On what issue has support for President Obama dropped most sharply over the summer? Health care, right? No. Maybe the economy? No, again. The answer is the war in Afghanistan.
In a CNN poll taken at the end of August by Opinion Research, Obama's overall job-approval rating was 53 percent, down 11 points from March. Support for his handling of the economy was down 10 points. Health care, down 13. The war in Afghanistan? A steep, 18-point slide (from 67 percent to 49 percent).
Public opposition to the Afghanistan war has climbed steadily with rising casualties. In April, 46 percent of Americans said they opposed the war. In May, 48 percent. In July, 54 percent. And now a solid majority of the country, 57 percent, stands in opposition.
Americans are fighting and dying for a government that steals elections?
The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years. But to many Americans, this seems like a new war. Afghanistan was front and center for a few months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. U.S.-led military strikes began in October 2001. By December of that year, the Taliban regime was out of power. For the next five years, Iraq dominated the U.S. foreign policy agenda; Afghanistan became the forgotten war.
Now Iraq is becoming the forgotten war, even though 130,000 U.S. troops are still on the ground there. Suddenly, starting with Obama's decision to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan early this year, the fighting there is grabbing the public's attention. The president describes U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a "war of necessity" rather than a "war of choice," like Iraq. But the necessity was eight years ago, after 9/11.
To liberals, Iraq was always the bad war and Afghanistan the good war, endorsed by our NATO allies. But the Iraq experience has heightened disillusionment about U.S. military engagements, especially because the number of U.S. casualties is rising sharply in Afghanistan: This year is the deadliest for allied forces there since 2001. The number of bomb attacks has nearly quadrupled this year. The Taliban is resurgent in southern Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, contends that the situation is "serious, but success is achievable." But asked whether the United States is winning that war, 62 percent of Americans say no.
Obama's liberal base is abandoning him on Afghanistan. Opposition to the war grew fastest among Democrats in the CNN poll, from 55 percent in April to a whopping 73 percent now. What has changed is not the nature of the enemy. The Taliban and Al Qaeda remain perfect enemies for Americans -- barbaric, intolerant, and threatening. What has changed is the nature of the war. It started out as a limited counter-terrorism campaign but has turned into a difficult and costly exercise in nation building.
According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the headline of McChrystal's classified counterinsurgency strategy reads, "Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy." That's a political war, the kind Americans hate. Once again, the United States is fighting to build confidence in the government of another country, just as it tried to do in Vietnam and Iraq.
Last month's presidential election in Afghanistan was supposed to solidify popular support for the Karzai government. Instead, it raised issues of fraud and mismanagement and threw a shadow over that administration's legitimacy. Americans are fighting and dying for a government that steals elections?
Obama will have to make a choice between two courses of action in Afghanistan. He can revert to a narrow counter-terrorism effort or pursue a broader policy of nation building with more U.S. forces. If he decides to expand America's troop commitment, the anti-war movement is planning to challenge him this fall. The leader of U.S. Labor Against the War, Michael Eisenscher, warned in an interview with The New York Times, "President Obama risks his entire domestic agenda, just as [President] Johnson did in Vietnam, in pursuing this course of action in Afghanistan." Who is with Obama on Afghanistan? The answer, at this point, is mostly Republicans.
This article appears in the September 12, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.