Eight years later, public support wanes for war in Afghanistan

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Soldiers in Afghanistan
U.S. Marine Pvt Heinrich Mokofisi, of the 2nd MEB, 1/5 Marines, H & S Company, takes a position, as Afghan men pass by in a tractor trailer, during a Marine patrol with Afghan Army soldiers, near Faqairan village, Nawa district, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Eight years after U.S. war planes dropped their first bombs on Afghanistan, public support for the war has plunged by more than 50 percentage points.

This year has already been the deadliest of the entire war for U.S. and NATO forces. Afghanistan's presidential election was marred by violence and alleged vote-rigging, and the Taliban is regaining power.

Military leaders say they need more troops to turn things around, but polls indicate Americans are closely divided over that strategy, with a slight majority opposing it.

The flagging public support stands in stark contrast to Oct. 7, 2001, when the war began. It was less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the time, several polls showed nine out of 10 Americans approved of the air strikes.

When Minnesota Public Radio News opened the phone lines the next morning, callers confirmed what the polls were saying.

"I completely support the president," said a caller who identified herself as Dawn. "I think President Bush is doing an incredible job of leadership."

Jimmy, who said he was an active anti-war protestor during the Vietnam War, now favored military action.

"If somebody was to attack my family, I would have to take extreme measures to protect my family," he said. "And I think the United States is now seeing that we are a family, and we need to take extreme measures to protect our family."

Margaret Reinhardt
Like about 90 percent of Americans, Margaret Reinhardt of Minneapolis supported the Afghanistan war when it began in 2001. Eight years later she says it is time to leave. Reinhardt wants President Obama to focus on health care and the economy. "The issue of national security is as much about taking care of ourselves here at home," she said.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

James called the war "unfortunate, but necessary."

"What good is giving a helping hand when those people don't believe in our way of life?" asked Dave from Bloomington. "I support the president 100 percent and what we're doing."

Almost all the callers that day supported the war. The only ones who didn't were the pacifists.

"It's time for us to evolve out of the war mentality into a more loving and nurturing species that looks after people who are impoverished," a caller named Jane said.

But things have shifted radically since then.

A new Associated Press-GFK poll shows only 40 percent of Americans still support the war, down from 94 percent when it began.

Ask MPR News listeners about the war today, and you get comparisons to Vietnam.

"I see a difficult terrain. I see a corrupt, non-functioning central government. I see lots of uneducated peasants who really need a government to protect them, and yet they have no expectation that the government has their best interests at heart," Ortonville resident Brent Olson said.

Margaret Reinhardt of Minneapolis sees the same thing. She also sees other priorities besides Afghanistan that need the president's attention.

"I am very concerned about health care and the economy, and the issue of national security is as much about taking care of ourselves here at home," Reinhardt said.

Public support for the war has been dropping for years. But a closer examination of those early polls reveals that even in the opening days of the war, public support did not run as deep as the headlines suggested.

A CNN/Time magazine poll conducted in October, 2001 showed 62 percent of Americans favored a "limited excursion" in Afghanistan. Only 34 percent liked the sound of having "thousands of troops stationed in Afghanistan for an indefinite period of time."

"Even then, when the support for the war was overwhelming, almost unanimous, you saw some doubts over an indefinite presence in Afghanistan," said pollster Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Eight years later, those doubts have only grown.