The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghan war now more unpopular with Americans than the Iraq war ever was

Washington Post/ABC News poll

The proportion of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has dropped to 28 percent, according to a new Washington Post/ABC poll. This is the lowest support for the Afghan war ever recorded in the poll – and even lower than the Iraq war ever scored on the same question. A full two-thirds, 67 percent, say that the Afghan war has not been worth fighting.

The drop in support crosses political lines, although it's been most pronounced among Republicans, who only three years ago supported the war by 69 percent to 29 percent opposed. Now, 51 percent say they oppose the war, a slight majority although still less than Democrats (74 percent oppose) or independents (71 percent).

What explains the drop in support, below even the nadir of American opinion toward the Iraq war? Partly, it's seasonal: Such support tends to rise in the winter, when fighting slows, and drop again during the "fighting season" in the summer.

Another likely factor, judging by the White House's own view of the war, is that the costs for the United States are rising with little obvious return. U.S. casualty rates have jumped rapidly since President Obama increased troops numbers – a move that initially spiked public support – but gains have been difficult to maintain. Since a few symbolic gains in 2009 and 2010, the biggest stories out of Afghanistan have been political corruption, American casualties and the "green on blue" attacks in which Afghan soldiers killed the NATO troops who were supposed to be their allies.

Support began falling in late 2011 and early 2012, when a string of high-profile incidents gave the appearance of a war spinning badly out of control. In January 2012, a video surfaced showing Marines urinating on dead Afghan insurgents. The next month, NATO troops mistakenly burned several Korans, setting off nationwide riots and more "green on blue" killings. The month after that, a U.S. soldier named Robert Bales wandered off base and into a nearby village, where he killed 16 civilians, nine of them children.

But there's another possible factor that may have less to do with events in Afghanistan than with politics back here in the United States. Since the Obama administration began backing off of its previous push for the war, which it championed during Obama's campaign and first years in office, the Afghan war has not had a major political supporter in Washington. This may help explain how the war could be less popular than even Iraq, which was in many ways far more controversial but which was consistently championed by the Bush administration. For many Americans, especially from the 2004 presidential campaign through the 2006 midterm elections and into 2008, the Iraq War was a partisan issue. The polarization may have actually helped entrench Republican supporters.

Not so Afghanistan, which now largely lacks a political base of support. The Iraq war, after all, hit its lowest point of support (33 percent) not during the bloodiest and most politically controversial months of 2006 and 2007, but in 2011, by which point fighting was largely over and neither U.S. political party was still bothering to support it.