When and Why Did Americans Turn Against the War in Afghanistan?

Tracking the long, slow reversal of public opinion, as President Obama announces the beginning of a U.S. drawdown

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President Obama's announcement of a drawdown in Afghanistan comes on the same day as a notable development in public opinion: For the first time since 2001, a majority of Americans want U.S. troops to simply come home immediately.

The Pew Research Center announced that datum with its latest survey Wednesday morning, accompanied by this chart:

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This marks a slow but drastic reversal in Americans' faith the war, which was greeted with near-unanimous support in the wake of 9/11. In October 2001, CBS reported that 87 percent of Americans supported going to war. It's rare that so much of the country agrees on anything so thoroughly.

How did we get here? Was there a moment when opinion shifted drastically? What caused the public to see things so differently?

Americans' opinions changed slowly and steadily, not all at once, according to Gallup's data. That firm has asked, since 2002, whether or not going to war in Afghanistan was a "mistake" -- a question not directly relevant to Americans' thoughts on what to do next, but one that can be used loosely to gauge sentiment nonetheless. And the turn has been mostly gradual and linear:

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Opinion jumped twice, in the election years, of 2008 and 2010, but not by much

The war started to become legitimately unpopular in 2006, but a majority still supported it until 2010. Last year, multiple polling firms first showed over 50 percent of Americans opposing the war. This graph from Huffington Post Polling Editor Mark Blumenthal looks at war opposition figures from three respected pollsters:

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When President Obama announced, in December of 2009, that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the public supported it. CNN showed 59 percent backing Obama's plan, even as 54 percent opposed the war in general. A slim majority seemed comfortable with the notion of sending more troops to improve the situation in Afghanistan and hopefully create conditions that would allow the U.S. to leave.

In announcing that "surge," Obama also set July 2011 as a date for U.S. withdrawal to begin. Since then, a major political question has hovered over his presidency, namely how fast that withdrawal would happen, and how the public would react.

Until Obama's plan is implemented, and until the fallout arrives, the best we can do is consider why America soured on the war. Here are a few speculative reasons why opinion turned:

  • Ten years of fighting. The war has been going on for nearly a decade, and has gone badly at times. No one likes protracted wars that cost lives and money. The public sees the war going much worse now than it once did. A 48-percent plurality of Americans thought the war was going well in February 2008, according to Pew, while 41 percent thought it was going badly. Opinion was split evenly in January 2009. Now, 53 percent say the war is going badly, while 40 percent say it's going well, according to Pew. (Data via PollingReport.com)
  • More troops, more casualties. America has gradually sent more troops to Afghanistan since 2001, and American casualties have risen along with those totals. National Journal's Brian McGill compiled these graphs of each (go to National Journal's story for larger, interactive versions):
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  • A Taliban resurgence. In the last few years, we've heard a lot of bad news coming out of Afghanistan. In November 2007, the Guardian reported on an independent study finding that the Taliban was regaining control of Afghanistan and had established a "permanent" presence in 54 percent of the country. Difficulties have been acknowledged by U.S. officials, as Gen. David Petraeus reported to Congress in March that security gains in Afghanistan were "fragile and reversible." After U.S. forces seemed to topple the Taliban with ease at the war's outset, difficult realities have set in over the last few years.
  • Doubts over the viability of Afghanistan's government. In January 2006, 52 percent of respondents told Pew that American efforts to build a stable democracy in Afghanistan had been mostly a success, while only 32 percent said those efforts had mostly failed. Today, the story is quite different. As a majority turned against the war, newspapers published stories about assassination attempts, bombs in Kabul, and President Hamid Karzai's alleged emotional instability. Today, 56 percent say it is unlikely that Afghanistan will be able to maintain a stable government after most U.S. forces leave, while 38 percent say it is likely they will be able to, according to the report Pew released on Wednesday.

Image credit: U.S. Army/Flickr