After a decade of war in Afghanistan, many troops are losing confidence in the long-term likelihood of success for the U.S. military mission there, and their overall support for President Obama has slipped, according to the latest Military Times annual reader survey.
Slightly less than half of readers said the U.S. is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to succeed in Afghanistan. The figure is lower among troops who have deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the survey shows.
That has slipped steadily from 2007, when more than 75 percent of readers surveyed said the U.S. was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to succeed in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan is dampening support for Obama. Support for his handling of the war has dropped significantly since the last Military Times survey in January 2010, with about 41 percent of active-duty respondents disapproving. That’s up from 34 percent in 2010, shortly after Obama announced a surge of 30,000 additional troops for the war effort.
When asked how Obama was handling his job as president, 53 percent disapproved, up from 51 percent in 2010.
When asked superficially about Obama’s handling of his job as commander in chief, 45 percent of active-duty readers disapproved, up from 40 percent in 2010.
Respondents were split on Obama’s decision in July to begin a limited troop drawdown this year in Afghanistan. Some 37 percent “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove,” while 38 percent “approve” or “strongly approve.”
Obama’s weakening support in the ranks comes at a time when his poll numbers are dropping nationwide. Among the general population, Obama’s disapproval rating reached 53 percent in August, up sharply from 45 percent in January 2010, according to weekly Gallup polls of likely voters.
The growing pessimism among troops about the war in Afghanistan may reflect doubts about America’s long-term commitment to the herculean task of executing a counterinsurgency strategy.
“People wonder if we really have the commitment to follow this through,” said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall, who was the top enlisted service member for the NATO mission in Kabul in 2009 and 2010. “I think everybody knows that we can be successful over there. But it’s going to take time and presence and commitment, and I think folks are worried that we go over there, we sacrifice our families and we work hard — but are we going to follow through? Or is this all going be for naught?”
Doubts about success in Afghanistan are slightly higher among troops who have deployed there. In a series of interviews, some troops say the mission there is fraught with a sense of futility driven by several factors, including a belief that the Afghan security forces are unmotivated.
“A lot of [the Afghan security forces] are just kind of like, ‘Well, we’ll fight with you here today and if tomorrow you all leave, then we’ll just fight for the next guy who comes along,’ said a 33-year-old Army captain who deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and worked as a mentor to Afghan security forces. He requested anonymity because he said his command discourages talking to the media.
Michael Menning, a recently retired Air Force colonel and hospital administrator, said he became skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan after working with Afghans trying to set up a medical facility.
“They really have no interest in professional development, in learning how to run a hospital,” Menning said. “They really just think, ‘Hey, build us the hospital and we’ll run it the way we’ve always run it.'”
The pessimism is also fueled by a belief that the country is hopelessly corrupt. A 31-year-old Army sergeant who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 said many troops believe the Afghan central government and many tribal leaders play both sides of the fence.
“Everybody knows that a majority of them still have ties with the Taliban,” said the sergeant, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Many respondents had different sentiments about Iraq. Some 70 percent say the war there has been a success. The figure was slightly higher among troops who have deployed to Iraq.
Similarly, 70 percent “approve” or “strongly approve” of current plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
Opinions on Obama’s handling of Iraq remain unchanged. About 40 percent of troops approve, the same level shown in the 2010 reader survey.
Still, doubts about the initial decision to invade Iraq remain. When asked, “Should the U.S. have gone to war in Iraq?” 43 percent of troops say yes.