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AFGHANISTAN: Troop Surge Spurs Obama’s Popularity

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Dec 8 2009 (IPS) - A poll released today finds that support among the United States public for President Barack Obama’s troop “surge” in Afghanistan has risen sharply since he delivered his speech last week. But, a plurality of the U.S. public do not believe Obama will follow through on his commitment to begin a withdrawal of U.S. forces in 18-months.

The poll – released today by the Quinnipac University Polling Institute – says that U.S. voters’ support for the war in Afghanistan has gone up by nine- percentage points over the past three weeks. Fifty-seven-percent of poll respondents say that fighting the war is the right thing to do while 35- percent disagree.

Approval of Obama’s handling of the war has also risen considerably since a Nov. 18 poll – in which 49-percent disapproved of the White House’s handling of the war and 38-percent approved, with a 45-percent split approving and disapproving.

“I think the long period of deliberation has worked in the presidents favour,” Jim Fine, legislative secretary for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobby group, told IPS. “Whatever decision he announced minimised the opposition.”

Last week’s announcement by the White House of a surge of 30,000 troops has received a lukewarm response from both Republicans and Democrats.

Many Democrats have expressed concern that the war might be unwinnable and that the White House may extend the withdrawal deadline, while some Republicans have said the withdrawal deadline could be a declaration of premature defeat.

“I believe the course the president outlined does offer the best path to stabilise Afghanistan and ensure Al Qaeda cannot regain a foothold to plan new attacks against us,” said U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry today at the House hearings on Afghanistan. “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach,” he said, putting to rest questions about two leaked diplomatic cables to the White House in which he expressed concerns about deploying additional troops to Afghanistan.

The U.S. public approves 58 to 37-percent of the Obama administration’s decision to deploy 30,000 troops and approve 60 to 32-percent the plan to begin withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan in July 2011.

In a seemingly contradictory poll result, a 45 to 40-percent margin of respondents believe that Obama will be unable to meet that deadline.

“The dichotomy between the almost two-to-one support for setting a July 2011 date for beginning a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan and the doubt that Obama will be able to deliver on that promise reflects a sceptical public about America’s ability to triumph there,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipac University Polling Institute.

But other experts argue that the numbers also suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the Obama administration’s commitment to a troop withdrawal.

“The perception that this is a commitment to wind the war down in 18- months is a misperception,” said Fine. “The 45-percent who say he’ll miss that pledge are misperceiving that Obama promised anything substantial. As [Secretary of Defence] Robert Gates said yesterday, if they withdraw a handful of troops they would have met the deadline. It was clear from Obama’s speech that this was the flimsiest of commitments.”

When poll respondents were asked how long they would be willing to have large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 31-percent supported a U.S. military presence for as long as it takes; one-percent supported a presence of five to ten years; 14-percent supported a presence two to five years; 22- percent supported a presence for one to two years; and 27-percent supported a presence for less than one year.

“Public support is going to hinge on the perception of how effective the policy has been. [Levels of] casualties will certainly be a factor in public support or opposition,” said Fine.

When asked if the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was headed in the same direction as U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a majority of 57-percent disagreed with the characterisation, while 32-percent agreed.

Obama’s rollout of his war plan last week and his widely admired rhetorical skills seem to have boosted the public support for the war.

“History teaches that the bully pulpit can be a powerful tool for a president who knows how to use it, especially when it comes to foreign policy,” said Brown. “The American people tend to rally around their presidents in military matters, at least for a while. It took some time for similar type speeches about Vietnam and Iraq by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush respectively to lose their ability to rally support.”

While public attitudes in the U.S. attitudes skew positively towards supporting Obama’s long awaited plan for troop deployments and withdrawal in Afghanistan, 66-percent of respondents think Obama doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize and only 26-percent think he deserves the prize.

Forty-one-percent of respondents say the Nobel committee’s choice to award Obama the prize makes them think less of the prize.

Even a relatively low number of Democrats – 49-percent – thought Obama deserved the award.

Indeed many have commented on the contradictory situation facing Obama as he accepts the Nobel Peace prize, having just launched a major deployment of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan.

“I think it’s a very awkward position to be in. There were some who counselled that he should reject it. But that is without precedent and problematic as well,” said Fine. “It would be hard to imagine worse circumstances to go to accept a Nobel Peace Prize.”

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