At a time when Americans are deeply divided along party lines, a new poll shows considerable agreement on at least one issue: The United States’ two-decade-long war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.
The poll from the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research comes two years after the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban returned to power. The war was started to go after the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Taliban who allowed them to use Afghan territory.
It ended in frantic scenes of Afghans and Americans desperately trying to get on one of the last flights out of Kabul.
Polls suggest the withdrawal, seen by many as chaotic and ill-planned, may have been a turning point for President Joe Biden’s approval ratings, which started a downward slide around that time and have not recovered since.
Two-thirds of Americans say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting; 65 per cent of Democrats and 63 per cent of Republicans agree on that evaluation. Many have doubts about how successful the U.S. was at accomplishing more specific goals such as eliminating the threat from extremists or improving opportunities for women.
“It was unwinnable from the beginning,” said Martin Stefen, a 78-year-old Republican who lives in Carson City, Nevada. He said the U.S. should have paid closer attention to what happened to the Soviet Union, which waged a decade-long war in Afghanistan during the 1980s only to pull out in defeat in 1989. And, he said, the U.S. should have had a more specific end goal for how it wanted the war in Afghanistan to go and a better understanding of the country’s tribal politics.
That thought was echoed by Justin Campbell, a 28-year-old Democrat from Brookhaven, Mississippi. He said it was clear after the U.S. was entrenched in Afghanistan that it didn’t have very deep support. Campbell said he’s not pleased that the Taliban is back in control.
“But I don’t think it was worth us staying over there,” he said.
Maliha Chishti, a lecturer and research associate at the Pearson Institute, said she was struck by the fact that after 20 years of war, so many American and Afghan lives lost and billions spent, the vast majority said they felt Afghanistan was not friendly to the U.S. or was an outright enemy. She said the responses demonstrate a frustration on the part of Americans and the need to ask questions about what went wrong with America’s attempts to intervene in Afghanistan.
“We invested all of this money to really build a state from scratch and when we left, that state completely collapsed,” she said.
Many Americans also say the United States was not successful with many of its key objectives in Afghanistan.
Eliminating the threat from Islamic extremists in Afghanistan during the war is still seen as an important goal by many across party lines: 46 per cent of Democrats and 44 per cent of Republicans called that highly important. But only about one-quarter in each group said this successfully happened during the war.
Slightly fewer than half — 46 per cent — say the U.S. and its allies were successful at the goal of apprehending or killing the individuals in Afghanistan who were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, compared with 25 per cent who think the U.S. was unsuccessful in achieving that goal.
Only about one in five Americans say the U.S. successfully improved opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan, with 43 per cent saying such efforts were unsuccessful. But many said advancing the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan was important to them. About three quarters said that goal was extremely, very or somewhat important to them. Those figures are similar to the level of support for the goal of eliminating the threat of Islamic extremists sheltering in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban’s return to power, they have restricted women’s rights to education and work and even barred them from public parks.
Women were more likely than men across party lines to call advancing the rights of women in Afghanistan an important goal. Toni Dewey, a 75-year-old Democrat from Wilmington, North Carolina, said she wasn’t sure how much the U.S. could do at this point to improve the rights of women in Afghanistan but she did feel their educational opportunities were greater while America was there.
“I think any population that doesn’t respect their population, they’re missing out because women do contribute to the benefit of everyone,” she said.
Even as Democrats and Republicans have similar views on policy goals for Afghanistan, they differ on whether the U.S. should take a more active role in solving the world’s problems: 55 per cent of Republicans say the U.S. should take a less active role, compared with 15 per cent of Democrats. The responses also demonstrate the ongoing shift in the Republican Party, which has traditionally been more hawkish and interventionist.
Nola Sayne, a 59-year-old Republican from Loganville, Georgia, said she is “wary of the United States being the world’s police.” Up until quite recently she had been supportive of policies limiting American involvement abroad — like the war in Ukraine — to instead focus American attention and funding at home. But the Hamas attack on Israel, which took place after the poll was conducted, is making her rethink that position.
“They are our friends, our allies. We can’t let this heinous act go unanswered,” she said.
When it came to general awareness about issues related to the war in Afghanistan, the poll shows 68 per cent of U.S. adults had heard at least some about the U.S. withdrawal; 59 per cent said the same about the Taliban taking control in 2021; and 64 per cent about the Taliban’s restrictions on women.
But fewer had heard about the treatment by the Taliban of Afghan citizens who worked with the United States during the war; 52 per cent had heard a lot or some information while 47 per cent said they had heard little or not a thing.
The U.S. evacuated tens of thousands of Afghans in an August 2021 airlift from Kabul airport. But hundreds of thousands of Afghans — many who worked closely with the U.S. government — are still trying to flee Afghanistan. Groups helping them have warned that Afghans who worked closely with the U.S. military have faced retribution from the Taliban and say the U.S. has a moral responsibility and national security interest in helping them.
Mike Mitchell is executive director of No One Left Behind, which helps Afghans who worked with the U.S. relocate. He said the poll results echo what his organization has noted anecdotally: Many Americans are surprised to learn that so many Afghans who worked with U.S. troops were left behind. He said Americans are inundated with information from crisis after crisis around the world. And he said when people learn about the problems Afghan allies are having, they want to help.
He recently spoke at an event connected to the two-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal.
“At the end of the talk, so many people came up and said: ‘I had no idea. … What can we do about it?’” Mitchell said.
The poll of 1,191 adults was conducted Sept. 21-25, 2023, using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, designed to represent the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
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