Americans Say Afghanistan Going Badly, but Not a Mistake

by Frank Newport

Democrats remain more negative on the war than Republicans or independents

PRINCETON, NJ -- At a time when Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal is almost certain to request an increase in U.S. troops in that country, a Gallup update finds less than half of Americans, 37%, saying that U.S. involvement there was a mistake, up slightly from a year ago. At the same time, a record high 61% of Americans say things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan.



McChrystal's recent report to his bosses on the status of the war in Afghanistan has not been made public, but its arrival at the Pentagon has been accompanied by speculation that McChrystal will most likely request an increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the weeks ahead. Several news stories near the end of last week indicated that Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be open to the idea of an increase in troops, although there are also reports that other advisers to President Barack Obama are against troop increases.

Gallup has asked the "mistake" question about Afghanistan nine times since President George W. Bush first deployed troops there in October 2001. Public sentiment that involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake was 9% in November 2001, then fell to 6% in January 2002, but reached 25% in 2004. Since August 2008, Gallup has consistently found 30% or more of Americans saying it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan, with the current 37% reading just slightly above the 34% recorded a year ago and the 36% reading in July of this year. Sixty-one percent say that U.S. involvement was not a mistake.

This majority support for the concept of the Afghanistan war does not mean Americans are positive in their assessment of how things are going at the current time for the U.S. The 61% of Americans who say the war is going badly is the most negative assessment of the war over the six times Gallup has asked this question in its regular polling.

A year ago, 55% said the war was going badly. In July of this year this negative assessment had dropped to 43%.

The fact that the American public still believes the U.S. did the right thing becoming in militarily involved in Afghanistan, while acknowledging that things are going badly at the moment, contrasts with Americans' attitudes about Iraq, which form essentially the opposite pattern. In July, Gallup found a majority of Americans saying things are going well for the U.S. in Iraq, but that a majority also continues to believe that U.S. involvement in that country was a mistake.

The Obama administration inherited U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from the Bush administration, under whose watch the war was initiated and pursued for over seven years. Still, at this point Afghanistan is a war managed by a Democratic administration, and Obama may well make a decision to expand U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in the weeks ahead. He would do so even as a slight majority of rank and file Democrats across the country says that the decision to be involved in Afghanistan was a mistake. A strong majority of Republicans, on the other hand, disagree. Independents do not think the war was a mistake by about a 2-1 margin.


Democrats are also more likely than either Republicans or independents to say that things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan, although less than half of all respondents in each of the three partisan groups say that things are going well.



The American public maintains a view of the war in Afghanistan that is distinctly different from its view of the situation in Iraq. Americans continue to believe that U.S. involvement in Iraq was a mistake, even as they acknowledge that things are going well there. By contrast, the majority of Americans in Gallup's most recent poll believe that the Afghanistan war was not a mistake, even though most agree that, at this juncture, things are going badly there for the U.S.

The next major step in Afghanistan could be a decision to send additional U.S. troops to that region of the world. Since most Americans accept that involvement there was the correct decision, it could be argued that Americans would be amenable to the idea of expanding troop presence there. Still, the reaction of the public to such a decision will need to be monitored.

On a more specific political level, Obama and his advisors may soon face a difficult situation given that rank and file Democrats are more likely to say that U.S. involvement in the war has been a mistake.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,026 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 31-Sep. 2, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 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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