By a margin of 63 percent disapproval to 33 percent approval, respondents rejected a description of the deal that will include a US troop presence and billions of dollars in monetary support for Afghan forces in the decade after 2014, according to a Monitor/TIPP poll conducted April 27 to May 4.
Unusually for a key issue facing Americans in an election year, the lack of support was bipartisan, showing only small differences across the ideological spectrum. However, with few national politicians dissenting on the broad outlines of the Afghanistan policy, the popular unhappiness has few immediately discernable political consequences.
Some of the polling was done before Mr. Obama had a chance to outline his case for the deal in a national televised address on May 1, the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In that address, Obama presented the partnership as enabling a withdrawal of most US forces by 2014 while still safeguarding Afghanistan in the long-term from a return of Al Qaeda.
“The agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: As you stand up, you will not stand alone,” said Obama. “Within this framework, we will work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counterterrorism and continued training.”
Under the 10-year agreement, US forces would have access to Afghan bases beyond 2014 for training Afghans and hunting Al Qaeda. The US commits to ask Congress annually to help pay for Afghanistan’s security forces, whose cost outstrips the country’s budget.
The agreement does not spell out US troop numbers or dollar figures. However, estimates for the yearly cost of sustaining the Afghan forces envisioned after 2014 are upwards of $4 billion. US and Afghan officials have suggested the US will pay several billion dollars a year annually, with the rest coming from the Afghans and from NATO partners.
In his address, Obama conceded Americans were tired of the war. “Others will ask why we don’t leave immediately. That answer is also clear: we must give Afghanistan the opportunity to stabilize. Otherwise our gains could be lost, and Al Qaeda could establish itself once more.”
Since the summer of 2010, however, tracking polls from the Pew Research Center show a majority of Americans want US troops to come home from Afghanistan “as soon as possible” rather than stay “until the situation is stabilized.” Pew’s most recent poll in mid-April found a 60 to 32 split for leaving now. That split resembles closely the new Monitor/TIPP poll on the strategic partnership deal.
Respondents in the TIPP poll were asked: “The US plans to remove most American forces from Afghanistan by 2014. To help Afghanistan after 2014, the US will sign a 10-year deal that keeps some US troops there and the US will also spend several billion dollars a year on the Afghan military. Do you approve or disapprove of such US involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2014?”
Among Democrats, 13 percent strongly approved, 17 percent somewhat approved, 19 percent somewhat disapproved, and 46 percent strongly disapproved. Among Republicans, the percentages skewed only slightly more positive, 15, 22, 20, and 38, respectively. For independents, the percentages were 12, 21, 15, and 49.
The margin of error was plus/minus 3.3 percentage points.
Few discernible trends were noted between races, genders, or types of hometown. Older Americans were substantially more likely to strongly disapprove of the deal. Cohorts under age 45 registered strong disapproval in the 30 percent range, while more than 50 percent of those over 45 strongly disapproved.
Such broad dissent raises questions about whether the president has a democratic mandate to commit the US to a long-term deal. But the most contentious issues – troop numbers and dollar figures – will involve consulting Congress.
Despite its unpopularity, America’s longest war has not stirred the intensity of passions that surrounded the Iraq war. Only small numbers have taken protests into the streets, with expressions of dissent mostly limited to social media efforts from groups like Rethink Afghanistan.
War protesters and members of the Occupy movement are planning to converge on Chicago ahead of a NATO summit on Afghanistan scheduled for May 20. At that summit, the US will ask its NATO partners to commit to covering some of the costs of Afghan security forces post-2014.
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