In U.S., More Optimism About Iraq, Less About Afghanistan

by Jeffrey M. Jones

New high of 42% say war in Afghanistan a mistake

PRINCETON, NJ -- A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds growing concern about the war in Afghanistan at the same time that Americans' optimism about Iraq is growing or holding steady.

Forty-two percent of Americans now say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Afghanistan, up from 30% earlier this year and establishing a new high. Meanwhile, the 53% who say the Iraq war is a mistake is down slightly from 56% in January, and 60% last summer.


These results are based on a March 14-15 USA Today/Gallup poll, conducted just before the six-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As the United States is reducing the size of its military force in Iraq and increasing its troop strength in Afghanistan, the public's opinions about the two wars seem to be adjusting accordingly.

Now, just 38% of Americans say things are going well for the United States in Afghanistan. That is down from 44% in January and is the lowest Gallup has found since it first asked this question in September 2006.


Still, the new low in assessments of U.S. progress in Afghanistan compares favorably to the low point for the Iraq war from January 2007, when only 28% thought things were going well for the United States in Iraq. But perceptions have shifted rather dramatically since then, and now 51% of Americans give a positive assessment of the Iraq war.


That increasingly optimistic view about Iraq extends to Americans' perceptions of the United States' chances for ultimate success in that war. Sixty-four percent now believe the United States can win the war, and 42% believe it will do so. Both are the best assessments Gallup has measured since June 2006.


Politicized and Non-Politicized Wars

It is important to point out that even as American support for the Afghanistan war is declining, and even as Americans perceive greater progress in Iraq than in Afghanistan, public support for the war in Afghanistan is still higher than for the Iraq war.

Americans have been supportive of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan since they were launched in October 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In contrast, the Iraq war began with limited international backing and with most Democratic members of Congress -- including many who authorized military action in Iraq -- quickly coming to oppose the war.

The political nature of the Iraq war and the significantly less political nature of the Afghanistan war are evident in support for the two wars by political party, particularly with regard to Democrats' opinions. Even as opposition to the Iraq war has declined slightly, the overwhelming majority of Democrats (83%) still say it was a mistake to send troops there. Only 53% of Democrats say this about the war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, independents' and Republicans' views on each of the wars are similar.


Since the Afghanistan war has not been politicized to the extent the Iraq war has been, majority support for it continues more than seven years after the Afghanistan conflict began. In the case of Iraq, support dipped below the majority level a little over a year into the war (June 2004), and has consistently remained below that level since August 2005.


With reports of increased difficulty in achieving U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and with the Obama administration's committing greater resources to the mission, it is unclear whether majority support for the war will continue without tangible signs of progress. But signs of progress can quickly turn around Americans' perceptions of the conflict (if not their basic support), as has occurred with regard to the Iraq war in recent years, essentially since the "surge" of troops in Iraq was implemented.

It is possible that Republicans may seek to pin a continued lack of progress in Afghanistan on President Obama, and thus their generally high level of support for the effort could dwindle. But that is far from a sure bet given Republicans' generally greater concern about terrorism and typical support for government steps designed to prevent it.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 2,021 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 14-15, 2009, as part of Gallup Poll Daily tracking. The Iraq and Afghanistan questions were asked of random halves of the total sample.

Results for the Iraq questions are based on telephone interviews with 1,024 national adults in Form A. Results for the Afghanistan questions are based on telephone interviews with 997 national adults in Form B. For each set of results, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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