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.
The troop issue clearly exposes the partisan divide. The new poll found that more than two-thirds of all Republicans favor an increase, including 51 percent who strongly support McChrystal's recommendation.
Independents divide on the troop issue, with 47 percent favoring a substantial increase and 50 percent opposing it.
On the question of whether the administration has a clear strategy for Afghanistan, 63 percent of all Americans say it does not. More than eight in 10 Republicans, about two-thirds of independents and nearly half of Democrats think the administration does not have a clear plan.
When it comes to strategic priorities, the public places about equal emphasis on preventing the establishment of al-Qaeda bases and keeping the Taliban from returning to power, upping the ante on the impending troop decision.
Some administration officials argue that the United States should focus on fighting al-Qaeda and those elements of the Taliban that directly threaten U.S. security. A concentration on "anti-terrorism," as opposed to "anti-insurgent," as the rival camps have been described, would mitigate the force requirement to meet the objectives.
The new poll revealed little public interest in redefining the goal: Four in five Americans say U.S. policy should aim to prevent all elements of the Taliban from regaining power in Afghanistan, even if certain segments of the movement do not support terrorism against the United States. About two-thirds of those polled place a "high priority" on stopping the Taliban from taking over, and just as many prioritize guarding against new al-Qaeda camps. On these questions, there are minimal differences across party lines.
Most, regardless of political leanings, also say the United States should attack al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders across the border in Pakistan, although fewer call this a top priority. Fewer still prioritize economic development or working to establish a stable democracy in Afghanistan, although majorities say the United States should be doing these things.
Some critics of U.S. policy have warned that the nation could be headed toward a Vietnam War-like quagmire in Afghanistan. About a third in the Post-ABC News poll said they agreed with that assessment, while about three in five said they think that will be avoided. There is both partisan and ideological agreement on this question.
The poll was conducted by conventional and cellular telephone from Oct. 15 to 18 among a random sample of 1,004 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.