December 3, 2009

U.S. Seen as Less Important, China as More Powerful

Section 6: Opinions about Afghanistan and Iraq

During a time when the Obama administration is pivoting the U.S. military’s focus from the conflict in Iraq to the one in Afghanistan, majorities of the American public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations express positive expectations for the future stability of Iraq. There is less optimism about the long-term chances for stability in Afghanistan; public opinion is mixed and most CFR members say it is unlikely that Afghanistan can become a country that is stable enough to withstand the threat posed by the Taliban or other extremist groups. However, CFR members, on balance, do think the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be increased; the public is less supportive of a troop increase.

Majorities of both the American public and Council members say things are not going well for the U.S. in Afghanistan, with the CFR members offering a particularly gloomy appraisal. Nine-in-ten CFR members (90%) say the U.S. military effort there is not going well; a smaller majority of the public (57%) agrees with this view.

Despite their assessments of the current situation, the vast majority (87%) of CFR members say the initial decision to use force in Afghanistan was correct. Among the public, support for that decision has slipped over the course of the year from 64% in January to 56% now.

The public and foreign policy opinion leaders offer different opinions on the size of the U.S. military force needed in Afghanistan. Half of Council members (50%) say that the number of troops should be increased, about one-in-four (24%) support a reduction in troop strength and 19% favor keeping troop levels as they are now.

The public offers less support for a troop increase in Afghanistan – just 32% favor sending more troops while four-in-ten (40%) say that the number of troops should be decreased. As with Council members, a smaller minority (19%) favors no change. Among the public at large, the percentage of Republicans who support a troop increase is more than double that of Democrats (48% vs. 21%). (For more on public opinion on Afghanistan from this survey see “A Year Out, Widespread Anti-Incumbent Sentiment” released Nov. 11, 2009).

Strengthening Afghan Security Forces

When asked about the possibility that Afghanistan could become stable enough to withstand the threat posed by the Taliban or other extremist groups, most CFR members (57%) say this is not too (45%) or not at all likely (12%) to happen. That compares with 41% who say that stability in Afghanistan over the long run is very (2%) or somewhat (39%) likely. The public is evenly divided on the question of stability in Afghanistan: 46% say that the nation is very (10%) or somewhat likely (36%) to become stable enough to withstand the threat posed by extremist groups, while roughly the same percentage (47%) says that this is not too (29%) or not at all (18%) likely in the long run.

Council members were asked to judge the relative importance of several political, economic and social factors to making Afghanistan stable enough to withstand these threats. Strengthening security and establishing a stable economy were rated as the most important steps. Eight-in-ten CFR members (80%) say that that strengthening Afghan security forces is very important to withstanding extremists and 74% say that establishing a stable economy is very important.

By contrast, just 21% of foreign policy opinion leaders say that establishing a democratic government in Afghanistan is very important to the long term stability of the country. More than four-in-ten (43%) say that democratic government is somewhat important, while a third (33%) say this is not too or not at all important to withstanding the threat posed by extremist groups over the long term. Of the factors asked about, the one seen as least important to the effort to stabilize the nation is capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. Just 14% say this is a very important step to take, and 31% say it is somewhat important. Half of CFR members (50%) say capturing or killing bin Laden is not too or not at all important.

For four-in-ten CFR members (41%), establishing political and educational rights for women is viewed as very important to a stable Afghanistan, while about as many (40%) say this is somewhat important. Few (16%) say this is not too or not at all important. Opinions on this among Council members differ by gender. Woman are far more likely than men to rate this as a very important consideration (61% vs. 36%).

Council members are divided over the importance of eliminating the opium trade and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden to the stability of Afghanistan. About one-in-four opinion leaders (26%) say that ending the opium trade is very important to the country’s stability, about half (47%) say this is somewhat important and 22% say it is not too or not at all important.

More See a Stable Future for Iraq than For Afghanistan

Both the general public and CFR members are more optimistic about the prospects for long-term stability in Iraq. Council members are particularly confident about Iraq’s prospects. A solid majority of CFR members (63%) say that Iraq is likely to maintain a stable government after most U.S. forces leave, while 36% say this is unlikely. About half (52%) of the general public is optimistic about Iraq’s long-term stability. By contrast, slightly fewer Americans (46%) say that long-term stability is likely in Afghanistan.

Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say that Iraq is likely to maintain stability after U.S. forces leave (55% vs. 50%). There is more of a partisan divide over Afghanistan’s prospects – 58% of Republicans believe Afghanistan will ultimately be stable enough to withstand the threat of extremist groups, compared with 46% of Democrats. Independents’ opinions on this question are similar to those of Democrats; 41% of independents say that Afghanistan is very or somewhat likely to withstand extremist threats in the long run.

Exiting Iraq

Under the Obama administration’s plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq, American forces are slowly leaving the country and there are fewer new deployments. About half (49%) of the American public and the vast majority of CFR members (80%) say Barack Obama is handling the withdrawal of troops about right. Among the public, nearly twice as many say Obama is removing troops too quickly (29%) as say that the drawdown is not quick enough (15%).

Democrats (58%) and independents (49%) are more likely than Republicans (35%) to say Obama’s approach to troop levels in Iraq is about right. Most Republicans are critical of Obama’s approach. About as many in the GOP say he is moving too quickly (31%) as say he is not bringing troops out quickly enough (26%).

Council on Foreign Relations members support a longer timeline than the general public when it comes to how long U.S. troops should remain in Iraq. About two-thirds (65%) of the public think most troops should be out of Iraq within the next two years, while 26% think troops should remain for two years or longer. Among CFR members, about half (51%) support a time frame of less than two years, and 45% say that a significant number of troops should remain in Iraq two years or more.

For both the general public and Council members there are stark partisan differences about how much longer to keep troops in Iraq. Among the public, 77% of Democrats and 65% of independents say most troops should be out of Iraq in less than two years, compared with 53% of Republicans. About a third (35%) of Republicans support a longer stay. Partisan divisions are even more pronounced among CFR members. About six-in-ten (61%) Democratic or Democratic-leaning Council members think that most troops should leave Iraq in less than two years. By contrast, about three-quarters (73%) of Republican or Republican-leaning CFR members say that a significant number of U.S. troops should remain in Iraq for two years or longer.