In U.S., More Support for Increasing Troops in Afghanistan

by Frank Newport

Americans now tilt slightly toward sending in new troops as opposed to reducing number

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans over the last two weeks have become slightly more likely to favor sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, and slightly less likely to favor a reduction in forces. At this point, 47% of Americans would advise President Obama to increase the number of U.S. troops -- either by the roughly 40,000 recommended by the commanding general in Afghanistan or by a smaller amount -- while 39% would advise Obama to reduce the number of troops. Another 9% would opt to leave troop levels as they are, while 5% have no opinion.

Which of the Following Would You Like to See President Obama Do Regarding the Number of Troops in Afghanistan? 2009 Trend

"Since August 2008, between 30% and 37% of Americans have said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan. Sixty percent in the current poll say U.S. involvement was not a mistake."

President Obama on Tuesday announced that he will present his new "comprehensive strategy" on Afghanistan to the American people early next week. Obama gave no indication of exactly what he will recommend. Media reports suggest that Obama's strategy will probably include the addition of at least some new U.S. troops. It is not known whether that number will approach the 40,000 new troops the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has recommended.

The question in the Nov. 20-22 USA Today/Gallup poll gives respondents four choices and asks them to indicate which action they would most like to see President Obama take.

Asked the same question earlier in November, Americans tilted toward the troop-reduction option over the troop-increase option, 44% to 42%. Now, the data tilt in the other direction. Those who want a troop increase outnumber those who want a reduction, 47% to 39%.

Despite these modest shifts, the data continue to show that less than half of Americans would support an Obama decision to increase troops. Similarly, slightly less than half would support a decision to leave things unchanged (9%) or to begin to withdraw troops (39%). In short, Americans remain split on the volatile subject of what to do in Afghanistan.

Republicans have historically been more supportive than Democrats of American involvement in Afghanistan. That partisan distinction continues. The majority of Democrats currently favor a reduction of troops; the majority of Republicans favor a troop increase. Independents tilt more toward the Republican position.

Preference for U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, by Political Party

Views on Afghanistan More Broadly

President Obama is making decisions on Afghanistan at a time when Americans' perceptions that the war there is going badly for the U.S. have reached a new high. A record 66% of Americans now say things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan, up from 61% in early September. At the same time, 36% say U.S. involvement was a mistake, unchanged from views over the summer.

2006-2009 Trend: How Would You Say Things Are Going for the U.S. in Afghanistan?

2001-2009 Trend: Did the U.S. Make a Mistake in Sending Military Forces to Afghanistan, or Not?

Support for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was very high in November 2001, shortly after then-President George W. Bush first sent U.S. troops there in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Nine percent said sending troops was a mistake, a percentage that fell to 6% in January 2002. Perceptions that U.S. involvement was a mistake rose thereafter, albeit modestly. Since August 2008, between 30% and 37% of Americans have said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan. Sixty percent in the current poll say U.S. involvement was not a mistake.

Gallup first asked Americans to assess the way things were going in Afghanistan in 2006, at which time slightly less than half said the war was going badly for the U.S. Perceptions that the war was going badly increased to above 50% in three polls in 2008 and early 2009, only to fall to a new low of 43% in July of this year. Views on the war became sharply more negative near the end of the summer -- by early September, 61% said the war was going badly. Now, 66% of Americans share a negative view of the way the war is going for the U.S.

President Obama is making his decision on Afghanistan in the context of a split opinion on the war among those who identify with his own party. Fifty percent of Democrats say the war in Afghanistan has been a mistake, while 47% say it has not. Republicans overwhelmingly reject the idea that the war was a mistake. Independents echo the Republican view that it was not a mistake, though their views are more evenly divided.

Did the U.S. Make a Mistake in Sending Military Forces to Afghanistan, or Not? By Party ID


President Obama's decision on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan will be one of the most important of his first year -- if not his first term -- as president. If, as expected, the president decides to "stay the course" in Afghanistan, he will be doing so with the understanding that most Americans agree that U.S. involvement there is warranted. At the same time, the majority of Americans now perceive that the situation there is going badly for the U.S., perhaps helping explain Americans' increased willingness to sanction sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Still, Obama will have less-than-majority support if he increases the number of U.S. troops in that country. This underscores the political sensitivity of any decision he makes on Afghanistan, particularly given that those who identify with his own party are solidly against sending in new troops.

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Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 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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