WASHINGTON – Support for the war in Afghanistan has reached a new low, with only 27 percent of Americans saying they back the effort and about half of those who oppose the war saying the continued presence of American troops in Afghanistan is doing more harm than good, according to an AP-GfK poll.
In results released Wednesday, 66 percent opposed the war, with 40 percent saying they were "strongly" opposed. A year ago, 37 percent favored the war, and in the spring of 2010, support was at 46 percent. Eight percent strongly supported the war in the new poll.
The poll found that far fewer people than last year think the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. troops increased the threat of terrorism against Americans. Overall, 27 percent say the al-Qaida leader's death resulted in an increased terror threat, 31 percent believe his death decreased the threat of terrorism and 38 percent say it has had no effect. The poll was conducted before the revelation this week of a recent al-Qaida plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner with an underwear bomb.
Chris Solomon, an independent from Fuquay-Varina, N.C., is among the respondents who strongly oppose the war. He said the military mission has reached the limits of its ability to help Afghans or make Americans any safer, and he would close down the war immediately if he could. While the rationale for the war is to fight al-Qaida, most of the day-to-day combat is against an entrenched Taliban insurgency that will outlast the foreign fighters, he said.
"What are we really doing there? Who are we helping?" he said in an interview.
Yet nearly half, 48 percent, said the continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is doing more to help Afghanistan become a stable democracy, while 36 percent said the opposite and 14 percent said they didn't know. Among those opposed to the war, 49 percent say U.S. troops are hurting more than helping. Three-quarters of those who favor the war think they are doing more to help.
Republicans are most apt to see U.S. forces as helping, with 56 percent saying so, followed by 47 percent of Democrats. Among independents, more say troops are hurting Afghanistan's efforts to become a stable democracy (43 percent) than helping (32 percent).
President Barack Obama has promised to keep fighting forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, despite the declining popular support. The effort to hand off primary responsibility for fighting the war to Afghan soldiers will be the main focus of a gathering of NATO leaders that Obama will host later this month in Chicago.
That shift away from front-line combat is expected to come next year, largely in response to growing opposition to the war in the United States and among NATO allies fighting alongside about 88,000 U.S. forces. The shift makes some military commanders uneasy, as does any suggestion that the U.S. fighting force be cut rapidly next year. Obama has promised a steady drawdown.
Obama acknowledged the rising frustration during a surprise visit to Afghanistan last week. He signed a 10-year security pact with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and congratulated U.S. troops on the anniversary of bin Laden's death. He told troops that he is ending the war but that more of their friends will die before it is over.
"I recognize that many Americans are tired of war," he said then. "I will not keep Americans in harm's way a single day longer than is absolutely required for our national security. But we must finish the job we started in Afghanistan and end this war responsibly."
As of Tuesday, at least 1,834 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count.
Obama has argued that his persistence in hunting down bin Laden is one reason to re-elect him, and his on-time handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is another.
Obama closed down the Iraq war on the timetable set when he took office and expanded the Afghan fight that had been neglected in favor of Iraq. He is now scaling back in Afghanistan, bringing troops home by the tens of thousands. A small U.S. counterterrorism and training force may remain in the country after 2014.
But in a trend that complicates discussion of the war in this year's presidential campaign, support for the war is plummeting even among Republicans. People who identified themselves as Republicans backed the war at 37 percent, down from 58 percent a year ago.
Among Democrats, support dropped from 30 percent last year to 19 percent now. About a quarter, 27 percent, of independents favor the effort, similar to the level last year.
The war, which will be in its 12th year on Election Day in November, has an inconclusive balance sheet at best.
It has brought greater security to many parts of the impoverished country strategically situated between Iran and Pakistan, and largely flushed the al-Qaida terror network from its former training ground.
But the war has failed to break the Taliban-led insurgency or pressure the insurgents to begin serious peace negotiations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The civilian government has not capitalized on the elbow room that more than 100,000 foreign fighting forces provided to build up its own ability to govern the entire country and push the Taliban to the political fringe.
Obama was hosting NATO's top officer at the White House on Wednesday to finalize the agenda for NATO leaders. They are trying to show that NATO nations are committed to keep fighting now but will stick to the plan agreed at the last leaders' summit in 2010 to end the war by 2015. But the summit will be a national security debut for France's new Socialist leader, Francois Hollande, who has vowed to pull French troops out by the end of this year. That's two years earlier than the rest of the alliance has pledged.
Slightly more than half of Americans, 53 percent, said they approve of Obama's handling of the war, while 42 percent disapprove. Obama hit a high mark in AP-GfK polling on that question a year ago, just after the killing of bin Laden. Then, 65 percent said they approved of his handling of the situation in Afghanistan.
The poll showed 64 percent approve of Obama's handling of terrorism issues, and 31 percent disapprove.
Elizabeth Kabalka of Chattanooga, Tenn., said she somewhat approves of the war and is generally pleased by Obama's handling of it. An independent voter, she said Obama is doing about as well managing the war as anyone could.
"He's got a really crappy job," she said. "I've been pleased with him. He's really tried to stick to a position."
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted May 3-7 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,004 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.