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The Sunday Take

Sunday Take: Divided public complicates Afghanistan decision

During President Obama's term, opposition to the U.S. continuing the war in Afghanistan has grown.
During President Obama's term, opposition to the U.S. continuing the war in Afghanistan has grown. (Richard A. Lipski/the Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz
Sunday, November 22, 2009

As President Obama nears a decision on Afghanistan, he faces a partisan divide in public opinion that is pulling him in opposite directions. His recent statements about the decision suggest that he is trying to accommodate the views with a war strategy that can be successful and contained.

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This is the dilemma Obama faced when, as a candidate, he cast his lot with Afghanistan while opposing the war in Iraq. The issue that was avoidable then, but is no longer, is how to put down al-Qaeda and the Taliban without being drawn into an endless conflict in a nation that has swallowed up outside forces through the centuries.

The lengthy policy debate inside the administration has spun out of control as it nears its finish, with damaging leaks and counterleaks. White House officials insist that getting the policy right is the goal of this long process, and that the president is far more worried about making the wrong decision than about being criticized for seeming to be unable to make up his mind.

The internal debate began with the bleak assessment by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, who said conditions were deteriorating and included a request for an additional 40,000 troops to try to turn around the war. It has morphed into a much broader debate, a virtual Rubik's Cube in which Obama is weighing not just the number of troops, but when and where they would be deployed as well as how long they should be committed there and at what cost.

In Asia last week, Obama was asked about Afghanistan in a round of television interviews. His answers suggested that he is as focused on the question of how long the United States should be there as he is on the number of additional troops he may send.

In an interview with CNN, he talked about seeking an "endgame" with his new Afghanistan policy. Speaking to CBS News, he said: "There are a range of things that we know we have to do. And at this point, it's a matter of fine-tuning a strategy that we can be confident will be successful and also won't be open-ended."

Public opinion has put Obama in a box politically. Views of the president and the war are politically asymmetrical. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 45 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan, and about the same percentage says the war was not worth fighting.

But they are not the same people. Those who disapprove of Obama's handling of the war are much more likely to be Republicans. Those who think the war is not worth fighting are far more likely to be Democrats. Those who say send more troops tend to be Republicans; those who say send fewer tend to be Democrats. Only on the question of whether the Afghan government is a reliable partner is there unanimity -- overwhelming majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents say no.

Over the past four months, as the Afghan debate has played out, public opinion has shifted away from Obama. In July, 62 percent approved of his handling of the war. Democratic approval has dropped by 10 percentage points, but 70 percent of Democrats still give him positive marks. In contrast, 21 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of independents approve of how he is handling the war. Both are down 20 points since July.

Views on the war have changed less dramatically in that period. In July, 51 percent of Americans said they thought the war was worth fighting; that has slipped to 44 percent. The partisan divisions show Democrats to be more pessimistic: Sixty-six percent say the war is not worth fighting -- 48 percent of them say they feel strongly that way. With Republicans, 60 percent say it is worth fighting -- 43 percent of them hold that view strongly.

On the question of whether the war is worth fighting, 49 percent of independents today say it is and 49 percent say it is not. On this issue, the views of independents have not budged since July. But independents today say they have more confidence in the Republicans in Congress to deal with Afghanistan, a telling and, for the White House, troubling lack of confidence in Obama on what has become the defining foreign policy decision of his presidency.

This is a far different set of conditions than those when George W. Bush was president. Those who disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq were more likely to say Iraq was not worth fighting for. Bush was aware of the political consequences when he bucked public opinion by ordering a troop surge in Iraq after losing the midterm elections in 2006. He had long ago burned those bridges.

Obama is still at the opening of his presidency, and faces risks to his political standing. A significant commitment of troops risks deterioration of support among Obama's Democratic base. Not backing the military leaders' request will draw Republican criticism that he lacks spine as commander in chief.

Public opinion won't decide the outcome of this debate. The real question is in what ways have Obama's views of Afghanistan -- and this country's prospects for success there -- changed during the first year of his presidency. Does he see Afghanistan as a greater potential quagmire than he did as a candidate? Does he trust the military less or more in its assessments and its assurances of success? Does he think the country can afford the cost in lives and taxpayer money of a commitment to Afghanistan that, under some scenarios, could stretch into a second decade?

The objective evidence, based on the length of time this debate has gone on, suggests that Obama has become far more wary about Afghanistan and is looking to limit the U.S. commitment. He also appears more inquisitive about the projections and advice he has been getting.

Some people think he would instantly grant McChrystal his request for 40,000 more troops -- or more -- if he could be assured that U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan in a few years. Absent that, the decision comes down to his objectives in committing more U.S. forces, and the limits of his patience and his pocketbook in trying to achieve those goals.

Only Obama can decide what he thinks about these choices.


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