Afghanistan Is No Vietnam

The wars are equally unpopular on paper, but not in practice.

Several weeks ago, reputable news organizations like Politico and CNN reported the results of a survey of Americans in which support for the Afghanistan war, now in its thirteenth year, was lower than public support had ever been for the Vietnam conflict. Reportedly, this polling data is influencing White House advisors to President Obama, who favor a rapid end to the war, including perhaps even a "zero option" for next year (after the current NATO mission there will have ended).

On its surface, the views of political advisors to the president seem easy to understand. After all, Vietnam brought down President Johnson. In such a context, getting the United States out of Afghanistan as completely and quickly as possible would seem imperative for the Obama administration.

Balderdash. In fact, this reading of the recent polls on Afghanistan is simply wrong, and the way in which the American media tended to report on it was fundamentally misleading.

Anyone who thinks the Afghanistan mission is less popular than Vietnam does not remember or understand the latter conflict. Unlike the case with the war in Southeast Asia, the nation's intensity of sentiment about Afghanistan, while admittedly not positive, is very mild.

It is true that less than 20 percent of all Americans view the Afghanistan war positively. In light of its length, its many frustrations, and President Karzai's attitude towards the United States, this is not entirely surprising.

But the attitudes about Afghanistan are not deeply felt across the public or the electorate. To be sure, among troops and diplomats and others who have served, and their families, the sacrifice has often been great and the sentiments about the war can be powerful—for good and for bad. But such a group, even very broadly defined, constitutes about 1 percent of the country.

The fine testimony before Congress last week of war commander General Joseph Dunford was notable largely for the lack of coverage it produced by the media, and the lack of interest by most Americans. There were no huge protests, no big newspaper advertisements calling for an end to the war, and relatively little partisan skirmishing on the subject even in these politically tumultuous times.

Any student of polling should know that polls about given subjects in public policy are only meaningful if they capture intensity. Vietnam tore this country apart. Afghanistan makes it yawn.

Part of the reason for the inattention to Dunford's recent public appearances is that the Ukraine crisis was ongoing at the same point. But the evidence for relative American disinterest in the subject of Afghanistan is much deeper. Exhibit A is that, in the 2012 presidential campaign, neither major candidate gave a major speech on the war, proposed a major change in policy, or otherwise sought political advantage even though the closeness of the race should have encouraged both to do so had the war been profoundly unpopular. Instead, both candidates accepted the gradual troop drawdown schedule announced by President Obama in June of 2011, which was not superseded until his State of the Union speech in early 2013 (when the previous troop reduction had already been complete for nearly six months).

To be sure, no one should stick with a lethal war effort just because of public apathy. If the cause is suspect or the war campaign beyond repair, policymakers should make it a priority to bring our troops home, and spare the nation the cost in blood and treasure that any conflict inevitably produces.

But in fact, the war is not lost. Alas, it is ongoing. But it is now also being handed off fairly successfully to Afghan forces, who represent more 90 percent of total coalition troop strength, conduct more than 95 percent of all missions, suffer a similar fraction of total coalition casualties—and have absorbed that increased mission over the last two years without substantial ground being lost to the enemy in the process. In fact, on balance Afghanistan's main cities and roads are safer today than they were in 2011 or 2012, as the nation prepares to elect a successor to President Karzai this spring.

There are many fair debates to be had about how long we should keep smaller forces in Afghanistan to perform which particular missions. But the idea that Afghanistan risks becoming Obama's Vietnam, by any measure including public sentiment, could not be further from the truth.

Michael O’Hanlon is Director of Research in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.