September 22, 2009

Public Support for Afghan Mission Slips

But Most See Possible Taliban Takeover as Major Threat

Overview

Public support for keeping U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan has declined since June and Americans express decidedly mixed views about whether the United States is making progress in reducing civilian casualties, defeating the Taliban militarily and establishing democracy in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, a sizable majority of the public (76%) views the possibility of the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan as a major threat to the well-being of the United States. In fact, nearly as many regard the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan as a major threat as say that about Iran possibly developing nuclear weapons (82%).

Currently, half of Americans (50%) say military troops should remain in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized, while 43% favor removing U.S. and NATO troops as soon as possible. In June, 57% favored keeping U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, while 38% favored their removal as soon as possible.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 10-15 among 1,006 adults finds that most Democrats (56%) favor removing troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Just 37% of Democrats say U.S. and NATO troops should remain in the country, down somewhat from the 45% who said this in June. By contrast, Republicans by a wide margin (71% to 25%) continue to favor maintaining U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Opinion among independents mirrors that of the population as a whole; currently, 51% favor keeping U.S. and NATO troops in the country while 43% are opposed.

Since June, there has been a sharp decline in the proportion of those 65 and older who favor maintaining U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Currently, opinion among those 65 and older is split, with 44% in support of keeping the troops there and 41% opposed. In June, people in this age group favored maintaining troops in Afghanistan by approximately two-to-one (63% to 31%).

Little Progress toward Major Goals

The public is skeptical of the progress the United States is making toward meeting many specific objectives in Afghanistan. The only area where the balance of opinion is clearly positive is in training Afghan security forces: 51% say the United States is making progress in training Afghan forces while 28% say it is losing ground. A slight plurality (44%) say the U.S. is making progress in promoting economic development in the country while 35% say that effort is losing ground.

Opinion is evenly divided regarding three major U.S. objectives in Afghanistan: establishing democracy in the country (42% making progress, 41% losing ground); defeating the Taliban militarily (41% making progress, 42% losing ground); and reducing civilian casualties (37% making progress, 43% losing ground).

Republicans’ evaluations of progress in Afghanistan are more positive than those of Democrats or independents. More than six-in-ten Republicans say the United States is making progress in training Afghan security forces, while 21% say it is losing ground. Opinions about progress in this area are more divided, though on balance positive, among Democrats and independents.

By nearly two-to-one (55% to 29%), Republicans say the U.S. is making progress rather than losing ground in defeating the Taliban militarily. But Democrats and independents are divided – and only about four-in-ten in each group see progress toward defeating the Taliban (37% of Democrats, 40% of independents).

In addition, while a plurality of Republicans (47%) say the United States is making progress in reducing civilian casualties in Afghanistan, pluralities of Democrats (46%) and independents (49%) say that United States is losing ground when it comes to reducing civilian casualties.

Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan Viewed as Major Threat

There is greater agreement about the impact of a Taliban takeover on the well-being of the United States. More than eight-in-ten Republicans (84%), 76% of Democrats and 75% of independents say this would represent a major threat to the United States.

Similarly, there are modest partisan differences in views about whether Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would pose a major threat to the U.S. The partisan differences are slightly larger in opinions about a possible takeover by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.