Barack Obama today authorized sending an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, marking his first big move as commander in chief and his first presidential decision without clear majority support.
Most Americans consider winning in Afghanistan essential to success in the broader war against terrorism, but in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, barely more than a third (34 percent) said the number of U.S. military forces in that country should be increased. About as many would opt for a decrease (29 percent) or no change at all (32 percent).
The order may be the biggest political stretch of Obama's young presidency, as other decisions have been more in line with public attitudes.
The new move stands in stark contrast to the popularity of a widely-anticipated plan to reverse the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research, the announced closing of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and an extension of public health care benefits to uninsured children -- all of which rank highly with the public. At last read, the economic stimulus bill also held majority public support.
And Obama faces an even more unwelcoming public in Afghanistan: Most Afghans oppose more foreign troops in their country. In a recent ABC-BBC-ARD poll of Afghanis, just 18 percent said the U.S. and NATO should up their troop levels and more than twice that number, 44 percent, wanted fewer occupying armies.
But while Afghan's have little appetite for more U.S. and NATO troops in their country and ratings of the U.S. have fallen sharply, most Afghans continue to want a U.S. presence there.
In a December Post-ABC poll, most Americans called the Afghan war worth the fight, unlike the continually negative attitudes about the value of the Iraq war. In that poll, 51 percent said victory in Afghanistan is a key to the war on terrorism.
The schism in public views, then, is a classic divide between ends (winning in Afghanistan) and means (increasing troop levels), with the political results ultimately dependent on military accomplishments. In the December poll, 51 percent called the American military action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan "not successful," which was one reason about as many said they were pessimistic (47 percent) as optimistic (49 percent) about the situation in that country in 2009.