Poll finds guarded optimism on Obama's Afghan plan

By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Most Americans say they think President Obama will come up with a successful strategy for Afghanistan, but few are "very confident" that he will do so, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The president is expected in the coming weeks to roll out a new approach for handling the conflict in Afghanistan, and in a stopover at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base on his way to Asia, he pledged to deliver "public support back home" for the war effort.

He has a formidable sales job ahead to accomplish that: 52 percent of respondents in this poll see the war in Afghanistan as not worth its costs, and nearly as many trust the Republicans in Congress to deal with the war as trust Obama.

Ratings of the president's handling of Afghanistan have plummeted since the summer, turning what had been one of his most favorably regarded issues into another nearly even split: 45 percent approve of how he is dealing with it, while 48 percent disapprove. Of particular concern for the White House is approval among independents, which has slipped to 39 percent, a new low.

Nevertheless, a majority of Americans, 55 percent, express confidence that the president will choose an Afghanistan strategy that will work. But even here, there is an almost even split in public opinion about how many more troops Obama should send as part of a new approach to the war.

Asked to choose between a larger influx of troops to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban and train the Afghan military, and a smaller number of new U.S. forces more narrowly focused on training, Americans divide 46 percent for the bigger number, 45 percent for the lower one.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has requested about 40,000 additional troops to fight the Taliban insurgency, but other officials, including Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, a former general, have cast doubts about sending so many fresh forces to the country.

Overall, a slim majority in the poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday, say Obama is giving U.S. military leaders "about the right amount" of influence in deciding U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Just over a third, 35 percent, say military leaders have "too little influence," and 9 percent say they have "too much." Nearly six in 10 Republicans say these leaders are not being given a big enough role; far fewer independents and Democrats agree with that assessment.

One aspect of the war that gets a more uniform reaction is Afghan President Hamid Karzai: Most Americans across party lines have little or no confidence that he will be a reliable partner for the United States, and even fewer see him as able to oversee an Afghan army that could take over security operations at some point.

The telephone poll was conducted among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

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