A new poll on Afghanistan is out, the first one to ever ask a direct, three-way question on American troop levels in the country:
ABC News/Washington Post Poll. Jan. 13-16, 2009. N=1,079 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3.
"Thinking now about Afghanistan, do you think the number of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan should be increased, decreased, or kept about the same?"
About the same: 32%
Over at The Seminal, Jason Rosenbaum argues that the poll shows the public opinion is opposed to the troop escalation in the country. I don't think this is quite right. Instead, it seems to show that public opinion on the matter is pretty soft and generally undecided. Really, the country is almost evenly divided three ways.
This is pretty remarkable, given that both President Obama and Senator John McCain supported Afghanistan escalation during the 2008 Presidential campaign. For that matter, there is no prominent public campaign in favor of Afghanistan withdrawal. As was the case for withdrawal from Iraq in 2003, 2004 and most of 2005, neither the Democratic and Republican leadership supported the idea. And yet, despite no one making the case for withdrawal, the American public already favored it by huge margins in the summer of 2005.
In this environment, it doesn't take Nostradamus to realize that it is only a matter of time before public opinion turns against a large American military presence in Afghanistan. If 34% support for troop escalation in Afghanistan is all that can be mustered despite everyone pushing for it, what starts happening once people actually make the case for withdrawal? For that matter, what starts happening to public opinion on Afghanistan once we begin withdrawing from Iraq? Withdraw once, and the second withdrawal probably becomes a lot easier.
President Obama needs to stay in touch with public opinion on this one, and make sure that the troop increase is temporary and short-lived. Not only is it questionable what we can actually achieve by sending more troops, and not only will it cost a lot of money and blood during a time when we have little to spare, but it could also be very dangerous politically. It should go without saying that presiding over an unpopular war is almost certain political death for any sitting President, as Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush all discovered. Further, Republicans are willing to take anti-war opinions in order to spite Democratic Presidents. For example, in 1995, 29 Republicans voted against the authorization of military force in Bosnia, a majority of the caucus. This time around, spite levels might be even higher among Republican members of Congress, as the recent bailout vote in the House demonstrated.
Public opinion will turn against a large American military presence in Afghanistan. This is not a question of "if," but of "when." It is essential that President Obama stays ahead of this trend. As Steve Clemmons writes, Obama may very well be stumbling into an Afghanistan trap.