President Obama finds himself in a precarious position when calling for escalation of the war in Afghanistan. While this conflict is traditionally seen as the “good war,” American and Afghan public support appears mixed at best. There is good reason to suspect that the limited support for war that exists will evaporate after casualties on both sides increase and Afghanistan’s security further deteriorates.
A significant problem we run into when assessing the war is the tremendous lack of information available about Americans’ reasons for opposing war. Scholars note the tendency of polling firms to “socially construct” public opinion by refusing to ask questions about Americans’ moral challenges to U.S. foreign policy. Benjamin Ginsberg argues in The Captive Public that “polls generally raise questions that are of interest to clients and purchasers of poll data – newspapers, political candidates, governmental agencies, and business corporations…questions of no immediate relevance to government, business, or politicians will not easily find their way into the surveys. This is particularly true of issues such as the validity of the capitalist economic system, or the legitimacy of governmental authority, issues that business and government prefer not to see raised at all, much less at their own expense.”
In the case of Afghanistan, polls ask whether the war is “worth fighting” – “considering the costs” – and whether the U.S. is “winning or losing.” Surveys ask Americans “how well the military effort is going,” with the primary concern being whether the war is winnable.
Pollsters ask respondents whether they support increases in U.S. forces and whether they support the war. They don’t probe Americans about their concerns for Afghan civilian casualties that are caused by U.S. bombing, about whether war can realistically be used to promote humanitarianism, or about whether they would support an end to the conflict if the Afghan people demand it. Many questions might be asked to determine whether Americans accept foundational challenges to U.S. policy, but none of these questions are seen as worthy of exploration.
Americans are uneasy about escalation in Afghanistan. As of August 2009, an ABC-Washington Post poll finds that 51 percent of Americans think the war is not “worth fighting.” The same poll finds that just 24 percent support an increase in U.S. forces; 45 percent support a reduction, and 32% support the status quo. A July poll by CNN finds that 41 percent favor continuing the Afghan war, while 54 percent oppose it. Americans are increasingly suspicious of promises to fight terrorism through war. They see the United States’ endless reliance on violence as counter-productive and dangerous. A Pew poll from February 2009 finds that 50 percent of Americans feel that reducing U.S. troops abroad will help “reduce terrorism” (just 31 percent support an increase in troops to fight terror). Such opposition has significantly increased since 2002 – in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – when just 29 percent supported a decrease in troops to fight terror.
None of these results should be taken as an indication that Americans oppose violence. Support for escalation in Afghanistan is still supported by many Americans, and pro-war views are more common among men, whites, older Americans, Republicans, and conservatives, and the less educated. The Pew center also finds that, as of July 2009, six in ten Americans support a “CIA program that targets al Qaeda leaders for assassination.”
Supporters of escalation in Washington will be encouraged by the fact that many Afghans support the U.S. presence, but this finding must be carefully qualified. It is true that, according to a February 2009 BBC poll, nearly seven in ten Afghans are happy that the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in 2001, and over six in ten somewhat or strongly support having U.S. forces in Afghanistan. At first glance, this would seem to fit nicely with Obama’s increase of troops. Obama promises to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and their extremist allies,” including the Taliban.
Are these goals compatible with the Afghan public’s wishes? In reality, there is little evidence that Afghans want the U.S. to engage in military activities against Islamic fundamentalists. Afghans want the U.S. in the country – not to bomb “insurgent” targets – but to pursue reconstruction. According to the February BBC poll only 33 percent of Afghans think the U.S. and Afghan government will be successful in their goal to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban. Most think alternative scenarios will play out. Majorities believe one of the following will occur: 1. the Taliban will emerge victorious; 2. fighting will continue with no winner; or 3. the Afghan government will negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. Whatever the solution that emerges, most do not accept the U.S. narrative ending in a victory for Obama and a defeat of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Most Afghans vehemently oppose U.S. violence. 77 percent find it “unacceptable’ for the U.S. to “use air strikes” to “defeat the Taliban and anti-government fighters” – mainly because these attacks “endanger too many innocent civilians.” Afghans are more likely to blame the U.S. for civilian casualties, as opposed to “anti-government forces” that live “among civilians.” Afghan opposition to the occupation is likely to increase as Obama escalates the conflict, considering that the mandate is not for a new bombing campaign, but for reconstruction. About 65 percent of Afghans currently have not experienced “bombing or shelling by U.S., NATO or ISAF forces.” As U.S. violence spreads to previously unaffected regions, however, the Afghan people will grow increasingly hostile to the occupation.
U.S. officials express little interest in Afghan reconstruction. On the other hand, the Afghan people are more likely to see economic problems, poverty, and the lack of jobs as a bigger problem than the “security” issues stressed by U.S. leaders. According to the BBC poll, seven in ten Afghans judge job availability and economic opportunities as “very” or “somewhat bad.” A majority think that the conditions of the country’s roads, bridges, and infrastructure, and the supply of electricity are “very” or “somewhat bad.” Most admit they have difficulties affording basic goods that they want or need.
Why should anyone be surprised that Afghans resent violent occupation? Is it a revelation that people don’t like being occupied, and seeing their country destroyed – their family and friends killed – in the name of “progress,” “fighting terror,” and “democracy?” As British reporter Patrick Cockburn argues: “In Afghanistan American and British forces became participants in civil wars which their own presence has exacerbated and prolonged. The U.S. and U.K. governments persistently ignore the extent to which foreign military occupation has destabilized Afghanistan… foreign occupations have seldom been popular throughout history. The occupiers consult their own political, military and economic interests before that of the allied governments which they are supposedly supporting. This de-legitimized the Kabul government and enabled its opponents to pose as the patriotic opposition. In addition, foreign military armies, whatever their declared intentions, enforce their authority by violence, invariably producing friction with the local population.” We would do well to take Cockburn’s insights seriously when considering expansion of the war in Afghanistan.
Anthony DiMaggio teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010). He can be reached at email@example.com