Where Public Opinion and Military Assessment Meet and Where they Diverge: U.S. and NATO Troops in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON - Transatlantic Trends, a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) reveals that President Obama's popularity in Europe has not made U.S. foreign policies equally popular. The war in Afghanistan, for example, remains widely unpopular among Europeans and the war now seems to divide Americans and their political and military leaders more and more.
The top military commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, warns in a recent report that Afghanistan needs more troops to counteract Taliban resurgence. His assessment was also endorsed by other military heavy-weights, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen. McChrystal's main point is clear - he believes the United States and NATO will most likely lose the war against the Taliban unless additional troops are added to the current ones. While he reports "success is still achievable," General McChrystal also admits that the "situation is serious." The latter is one thing that he and the publics of the 12 European NATO allies would agree upon: things are not going well in Afghanistan.
According to GMF's annual Transatlantic Trends survey, only around one-in-three Europeans (including Turks) feel optimistic about the prospects of stabilization in Afghanistan. Germans were the least positive with just over one-in-five (23%) expressing optimism while Romanians were the most optimistic, relatively speaking, with 44% expressing such views. There is a clear transatlantic divide here as Americans look at Afghanistan much more optimistically and the majority (56%) feel positive about the future of the country. But how about the people of Afghanistan? While Transatlantic Trends did not poll there, their opinions seem to be closer to Europeans than to Americans. A poll taken by ABC NEWS/BBC/ARD in early January 2009 reveals that only 40% of Afghanis think that things in Afghanistan, generally speaking, are going in the right direction. This reflects a 14-point decline since September 2007.
It is also important to note that stabilizing Afghanistan is not a priority for either Americans or Europeans under the current economic conditions. Only 4% in Europe and seven in the United States think that Afghanistan should be the top priority for the American president and European leaders.
While the European public and American military leadership share this gloomy assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, their preferred solutions diverge remarkably. Only 7% of Europeans polled would like to see an increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan, with Turkey showing the "highest" level of support for the increase (14%), followed by the U.K. (11%). Americans, on the other hand, showed stronger support for the increase, a little less than one-in-three (30%) would like to see the number of troops increased. But America is divided on this question deeply along party lines, a division that runs as deep as the transatlantic divide itself. Eighteen percent of the self-identified Democrats versus 35% of Republicans would like to see the number of troops increased.
This common perception of a bleak situation in Afghanistan coupled with low public support for more troops indicates that U.S. foreign policy has reached a major crossroads. If Obama would like to maintain his massive popularity among the U.S.'s main military allies as well as his own constituency and military leadership, he needs to find a solution that will strike a cord with all of these.
Transatlantic Trends 2009 is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo in Turin, Italy, with additional support from the FundaÃ§Ã£o Luso-Americana (Portugal), the FundaciÃ³n BBVA (Spain), and the Tipping Point Foundation (Bulgaria). It measures broad public opinion in the United States and 12 European countries and gauges transatlantic relations through interviews with more than 13,000 people. For the eighth consecutive year, participants were asked their views on each other and on global threats, foreign policy objectives, world leadership, and multilateral institutions.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.