he has lost ground on his handling of the Afghanistan situation across all public surveys.

An early November Pew survey is typical: since July the president's rating for his handling of the economy and energy policy is up four percentage points each and for health care up one. His scores for dealing with foreign policy and the budget deficit are down by three points and one point respectively. However, his rating for handling Afghanistan dropped by eleven points over the same period (from 47% to 36%).

In large part, of course, President Obama is being punished for appearing indecisive. The electorate appreciates certainty rather than uncertainty. Once he does determine and announce what his administration's Afghan policy is, his marks will almost certainly rise, at least in the short run, regardless of what that policy is. It's the longer run that's going to be more difficult.

One major concern is that Americans increasingly question the correctness of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. At this point, slightly more Americans endorse our military efforts in Afghanistan than reject them.  However, support for the mission is narrow and declining. According to Pew, a slight majority (56%) says that the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan was right, but that number is down from 64% in January. Similarly, a November Quinnipiac survey indicates that a slight plurality (48%) believes that the U.S. is doing the right thing in fighting the war in Afghanistan, down from 52% in October.

Given the sharp division about the efficacy of the mission it is not surprising that the public is equally divided about what U.S. Afghan policy should be going forward. Exactly how divided depends on the way pollsters pose the question.

Pew simply asked if U.S. troop levels should be increased, decreased, or kept at current levels over the next year. A slight plurality (40%) want them decreased, while 32% favor an increase and 19% want the number of American troops in Afghanistan to remain the same as now. Those percentages are essentially unchanged since the beginning of 2009.

The Quinnipiac question informed respondents that "General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked President Obama to send 40,000 additional combat troops" and asked if the president should send those forces or not. When the matter is specifically linked to an appealing military figure, a slight plurality (47% vs. 42%) endorses committing more American troops to Afghanistan. Even so, a majority (54%) is unwilling to have "large numbers" of U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan for more than two years, a number that has increased by six points since October. Only a quarter (27%) is willing to make the commitment of American forces to Afghanistan open-ended, for "as long as it takes."

Adding to the difficulty and complexity of President Obama's decision-making is the fact that the very groups within the electorate that most decisively contributed to his election win a year ago and most strongly support his other policy initiatives now-Millennials (young voters 18-27), minorities, and his fellow Democrats-are most resistant to sending additional troops to Afghanistan. In the Pew survey, most Millennials (53%) and Democratic identifiers (51%) want American forces in Afghanistan to be decreased during the next year. According to Quinnipiac, large majorities of Democrats (61%), African-Americans (73%), and Hispanics (60%) oppose sending the 40,000 new troops to Afghanistan that General McChrystal has requested. By contrast, in both surveys, most Republicans favor committing more forces to the Afghan conflict. The implications of this unique public opinion configuration for President Obama's domestic policy goals, such as health care reform, are worrisome and will take all of his strong communication skills to overcome.

One thing that may help him to do that is to properly define why America is in Afghanistan in the first place. Quinnipiac separately asked if "eliminating the threat from terrorists" and "establishing a stable democratic government" are worthwhile goals for which American troops would "fight and possibly die in Afghanistan." Clear majorities endorsed the former goal (65%) and rejected the latter (54%), although, unfortunately, most Americans are not confident that the United States will ultimately achieve either goal. 

The stakes in Afghanistan are high for America and President Barack Obama. The administrations of the last three presidents to become involved in extended Asian land wars-Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush-ended badly. The president needs to get his decision about where to go from here right the first time. Unfortunately, public opinion offers little clear guidance. The electorate is evenly divided and increasingly pessimistic about both the American mission in Afghanistan and the strategic and tactical options available to deal with events there. Uniquely, the groups that support him most strongly electorally and in other policy areas are most opposed to expanded military efforts in Afghanistan. Yet, failure to act militarily may conflict with the president's overriding responsibilities as commander-in-chief and decisions taken or not taken now may have unforeseen consequences in the future. So take your time in deciding what to do, Mr. President-- it could be the most important decision you make.