Public Souring on the Afghanistan War

If you’ve lost Rory Stewart, you’ve lost the war. Rory Stewart is a young British conservative, who once walked Afghanistan and later governed the Iraqi province of Maysan in 2003-2004 under Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Government. He is now a Tory Member of Parliament and a junior member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in that body. Stewart ran a charity for years while residing in Kabul. He long expressed skepticism about a troop escalation in Afghanistan, but he is now in a position to influence British Prime Minister David Cameron. Stewart has vocally and publicly come out against the troop escalation or ‘surge’. And he wants a rapid reduction, though not complete withdrawal, beginning next summer (something that sounds to me sort of like the Biden/Eikenberry limited counter-terrorism strategy as opposed to McChrystal’s broad counter-insurgency campaign).

Stewart says, “I do not believe we can win a counterinsurgency campaign. We are never going to have the time or the troop numbers. Even if you put 600,000 troops on the ground, I can’t see a credible, effective, legitimate Afghan Government emerging . . . If you keep going like this the backlash that will build up, the spectres of Vietnam that will emerge in the minds of the British public will mean that we will end up leaving entirely and the country will be much worse off.”

He adds that after the draw-down of troops, “You would have a few planes around but you would no longer do counter-insurgency. You would no longer be in the game of trying to hold huge swathes of rural Afghanistan.”

Some 64% of the British public believes the Afghanistan war is frankly unwinnable, such that they are substantially more pessimistic than the American public (see below). And, almost as many Britons want their troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2010 as think the war cannot be won.

Rory Stewart may be the single Western politician who knows Afghanistan best, and he is talking sense. if President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, and Gen. Petraeus are looking for a voice of experience and someone who can see the forest, not just the trees, Stewart is their man. But to tell you the truth, I think anyone who knew anything serious about Afghanistan would say the same thing. The ‘counter-insurgency’ vision of US troops essentially conquering (“taking”) great tracts of Pashtun territory and even whole Pashtun cities such as Qandahar, and then pacifying them (clearing, holding, building) only has a 10 percent chance of succeeding. It is moreover risky, since it could create vast resentments among the divided Pashtuns and push more of them into opposition to the Karzai government and to the foreign troop presence.

The whole American public is moving in Stewart’s direction, after a period of relative optimism in which they gave incoming President Obama the benefit of the doubt with regard to his insistence that he could turn Afghanistan around. Americans are returning to the pessimistic mood on the war that they were in during the last years of the Bush administration. In a new Rasmussen opinion poll, nearly 60% of likely American voters say either that the US cannot win in Afghanistan or that they are not sure it can (but only 36% say flatly that the US cannot win). Nearly half say it is more important to end the war than to win it.

This Rasmussen poll shows a mood even more pessimistic than another recent sounding by ABC & the Washington Post, which found that 53% of Americans think the war is not worth its cost.

Nearly half in the Rasmussen poll also say that they think Afghanistan is very important to US security and over 80% think it is at least somewhat important. It is hard to understand how the fifth poorest country in the world, a virtual failed state, can pose a security threat to the United States. I presume this sentiment is the long arm of the September 11 attacks, though that operation was carried out by a small transnational terrorist group consisting of non-Afghans, not by the country of Afghanistan.

As usual, party politics skews these results. Rasmussen says that over two-thirds of Democrats think President Obama is doing a good job with his Afghanistan policy, whereas only 15% of Republicans agree.

This ‘two-party epistemology’ in the US (as I called it early in the Iraq War) produces odd outcomes, such as that 60% of Republicans think it is more important to win the war than to end it, but they don’t like Obama’s efforts to do just that. Whereas most Democrats want out, the opposite of Obama’s policy of escalation–but a super-majority of Democrats thinks Obama is doing a dandy job in running the war. This odd set of contradictory attitudes is what allows the war to go marching vigorously on. Democrats do not wish to undermine their own president, who is committed to prosecuting the war, and while Republicans don’t like Obama, they support the war effort.

Some 15% of respondents admitted that they aren’t following the war, while 41% say they are following it very closely. But 83% claim to be following the news about the Afghanistan war at least somewhat closely. This set of responses proves again that people tell pollsters what they they think they ought to be doing, rather than what they do do. Afghanistan news is almost never in the top 15 “favorite” news stories at or Blogpulse or at CNN, and often doesn’t even make “world news” at google. The McChrystal saga was an exception, because it was in a way a domestic story. But about this issue, the respondents are just lying. Few are actually paying attention.

For another take on the Rasmussen poll, the CSM.

Posted in Afghanistan | 36 Responses | Print |

36 Responses

  1. Even doing “embedded” journalism (sic) in Afghanistan is costly and oh so depressing, so the marketers of the “mainstream” media will not touch it even though there may well be a “market” – how else to explain the disproportionate popularity of your own “egghead” blog? ;-)

    I’m not sure all that many USAns are given a choice to actually follow up on their professed interests in a meaningful way, at least within “mainstream” (corporate) culture…

  2. Mistah McChrystal – He Dead : “In a nutshell, it’s about infinite war. It’s easy to forget — as much of US corporate media do — that in the midst of all the “runaway general” hoopla, McChrystal’s own COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy in Afghanistan had already been reduced, according to his own neologism, to “Chaos-istan” for quite some time. To apply counter-insurgency en masse against Pashtun brothers and cousins is a foolish recipe for failure. Washington does not even know who the “enemy” is; Afghans on the other hand see it as a war of Christian foreign invaders against the Pashtun nation. The recipe was originally “designed” by the new general in AfPak, McChrystal’s boss, Central Command chief David “I’m always positioning myself to 2012” Petraeus, the conceptual hero of the “surge” in Iraq. Meet the new general, (not quite the) same as the old general; let’s say Petraeus is a silkier version of Captain Willard, without the Kurtzean overtones of McChrystal. Cue that Peter Townshend power chord: “Won’t be fooled again.” Or will we?”

  3. .
    Jacko got his due with commemorations on the 1-year anniversary of his death.
    Who will note that Bowe Bergdahl will observe a 1-year anniversary tomorrow ? Will that be the top story at NYT or WaPo ?

  4. I understand the War on Terror to be an Israeli war against Islam, and suspending for a moment all other digressions on that point, I see a possibly insurmountable problem with the American effort.
    I obviously am not crazy about the grand delusion that is Israel, but if they are brutal enough, they will have won an inferior piece of real estate compared to any of the other excellent luxury locations wealthy Jews enjoy safer and more prosperous living. That is, if nothing else, they stand to win something (point 1). The people are automatically inclined to see things the Netanyaist’s way because they actually live there (point 2). Jews have a racial-supremacist ideological reason to want to live there regardless of logic; they really want to be there irrespective of conditions (point 3). These points combine with the die-hard settler core to suggest that the erasure of the Palestinians will not end, no matter how many setbacks the racists face, until external parties are sufficiently disgusted to step in, destroy Israel’s military power and repeat Nuremberg.
    Now compare those three points — the fourth one about the settlers has no applicability as only settlers are settlers, the are a truly unique group — to the American effort. What we are basically doing is the activity of a resident group dominating and shaping its fellow residents, but we are not a resident group. We stand to gain absolutely nothing. We have already lost a staggering wealth. We have no gut-level reason to continue; we not only do not live there, we have no cultural connection to the places, and we live thousands of miles away from both locations. The radicals who attacked us did so because we went out of our way (that is we gain nothing by supporting Israel) to anger them and we easily could have avoided that.
    This is not a “natural war.” There is no geographical connection, nothing to be gained, no cultural motive, it is a war based on deception and anti-democratic action at home. This is as though Hitler had decided to launch an attack against Antarctica as part of his invasion of the East, or the British had decided they had to conquer the Moon and let the rest of their empire go to pot.
    I am therefore confused as to your phrasing about “souring”– I see no way for the public to not “sour” and I imagine “waking up” to be a better phrase; am I wrong?

  5. I must have missed this when you first did it, but I think your “two-party epistemology” is a brilliant formal explanation of an old conundrum, namely why Democrats have consistently been more imperialist than Republicans. Your fellow Michiganian Dennis Perrin lays out the case in detail in his book Savage Mules. But he mainly explains it in terms of perfidy. I like your structural explanation more. Although there is certainly room for both.

    Secondly, in re Rory Stewart, you probably already know this, but other IC readers might be interested to know that he laid out his case at length a year ago in the London Review of Books and, unusually, it’s available online to non-subscribers:
    link to

  6. Obama worsened the mess by calculating American politics first, and then imposing American fantasies on Afghanistan. He promised victory and withdrawal. But his outlook suffers from the delusion that the USA won in Iraq, where in actuality Bush handed Iraq to Iran the instant American troops invaded. Afghanistan was never the USA’s to win.

    • John Cole:

      You are right. Obama suffers from the delusion that the USA won in Iraq. And yet, contrary to most people who ridicule Bush for proclaiming “mission accomplished” I do think Bush was right – if you understand what the “mission” was. In my opinion the mission was to destroy a staunch enemy of Israel (mission indeed accomplished) and to hand over billions of Dollars to his cronies , i.e. contractors, military-industrial complex, etc. (mission again very well accomplished). In my opinion there was a third mission of giving US and western energy companies access to Iraq’s oilfields. This third one is kind of iffy. But overall I have to say, hats off to Bush for a mission well accomplished.

  7. He may want the troops out but it seems he still wants control via the use of drones and mis-targetted killing.

  8. In his forthcoming novel, Gary Shteyngart (author of ‘Absurdistan’) offers a comic take on Juan Cole’s ‘two-party epistemology.’ In Shteyngart’s near-future dystopia, the permanent war is run by the all-encompassing Bipartisan Party.

    Meantime, until the Demopublicans can effect a colossal merger of political dinosaurs, the hapless Lyndon Baruch O’Bomber soldiers on in his ex officio role as Viceroy of Vietghanistan. But the former laughter and applause have given way to glassy-eyed stares of disgust. Sic semper tyrannis …

    • Jim Haygood:

      I hear so often people complaining about bipartisan bickering that is hindering real progress in this country. But here too I disagree. In my opinion there is way too mush bipartisanship in all of the major issues. Unfortunately both parties are leading our country in the wrong direction. Here is an incomplete list: support of illegal wars, imperial foreign policy, not holding war criminals accountable, putting Wall Street before Main Street, continues illegal wire tapping and spying on Americans, secrecy ion government, severe curtailment of civil liberties,…. I give up listing more.

      So, contrary to conventional wisdom perpetrated by pundits and mainstream media the problem in our country is too much bipartisanship and thus lack of real alternatives.

  9. Stewart, although skeptical of the war, just a few weeks ago, said..

    RAZ: While you were still here in the United States, you worked to try and convince the Obama administration to go with a so-called light footprints strategy in Afghanistan, focus on counterterrorism. Obviously, the White House chose instead to go with a surge of troops. Has it been a mistake, or has it worked, or is it too early to tell?

    Mr. STEWART: I believe, still, that it was an error. I think having done it, we might as well stick with it and give it the year and a half, which the president set out. I mean, he was talking about beginning to reduce troops in July next year.

    Also, there are others, perhaps more important than Stewart, like Mortenson and Dr. Abduallah, the Afghans, whose loss of support for our Afghan adventure is just, or more, important.

  10. Obama is trapped in the Afghan war by his own fault. In order to win the elections he wanted to be seen as tough on security. Since the Americans wanted out of Iraq, he made his tough security discourse on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Getting out of this new quagmire won’t be easy. It would have been better if he had promised an end to all wars, Iraq and Afghanistan included. (BTW, we have yet to see the Americans getting completely out of Iraq and giving the country back to the Iraqui).

  11. The public is souring on the US Federal government in general. Corrupt, incompetent, lying scumbags. They take our taxes for illegal and immoral wars which reduce our security. Both parties are owned by the same criminals. Do not vote for any Democrats or Republicans ever for any race in any election.

    • I am with you….

      We need alternatives. You may say we don’t have any. But the first step is realization of the situation and a demand for alternatives…

      • You would have to change your constitution for that, aka the way your members of parliaments are elected and your president is elected. In practice this will be something very difficult to modify because both party have an interest in status quo (why would they want the competition of a third or fourth party ?) and they will probably block any change

        • May be I am too naive or just an optimist. But this does not have to be an all or nothing. All we need is a forum for exposing alternatives to Americans that they are not being denied today. Take for example our so called presidential debate. This is nothing but a circus which can best be described by reviewing just two chapters of a 5 chapter book and calling this a review.

          Even if we can get a third party candidate to participate in such a debate that would open up the eyes of the brain-washed Americans. The rest would follow …. as I said I am an optimist.

    • Corrupt is nothing, I have the feeling that they are some kind of perfectly separate party grabbing what they can grab with plans on slitting with the loot; they hate me, they attack me, they steal what I have taken for granted. Corruption will always be with us but when you’re corrupt like a good chieftain, with a healthy appetite for pork, that’s actually democracy. What we have now is open hostility towards the People.

  12. “If you’ve lost Rory Stewart, you’ve lost the war”
    The war? Maybe lost, but mister Stewart is not, he wants an empire and far-off bases and compliant (legit) local government but not the cost! How British to latch on to the Americans. Who seems to have limitless resources. Men, time and money. Yes let him give advice, a prefect British Sancho Panza to Don Quixote Americana.

  13. The opportunity to “win” Afghanistan and eliminate Al Qaeda (or at least cell that was once located in Afghanistan) was in 2002-2003. It’s past time the US and NATO goes home.

    Obama looks and sounds more and more like LBJ circa 1966.

  14. We all know now that the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are illegal and are based on lies but the American people are not willing to hold those who lied and continue to lie to them accountable. Until they do, these wars and others to come will continue to bleed the US of its wealth and the blood of its young men and women. The ultimate result of which is to reduce the US to a bankrupt, banana republic and the eventual breakup of the US of A.

    In simple terms, if you sow bad, you reap bad. It’s the natural order of things. Nature too has a macabre humor. The US is fighting these wars for oil, among other things, and is now virtually drowning in it vis a vis the Gulf oil disaster. Those affected by this sad calamity can now experience the helplessness and anguish felt by the Iraqis and Afghanis and Pakistanis who have suffered the horrors of war inflicted on them year after year. Anyone who still believes that the so-called war on terror can be won has had their minds shrink-wrapped by crapaganda and therefore unable to think critically.

    • Iraq invasion was clearly illegal, but the case of Afghanistan is somewhat different, since the US got the authorisation from the UN. Personnally I think it is a wrong war, but on paper it was more “legal” than Iraq. This makes me wonder : what exactly was authorised in Afghanistan ? how long are the American troops authorised to stay ? Has the authorisation to be renewed regularly ? Who is supervising what the US and NATO troops are doing in Afghanistan ?

  15. Juan, you wrote:
    “Nearly half in the Rasmussen poll also say that they think Afghanistan is very important to US security and over 80% think it is at least somewhat important. It is hard to understand how the fifth poorest country in the world, a virtual failed state, can pose a security threat to the United States. I presume this sentiment is the long arm of the September 11 attacks, though that operation was carried out by a small transnational terrorist group consisting of non-Afghans, not by the country of Afghanistan.”

    You are on to something here that is very important. The “long arm” of the September 11 attacks has been distorting our politics constantly, since those attacks occurred. Indeed, it is possible to argue that we would not be in Afghanistan at all, if not for the 9/11 attacks. I refer you to this article on that subject by David Ray Griffin. A short quote from the article:

    “There are many other questions that have been, and should be, asked about this war, but in this essay, I focus on only one: Did the 9/11 attacks justify the war in Afghanistan?

    This question has thus far been considered off-limits, not to be raised in polite company, and certainly not in the mainstream media. It has been permissible, to be sure, to ask whether the war during the past several years has been justified by those attacks so many years ago. But one has not been allowed to ask whether the original invasion was justified by the 9/11 attacks.”

    Griffin goes on to consider the question in an article that is very well researched (dozens of footnotes). I strongly recommend that you read it.



    I’m not sour at all. I’m so very beyond sour. I’m ready for pitchforks and firebrands and hangman’s nooses. Not sour at all, Mr. Cole. Not at all.

    Steely Resolve has replaced SOUR a long, long time ago.

    • We may diss the tea baggers. But I too am totally pissed off at both parties. They both drink from the same trough and represent the interest of the big military-industrial-Israel-Wall Street-Congress complex.

      Didn’t Karl Marx predict that western capitalism is bound to morph into “Stamocap” (Staatsmonopolistischer Kapitalismus)? Marx was right, we are there…

  17. I disagree that Mr. Stewart’s premise can win. That is exactly what we did in Vietnam; Vietnamization it was called: let the Vietnamese forces fight the war, and Americans hang out in secure American bases. Soon the NVA and Viet Cong came calling; as sure as soon the Taliban will come calling, and out we will go, the last American leaving in a helicopter hovering over the US embassy in Kabul.

    Unless Obama recognizes reality and negotiates a complete withdraw with the Taliban, or withdraws without that agreement, we will leave in disgrace. The Afghan people are predominately, if not totally, tribal, and you can’t have a democracy and be tribal. So they will have to develop a democracy on their own, after being left to their own devices. And the quicker we leave the better.

    But the current crop of US government officials are insane, and don’t seem to be capable of such perception. So I suspect the leave with our tails between our legs is the most likely scenario.

  18. For a long time now, I’ve advocated pulling out of Afghanistan completely and seeing what happens. To be completely honest, I don’t have any idea what will happen if we do that. And I don’t recall anyone else who advocates pulling out having a very clear vision of what will happen next, either. I’d be interested in knowing what you think will happen over the next couple of years if we pull out of Afghanistan completely. I already know what is likely to happen if we don’t pull out, so I’m not asking about the likely consequences of staying engaged in Afghanistan either to pursue the so-called COIN strategy or the counter-terrorism alternative. What I really want to know is what you think will happen if we come home.

    • Billy Glad wants to know: “…what you think will happen if we come home”. Of course no one can predict exactly, but a few things seem obvious:

      – Hamid Karzai’s government will either come to an accommodation with the Taliban, or it will fall–possibly very quickly.

      – As there is not a strong central government in Afghanistan, there will probably continue to be conflict between various factions of Afghan society. If the current version of the Taliban can keep its act together, many people will turn to them for the stability they could provide to at least part of the country.

      – In the short term, we will benefit from not having our troops killed, and from not throwing money into a bottomless pit. Long term, we will see if our elites can avoid ginning up another war to waste our blood and treasure on.

      As our immediate security does not (and probably never did) depend on what goes on in Afghanistan, I do not see any dire consequences in that sphere if we pull out our troops and bring them home.

  19. “It is hard to understand how the fifth poorest country in the world, a virtual failed state, can pose a security threat to the United States. I presume this sentiment is the long arm of the September 11 attacks, though that operation was carried out by a small transnational terrorist group consisting of non-Afghans, not by the country of Afghanistan.”

    No, it is not at all difficult. 9/11 showed that a poor, failed state could provide a safe haven for a dedicated terrorist organization to plan, finance, recruit, train, and manage a large scale attack on the US mainland. How are you and others so sure that such a history will not repeat, if the Taliban regain the type and scope of control they once had? What warrants do you offer that it will not happen again under a Taliban government (albeit, I assume with less non-Pushtun territory at least for a decade). Without reasonable warrants that the future will be different from the past, allowing the resurgence of Taliban control (and al-Qaeda much larger safe haven) seems folly.

    Further, what guarantee that the Taliban will not brutalize the population as they did during their first rule? It seems to me that to ignore genocide and brutality of a regime to its people is somewhat justified when the resources to prevent it are thousands of miles away; but how do you justify removing the preventative forces that are providing some security for many Afghans (unfortunately, not enough security to enough Afghans, but perfection just isn’t in the cards, despite the willingness of some to use perfection as an evaluative standard). Although the danger of the revenge part of the Pushtunwali kicking in with more NATO collateral damage is very real, even that should be balanced against the preferences of a Western security blanket by the Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara (and I assume more than a few Pushtun tribal elders).

    I fully understand and respect committed pacifist being opposed to this use of state violence. I don’t understand ignoring concrete facts, waiving away history, and using misplaced analogies to hasten an end to NATO’s efforts and objectives in Afghanistan (actually the battle is in Pushtunistan–time to ignore the Durand Line as do most southern Afghan Pushtuns).

    don moore, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer; Gardez, Afghanistan, ’68-69

    • Mr. Moore, you wrote:

      ” 9/11 showed that a poor, failed state could provide a safe haven for a dedicated terrorist organization to plan, finance, recruit, train, and manage a large scale attack on the US mainland.”

      If that were actually the case, I would have to respect your argument. However, according to official sources, the 9/11 attacks were largely planned and organized in Germany and Florida. Some financial support may have come from Pakistan. Of course, the alleged perpetrators were largely Saudi Arabian, with an Egyptian (Mohammed Atta) leading…or so goes the official story.

      It should be clear that, in today’s international world, terrorist attacks can be planned and implemented from almost anywhere. If looking for a country with the support and resources for implementing such attacks, it would be hard to do worse than Afghanistan, a country with large areas devoid of modern communication and transportation infrastructure. Sure, it’s a good place to hide, but in order to DO anything in the rest of the world, you have to get out of there, travel, communicate, etc.

      Meanwhile, we are pursuing our war there, and a good deal of the resources that we pour into this war actually end up in the hands of locals who are fighting against us—weapons, money, etc. According to recent news reports, we are essentially helping to fund the insurgency. Doing this, while simultaneously propping up the Karzai government–rightly viewed as weak and corrupt by a large portion of Afghans–is just about the most counterproductive thing we could do, if greater security and an end to the war are objectives. It is past time that we admit that this “problem” is not susceptible to military solution, and get our troops out of there.

      • I think you are conflating the scope of a terrorist attack that can be made from anywhere with that which can be made from a large safe haven. And yes, Afghanistan does not have modern infrastructure throughout the country, but the assumption that transportation and communication opportunities do not exist just shows a shallow understanding of Afghan traditions and hardiness. As should be clear, Afghans don’t necessarily require the modern world to be effective. And the heart and mind of al-Qaeda initiated 9/11 from their Afghan safe haven, despite its backwardness.

        You are probably correct that if al-Qaeda could get a nice modern state to provide a large safe haven for their activities, they would drop Afghanistan. But that’s not too likely, is it?

        The Karzai government is not as important to the equation as some seem to believe. Yes, it is corrupt. Yet outside of President Najibullah I can’t think of an uncorrupted Afghan ruler, including the Podshah Zaher. The central government in Afghanistan is usually reduced to a third party broker of conflict between tribes or clans which can’t settle things by themselves. Karzai at minimum comes from the right Pushtun clan for some traditional legitimacy, but only if he behaves as a traditional ruler from Kabul. The non-Pushtun groups will be ok with him in Kabul as long as he doesn’t overdo Pushtun imperialism and let’s them handle their own internal affairs.

        It is obviously a very complicated situation. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I have not seen anything mildly compelling from those wishing withdraw. From them I have only seen minimally useful analogies, wishful thinking, and unsupported and unsupportable claims regarding Afghan history and sociology. Thus I still seek warrants that the Taliban will not return upon US exit and provide a large safe haven for large terrorist attacks and will not oppress the Afghan people as they did previously when in power. Why will history not repeat? what is so changed.

  20. “Public Souring on the Afghanistan War”

    gee, yanks sure are quick on the uptake aint they. morons.

  21. I want us out of Afghanistan and Pakistan now and completely and will vote against every Democrat who does not take that position even if that means electing Republicans. I will never ever again support President Obama for expanding the war, never!!!

  22. Typically coopted fake alternapundit defends Panetta’s blatant attempt to keep the Terra stirred up as an actual opinion by Panetta. Naturally, during the Bush years, fake Obamopologistic alternapundits would have seen right through the terra-mongering, but that’s all different now…

  23. Taliban just weren’t a cut off guard, embarrassed host to Al Qaeda, just two days before 9/11 an Al Qaeda suicide team assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, consolidating Taliban control of the country and were further dazzled by 9/11.
    Also prior to 9/11 while in control of the much of the country, they attacked and destroyed a pair of unarmed historical statue, killed and maimed with ease such as righteous do as they did radicalizing and arming Afpak decades before, it is said
    That the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Empire and the Talibs are in fact fellow travelers, one a caricature of the other.

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