The long life of the Afghan war makes it hard to remember how popular it was when it began. As the fighting began, 80 percent of America supported it. Nobody in Congress except Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.) was prescient enough to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force and its open-ended-enough-to-attack-a-dozen-more-countries wording. Not until 2014 did a majority of Americans begin to regret that the war ever started.
This week YouGov and the Charles Koch Institute (full disclosure: I was a journalism fellow at the institute last year) released a poll that suggests widespread support for President Donald Trump’s stated goal of drawing down the troops in Afghanistan and withdrawing entirely from Syria and Afghanistan. According to the survey, 51 percent of Americans generally approve of removing all troops from Afghanistan “within a year.” A majority 46 percent don’t think the U.S. knows what its goal is in Afghanistan, and 40 percent don’t think the war there has a purpose vital to national security. Somewhat dismayingly, at least for those few of us who care about Congress’ constitutional role in making war, respondents were more likely to back an Afghanistan withdrawal if the question was phrased as a presidential decision, with “strong” or “somewhat” support for an exit leaping to 51 percent.
And what about Syria? Here public opinion seems to waver with what goal the question highlights. “When asked if they agreed with the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian civil war, 41 percent of respondents supported withdrawal and 32 percent opposed it,” the pollsters report. “When asked if they agreed with the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the fight with ISIS, 38 percent of respondents still supported withdrawal.” Americans are, reasonably, more frightened of ISIS than of Bashar al-Assad. Still, the general feeling over the conflict is tepid confusion.
That’s not surprising, given just how confused U.S. policy in Syria is in itself. In December, recall, Trump declared that the troops in Syria would be coming home ASAP. After poking around in Turkey, National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested that at least some troops would stay in Syria after all, though it wasn’t clear how many. Meanwhile, the Pentagon appears at least to be pulling out some excess military junk of an unspecified nature. Overall, no one seems to know what the hell is going on.
In that spirit, the most darkly perfect data point in the poll may be that 27 percent of people believe America’s 17 years of war in Afghanistan have been “neither successful or unsuccessful.”