Americans vote for Afghan troop surge, but Afghans differ

February 26, 2009

An overwhelming majority of Americans support President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, according to a Gallup poll this week. It said 65 percent approved the measure, with support among Republicans hitting 75 percent, making it one of the rare policy decisions where a president gets greater backing from those who identify with an opposing political party than his own.

And in a still greater boost for his young presidency, 77 percent of those who voted for the surge said they would also approve if  Obama decided to send another 13,000 troops to Afghanistan as many expect after a regional policy review.

What’s the reason for this support for American boots on the ground ? Is Afghanistan really the good war in a way that Iraq was not?

One clue could be found in another poll that Gallup did before the latest one. It showed that a majority of Americans believed that the war was going very or moderately badly for the United States in Afghanistan, continuing a trend that began in mid-2008. And fully 70 percent of those polled felt that the Taliban would re-take control if U.S. forces were withdrawn. So they likely view the decision to send more troops as unfortunate but necessary.

Another interesting finding that was that only 30 percent thought sending troops to Afghanistan was a mistake in contrast to the majority who consistently said from Octber 2008 that deployment in Iraq was a mistake.

 But what of the people of Afghanistan? How do they see the stepped up deployment of U.S. forces  and indeed their own future? The most recent poll that I could see was one released jointly by ABC News, BBC and German TV earlier this month and the divergence  between the American people and their Afghan brethren  half a world away is inescapable. Click here for a PDF.

While Afghans would broadly agree that things haven’t quite turned out the way they hoped with only 40 percent thinking the country was headed in the right direction from a high of 77 percent in 2005, many seem to have turned on America itself.

Only 47 percent of Afghans have  a favourable view of the United States, a sharp fall from the high of 83 percent in 2005 which in itself was unheard of in the Muslim world.  Only 37 percent said people in their area supported Western forces, and a quarter said attacks on U.S. or NATO/ISAF forces were justified.

Little surprise then, that only 18 percent of Afghans supported an increase in U.S. and or NATO troop levels in the country.  Far more, 44 percent, wanted the opposite, that is a reduction in Western forces that many blame for rising civilian casualties.

As the Washington Post put it, the troops that are coming in now will face not only a resurgent and well-armed Taliban insurgency, but an equally daunting foe: public opinion.  More foreign troops will exacerbate the problem, the paper reported, citing interviews with ordinary Afghans that seem to echo the findings of the survey.

So is there a clash of perceptions between the American and the Afghan people,  or is it a clash of interests?

(Reuters pictures of U.S. troops in a plane headed for Afghanistan and on the ground in eastern Afghanistan)

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