Foreign and Defense Policy

Will Obama Harness Rising Public Support for the War in Afghanistan?

The Washington Post reports that support for the war in Afghanistan is beginning to rebound:

The number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting has increased for the first time since President Obama announced at the end of 2009 that he would boost troop levels, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll

In the Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, 43 percent of Americans say the war is worth fighting, compared with 31 percent in March …

The new Post-ABC News poll found that opposition to the war within the Democratic Party fell from 79 percent in March to 63 percent.

Obama is also enjoying more support for his war policy from independent voters. In March, just over a quarter of independents said the war was worth fighting. That number jumped to 45 percent in the most recent poll.

What changed? First, Obama scored a major counterterrorism success in killing Osama bin Laden. Second, that success led the president to speak publicly about America’s mission in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror—something he has been loath to do during most of his presidency. As I have pointed out, the record shows when the president uses his bully pulpit to explain why the war effort in Afghanistan is essential to national security (as he did in announcing the surge), the public responds and rallies to the cause. But when the president fails to speak out and explain the stakes in Afghanistan, support for the effort in Afghanistan falls.

The question now is what Obama will do in the face of this rising support. The Post reports:

Bin Laden’s death has given new impetus to those within the administration, primarily Obama’s civilian advisers, who favor a more aggressive drawdown than some military officers … Several senior administration officials would like all those [surge] forces withdrawn by the end of the year, allowing Obama to tell his skeptical Democratic base in an election year that he is winding down the war.

As Fred and Kim Kagan write in the Wall Street Journal, this would be a disaster—and would likely mean the war in Afghanistan is lost. With rising public support, and success to report on the ground, Obama finally has the wind at his back again on Afghanistan—and he has a critical choice to make. The president can rally the country behind a policy for success in Afghanistan, or he can give in to those in his party and his administration whose primary goal is withdrawal and retreat.  How he decides could well decide the course of the conflict.

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