It hasn’t been a good couple of weeks in Afghanistan. An apparent killing spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in a souther province and widely publicized Koran burnings by U.S. military personnel at Bagram Air Base threaten to alienate some of the most ardent supporters of the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan: the Afghan people themselves. It may seem hard to believe, but while Americans long ago said the war’s costs outweighed the benefits, many Afghans remained supportive of the U.S. invasion. If that support is now waning, Americans and Afghans alike may be calling for the United States to pack its bags and go.
In late 2010, nearly three-quarters of Afghans in late 2010 said the U.S. invasion was a good thing, according to a Washington Post-ABC News/BBC/ARD face-to-face survey. More than six in 10 supported the presence of U.S. military forces, and majorities noticed progress in the training of Afghans to provide security and in halting al-Qaeda’s progress. Kandahar, the province where Bales allegedly killed 16 civilians before dawn on March 11, was one of the few areas where a majority opposed the initial invasion.
Even then, support for the mission didn’t translate into glowing ratings for the United States as a whole. A 56 percent majority held unfavorable views of the country in 2010, the highest in six years of surveys and a monumental shift from 2005, when more than eight in 10 saw America in a positive light. But even after the drop in popularity, America was seen much more positively than its arch enemy: the Taliban. Nearly nine in 10 gave unfavorable marks to Afghanistan’s former leaders, with two-thirds seeing the Taliban “very” unfavorably.
Ratings of the war inside Afghanistan differed starkly from those back in the United States. Six in 10 Americans thought the war was not worth fighting in a December 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll, identical to the level found in a Post-ABC poll this month.
Most Americans are eager to get out of the conflict. In the latest survey, 54 percent of Americans think the United States should withdraw military forces — even if the Afghan army is not adequately trained. President Obama’s 2010 announcement of troop withdrawals also got positive reviews. More than half of respondents thought he was removing troops according to the right timeline in a December 2010 Post-ABC poll, and an additional 27 percent said he should bring them home sooner.
The once-popular war’s appeal has waned in part because of a nose-dive in support from among its strongest backers. Since Obama took over stewardship of the war from president George W. Bush, Republican support for the war has plummeted — 74 percent said the war was worth it in 2009, but just 47 percent say so now.
Back in Afghanistan, Bales’s alleged murder of 16 civilians less than a month after soldiers were found to have incinerated several Korans may have already taken a major toll on support for the U.S. mission.
Hamid Karzai’s strong reaction — calling for the removal of U.S. troops from rural areas and broad investigations — may throw a wrench in diplomatic efforts, but from the public opinion perspective, his position is critical. More than eight in 10 Afghans had a favorable view of Karzai in late 2010, a level of popularity almost unheard-of for an American leader.
Even before news about the killings broke, most Americans believed Afghans were opposed to the U.S. military presence. They weren’t — but they might be now.
Foreign policy Wednesdays: Most Wednesdays we will feature a special poll watcher analysis of American public opinion on foreign policy. The series will be cross-posted at Foreign Policy Magazine’s Election 2012 page.