May 3, 2011

More Optimism about Afghanistan, But No Boost in Support for Troop Presence

Overview

The killing of Osama bin Laden has bolstered the public’s confidence on two fronts: that the government can prevent a possible terrorist attack, and that the U.S. will succeed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan.

However, the public’s basic views about U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism in the United States have not fundamentally changed. The public remains divided over whether the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized or should remove the troops as soon as possible.

And just 5% of Americans believe that the death of Osama bin Laden means the terrorism threat is mostly over – 85% say the U.S. will need to take further military actions to reduce the threat of terrorism to the United States.

An overnight survey of 654 adults, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and The Washington Post finds broad concern about the possibility that al Qaeda may attempt a major retaliatory attack against the U.S. Two-thirds say they are at least somewhat concerned al Qaeda will attempt a major attack against the United States as retaliation for bin Laden’s death, though just 22% say they have a great deal of concern about this.

The public is expressing much more confidence in the government’s ability to prevent further terrorist attacks in the U.S. Currently, 62% say they have a great deal (22%) or a good amount (40%) of confidence in the government’s ability to prevent further attacks, up from 44% in a Washington Post/ABC News survey last September.

While Pakistan’s role in the effort to find bin Laden has drawn criticism, a majority (54%) of Americans say they do not know enough to express an opinion about whether Pakistan helped or hurt in this effort. However, many more say Pakistan mostly hurt (34%) rather than mostly helped (8%) U.S. efforts to find bin Laden.

Implications for Afghanistan

There has been a rise in overall optimism about the war in Afghanistan – 63% now say the United States will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals, up from 49% last December. Just 26% say the Afghanistan effort will probably or definitely fail, down from 39%.

This rise in optimism crosses party lines: About two-thirds of Republicans (69%) and Democrats (67%) now say the U.S. will succeed in Afghanistan, both significantly higher than in December (54% and 49%, respectively). A majority of independents (58%) also say the country will succeed (up from 48%).

While the public is more optimistic about success, there is little change in opinion about maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The public remains divided over whether the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized (47%) or remove troops as soon as possible (48%), virtually unchanged from a month ago (44% keep troops, 50% remove troops).

Partisan differences in views about Afghanistan continue; Republicans are about twice as likely to favor keeping troops in Afghanistan than removing them as soon as possible (65% vs. 32%). By contrast, both Democrats (45% keep troops, 50% remove troops) and independents (44% keep troops, 51% remove troops) are divided on this question.

Terrorism Concerns Persist

Two-thirds of Americans say they worry a great deal (22%) or a fair amount (45%) that al Qaeda will attempt a major terrorist attack against the United States as a retaliation for bin Laden’s death. Most Republicans (71%), Democrats (68%) and independents (66%) say they are at least somewhat worried about a retaliatory attack.

The public’s confidence in the government’s ability to prevent a terrorist attack is at one of the highest points in the last decade – 62% say they have a great deal (22%) or a good amount (40%) of confidence that the government can prevent future attacks against Americans. This is up substantially from September 2010 when 44% were confident the government could prevent future terrorist attacks.

Confidence has increased across partisan lines. Currently, more than half of Democrats (68%), independents (65%) and Republicans (55%) express confidence in the government’s ability to prevent future attacks.

Similarly, the public also is optimistic that bin Laden’s death will contribute to the security of the United States. About two-thirds (68%) think that bin Laden’s death will contribute a great deal (22%) or somewhat (46%) to the long-term security of the United States. Three quarters (75%) of Democrats say bin Laden’s death will contribute at least somewhat to long-term U.S. security, as do majorities of independents (68%) and Republicans (59%).

Opinion is more divided about the effect of bin Laden’s death on peace and stability in the Middle East – 51% say his death will help a great deal or somewhat while 45% say it will not help much at all. A majority of Democrats (61%) say bin Laden’s death will contribute at least somewhat to peace and stability in the Middle East while Republicans and independents express more mixed views.

Skepticism about Pakistan’s Role

President Obama noted cooperation with Pakistan as an important factor in finding Osama bin Laden, but some Americans take a skeptical view of Pakistan’s role. Just 8% say the government of Pakistan mostly helped U.S. efforts to find bin Laden, while more (34%) say they mostly hurt efforts; 54% say they don’t know enough to say.

Republicans and independents are more likely than Democrats to say Pakistan mostly hurt efforts to find bin Laden: 46% of Republicans and 41% of independents say this, compared with 26% of Democrats. Few among any partisan group say Pakistan mostly helped U.S. efforts.

Cite this publication: “More Optimism about Afghanistan, But No Boost in Support for Troop Presence.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 3, 2011) http://www.people-press.org/2011/05/03/more-optimism-about-afghanistan-but-no-boost-in-support-for-troop-presence/, accessed on July 22, 2014.