In our survey, we included an experiment. One group of 619 respondents, the control group, received no additional information about the war in Afghanistan; they answered questions solely based on their own knowledge of the situation. Another group of 584 respondents read a paragraph telling them that the United States had achieved none of its strategic goals, and that it was clear the U.S. had lost the war in Afghanistan. A final group of 574 respondents read a paragraph telling them that no large-scale terrorist attacks have occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11, and that the U.S. may soon be able to declare victory in Afghanistan.
For civilians who were not veterans, the effects of these treatments were modest. Compared with the control group, civilian respondents who were told the war was a U.S. defeat were 6 percentage points less supportive of a potential troop withdrawal (49 percent), and those who were told the war was a victory were a negligible 2 percentage points more likely to support a troop withdrawal (57 percent). For veterans, however, the effects were large and significant. When told the United States had lost the war in Afghanistan, veteran and active-duty support for troop withdrawal dropped 13 points, to 46 percent overall. When told the U.S. could declare victory, veteran and military support increased 11 points, to 70 percent.
Third, and perhaps most important, the perception that the U.S. is cutting a deal and leaving Afghanistan in defeat could have a lasting, negative impact on American civil-military relations if such a narrative takes hold. A final deal has remained elusive because the Taliban has allegedly not yet agreed to denounce al-Qaeda or provide all the counterterrorism assurances U.S. negotiators have requested. The terms of a potential deal likely will shape how civilians and military will view the end of the Afghan War.
In our survey, we asked some respondents whether civilian leaders, military leaders, or America’s enemies deserved the blame for the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we asked other respondents who deserved the credit. When veterans were told the U.S. won the war in Afghanistan, more of them gave civilian leaders credit, and fewer of them gave military leaders credit. In victory, nonveteran civilians were similarly charitable toward the military; more of them gave military leaders credit, and fewer credited civilians.
When told the United States had lost the war in Afghanistan, however, civilian and veteran opinions polarized. Veterans were more likely to blame civilian leaders. Fewer civilians blamed civilian leaders, and more blamed military leaders. Moreover, the percentage of civilians expressing confidence in the military dropped by almost 10 points, from 75 to 66 percent, a lower level of public confidence in the military than at any time since 9/11. Among the control group of respondents who weren’t told the United States had won or lost in Afghanistan, 74 percent of civilians and 90 percent of veterans expressed confidence in the military. That civilian-military gap nearly doubled among those respondents who were told the U.S. had lost. Older veterans were particularly likely to blame civilians and express confidence in the military.