U.S. deeply split on troop increase for Afghan war

Trucks that were set ablaze by Taliban militants smolder on a main highway in Ghazni province, west of Kabul.
Trucks that were set ablaze by Taliban militants smolder on a main highway in Ghazni province, west of Kabul. (Rahmatullah Naikzad/associated Press)
By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

As President Obama and his war cabinet deliberate a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, Americans are evenly and deeply divided over whether he should send 40,000 more troops there, and public approval of the president's handling of the situation has tumbled, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has recommended the substantial increase in troop strength, and 47 percent of those polled favor the buildup, while 49 percent oppose it. Most on both sides hold their views "strongly." The survey also found that a large majority of Americans say the administration lacks a clear plan for dealing with the problems in Afghanistan.

The troop decision is one of the most complex and fateful strategic security choices of Obama's presidency. It also carries great political risk, whichever way he goes.

Ordering more U.S. forces to Afghanistan could open a rift with Obama's fellow Democrats, most of whom call the battle "not worth fighting" and adamantly oppose the idea. But the Republicans polled take diametrically opposed views on the war, and a decision not to accept the commander's recommendation probably would heighten their opposition to the president.

Adding to Obama's political predicament is that few support winnowing the mission in Afghanistan to a targeted focus on anti-U.S. elements, a position supported by some in the administration. Such a move could lessen the need for additional troops.

A day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to a runoff election -- following an investigation by an international panel that found pervasive irregularities in the first round of voting -- the poll showed that two-thirds of the U.S. public also considers the election deeply flawed, with evidence of widespread fraud. That negative appraisal was generally consistent across party and ideological lines.

Obama has conducted a weeks-long review of his Afghanistan strategy, after implementing a new course in the spring that included sending more troops to battle al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that he expects a decision on a revised strategy and troops within weeks -- well before the results of the runoff election are certified.

As the administration's review continues, 57 percent of those polled approve of how Obama is carrying out his duties as commander in chief, but confidence in his leadership on the Afghan war has eroded since the spring. In previous polls, Obama received some of his highest ratings in relation to his dealings with Afghanistan, including 63 percent approval in April of his handling of the situation there. In the latest poll, 45 percent approve, down 10 percentage points in the past month alone, and 47 percent disapprove, an increase of 10 points. Nearly a third of those surveyed say they strongly disapprove.

The sharpest drop in support for Obama's work on Afghanistan has come among Republicans. In September, a bare majority of party members, 51 percent, approved of his performance on this issue; in the new poll, that support has plummeted to 22 percent, with 71 percent opposed.

The falloff has come as Republican leaders have escalated their criticism of Obama, accusing him of dithering and delay at a time when, they say, his military commander has expressed a sense of urgency about deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and the need for more troops to win the war.

About two-thirds of Democrats give Obama positive marks on Afghanistan, essentially unchanged, but there has been some erosion among independents. Over the past month, they have gone from narrowly positive to narrowly negative in their appraisals.

Obama faces a possible loss of support among his Democratic base if he decides to order the kind of substantial troop increase McChrystal recommended. Just a third of Democrats favor sending about 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, with 61 percent opposed -- 51 percent strongly so.

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