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Public Opinion in U.S. Turns Against Afghan War

By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 2009

A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Most have confidence in the ability of the United States to meet its primary goals of defeating the Taliban, facilitating economic development, and molding an honest and effective Afghan government, but few say Thursday's elections there are likely to produce such a government.

When it comes to the baseline question, 42 percent of Americans say the United States is winning in Afghanistan; about as many, 36 percent, say it is losing.

The new poll comes amid widespread speculation that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will request more troops for his stepped-up effort to remove the Taliban from Afghan towns and villages. That position gets the backing of 24 percent of those polled, while nearly twice as many, 45 percent, want to decrease the number of military forces there. (Most of the remainder want to keep the level about the same.)

In January, before President Obama authorized sending an additional 17,000 troops to the country, public sentiment tilted more strongly toward a troop increase.

Should Obama embrace his generals' call for even more forces, he would risk alienating some of his staunchest supporters. Although 60 percent of Americans approve of how Obama has handled the situation in Afghanistan, his ratings among liberals have slipped, and majorities of liberals and Democrats alike now, for the first time, solidly oppose the war and are calling for a reduction in troop levels.

Overall, seven in 10 Democrats say the war has not been worth its costs, and fewer than one in five support an increase in troop levels.

Republicans (70 percent say it is worth fighting) and conservatives (58 percent) remain the war's strongest backers, and the issue provides a rare point of GOP support for Obama's policies. A narrow majority of conservatives approve of the president's handling of the war (52 percent), as do more than four in 10 Republicans (43 percent).

Among all adults, 51 percent now say the war is not worth fighting, up six percentage points since last month and 10 since March. Less than half, 47 percent, say the war is worth its costs. Those strongly opposed (41 percent) outweigh strong proponents (31 percent).

Opposition to the Iraq war reached similar levels in the summer of 2004 and grew further through the 2006 midterm elections, becoming issue No. 1 in many congressional races that year.

By the time support for that conflict had fallen below 50 percent, disapproval of President George W. Bush's handling of it had climbed to 55 percent, in contrast to the solid overall approval of the way Obama is dealing with Afghanistan.

But there are warning signs for the president.

Among liberals, his rating on handling the war, which he calls one of "necessity," has fallen swiftly, with strong approval dropping by 20 points. Nearly two-thirds of liberals stand against a troop increase, as do about six in 10 Democrats.

On the GOP side, views are more evenly distributed, as Republicans divide about equally in support of an increase, a decrease and no change to troop levels.

Partisan divisions on the handling of the Afghan war are tempered when it comes to faith in the ability of the United States and its allies to get the job done. Broad majorities across party lines say they are confident that the United States will defeat the Taliban and succeed in spurring economic development.

Far fewer, 34 percent, say they think Afghanistan's national election will result in an effective government, with just 3 percent "very confident."

The poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 13-17 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults including users of both conventional and cellular phones. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; it is higher among subgroups.

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