Success Matters: Public Opinion and the War in Afghanistan

From Gallup’s new poll on public support for the Afghan deployment, “Americans Tilt Against Sending More Troops to Afghanistan“:

Americans are more likely to say they would oppose (50%) rather than favor (41%) a possible decision by President Barack Obama to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

The possibility that Obama will need to make a decision on U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan has increased in recent weeks, amid reports that the senior American military commander in Afghanistan — Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal — is preparing to deliver a formal request for additional troops in Afghanistan, perhaps by the end of this week.

As noted by Gallup, the military wants more troops, and there’s been speculation that the Obama administration is facing a crisis of civil-military relations over appropriate troop levels in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has asked from more troops and has stated that the U.S. will lose the war without them (and there’s speculation that McChrystal will resign if the administration refuses to provide the necessary resources). This morning’s papers report on the meeting Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. See, the Wall Street Journal, “Afghan Troop Request Simmers,” and the Washington Post, “U.S. Military Leaders Discuss Troop Needs for Afghanistan.”

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The conflict has been heating up and U.S. forces have taken heavy casualties of late. And, increasing battle deaths are being used by our enemies to help drain public support for the deployment. As the Journal‘s article notes:

Five U.S. troops were killed in volatile southern Afghanistan Thursday, part of a surge of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troop fatalities that is sapping public support for the war in the U.S. and Europe.

Thursday’s casualties pushed the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan to 218 this year, including 36 this month, a sharp increase over last year’s record toll of 155. Britain, which maintains the second-largest troop contingent, has lost 80 soldiers this year ….

Osama bin Laden, the fugitive head of al Qaeda, apparently sought to seize on the war’s unpopularity in Europe by releasing a recording Friday demanding that European nations withdraw troops and threatening attacks against European targets. U.S. officials said they believed the recording to be authentic.

Of course, American leftists are in alliance with our enemies in pushing for a precipitous redeployment from Afghanistan. According to Bob Herbert, citing the latest New York Times survey:

Americans are tired of the war. Some of the young people currently being outfitted for combat were just 10 or 11 years old when Al Qaeda struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. They are heading off to a conflict that most Americans are no longer interested in. The difference between the public’s take on this war and that of the nation’s top civilian and military leadership is both stunning and ominous.

A clash is coming. President Obama may be reconsidering his idea of substantially increasing the number of American troops, but no one at the higher echelons of government is suggesting that anything other than a long, hard, tragic and expensive campaign lies ahead – with no promise of ultimate victory, or even a serious definition of what would constitute victory.

And citing Herbert, Steve Hynd of Newshoggers, a blog that cheered the use of female Downs syndrome suicide bombers in Iraq, claims:

The nation has already come to the conclusion that continued escalation of the occupation of Afghanistan is not in its interest and the President seems to be teetering on the brink of admitting the same thing, if only to himself.

Plus, Spencer Ackerman, the hardline leftist blogger who called for President Bush’s excecution in 2008, during the height of the Petraeus surge in Iraq, published a report last week attacking Kimberly and Frederick Kagan’s call for a troop increase, “You’re Never Going to Believe This, But the Kagans Want to Add At Least 40,000 Troops to Afghanistan.”

What’s missing here are real facts and context. Public opinion has not turned irrevocably against the war, despite leftist claims to the contrary. There’s no big push for an immediate of U.S. forces for the mission, and the fate of the deployment is largely in the hands of President Obama, who must exercise leadership. As Kenneth Davenport has noted:

No war effort can be successful without the president — the Commander in Chief — reminding the American people daily about the importance of doing the HARD thing. You can’t spend 99% of your time selling an unnecessary government takeover of health care and then 1% talking about Afghanistan and expect the people to see it as vitally important.

Exactly. And a strong presidential public relations campaign combined with a renewed military effort will likely guarantee victory in Afghanistan. For example, academic political science research shows, success matters. As Duke University political scientist Christopher Gelpi has noted at Foreign Affairs:

Public support for U.S. military operations … does not inexorably decrease like sand flowing through an hourglass. Instead, the American public regularly makes judgments about the potential costs and benefits of a military operation. As the likelihood of obtaining any benefits diminishes, the human cost of war becomes less tolerable, and casualties reduce support for the operation. On the other hand, if and when the public is optimistic about a successful outcome, it is far more willing to bear the human cost of war.

And here’s Gelpi from a more detailed research report:

Consistent with much of the recent work on public opinion in wartime, we find that members of the public appear to be engaging in simple but clear calculations about the expected value of continuing to engage in armed conflict. That is, individuals make judgments about the potential benefits of the conflict and weigh those potential gains by the probability that their government will be able to achieve them.

More specifically, our findings suggest that believing the war was the “right thing
to do” combines with expectations of success to determine an individual’s tolerance for the human costs of war. Once one takes account of the interaction of these two attitudes, other prominent variables in the literature have only a modest direct impact on casualty tolerance. This interaction effect even outweighs the independent impact of partisanship. Rather than implying that those other factors are not important, however, it seems likely that many of the variables identified in the literature — such as the partisan cues, primary policy objective, elite consensus, and multilateral support — may be most important through their impact on respondent’s views about the “rightness” of the war and the prospects for success.

Significantly, events on the ground in Iraq – on the heels of the Bush/Petraeus surge in 2007-2008 – provide moderate support for the Gelpi hypothesis. See Newsbusters, “Poll: 41% Say Iraq War Succeeding, 48% Say Will Get Even Better.” Also, Ed Morrissey, ” “The Surge Has Worked”.”

There’s no reason to believe that a renewed political and military focus by the Obama administration would fail to bring about success in Afghanistan. Contrary to radical naysayers, we do have a definition of victory in Afghanistan, as well as a strategy to bring it about. On war aims and military strategy, see my report, “Reconciliation and Resolve in Afghanistan. And on the doctrinal case for increased ground forces, see Kimberly Kagan and Frederick Kagan, “A Comprehensive Strategy for Afghanistan: Afghanistan Force Requirements.”

Cross-posted from American Power.

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