Afghanistan Most Unpopular War Ever?

The "good war" no more.

US Afghanistan

A new CNN Poll shows public approval of the War in Afghanistan hitting lows that surpass even the levels reached by the wars in Iraq or Vietnam, raising the question of whether Afghanistan is now the most unpopular war in history:

Washington (CNN) – Support for the war in Afghanistan has dipped below 20%, according to a new national poll, making the country’s longest military conflict arguably its most unpopular one as well.

The CNN/ORC International survey released Monday also indicates that a majority of Americans would like to see U.S. troops pull out of Afghanistan before the December 2014 deadline.

“Those numbers show the war in Afghanistan with far less support than other conflicts,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said. “Opposition to the Iraq war never got higher than 69% in CNN polling while U.S. troops were in that country, and while the Vietnam War was in progress, no more than six in 10 ever told Gallup’s interviewers that war was a mistake.”

The U.S. timetable for Afghanistan calls for the removal of nearly all troops by roughly this time next year, and that can’t come fast enough for the vast majority of Americans. Just over half would rather see U.S. troops withdrawn earlier than December 2014. Only a quarter say that America should still have boots on the ground in Afghanistan after that deadline.

Fifty-seven percent say the conflict is going badly for the U.S. and only a third say America is winningthat  the war in Afghanistan.


The discontent evident in the CNN poll is also seen in two other national surveys conducted earlier this month. Two-thirds of those questioned in an ABC News/Washington Post poll said the war has not been worth fighting, and an Associated Press/GfK survey showed 57% saying the U.S. did the wrong thing in going to war in Afghanistan.

What is perhaps most interesting about these numbers is that they come at a time when the war itself has virtually disappeared from American media. Other than brief mentions over the past couple months of the status of the negotiations between the United States and Afghans regarding a new Status of Forces Agreement to cover American troops that may stay behind after 2014, and the occasional mention of an attack that results in the death of an soldier, the Afghanistan War has very much disappeared from American television screens. Of course, this last point as always been true; as I’ve noted several times before, the conflict in Afghanistan has received minimal media coverage for years now. Additionally, casualties in the war have actually dropped over the past couple years, largely due to the fact that American and allied troops appear to be involving themselves in fewer large scale battles and handing more routine patrolling duties over to the Afghan Army and police. According to this chart, for example, total allied casualties in Afghanistan hit a high of 499 in 2010, and have fallen steadily ever since then. The number for 2013 is currently set at 127, although it’s unclear how recently the chart was updated. More interesting to note, though, is the fact that the casualty rates in Afghanistan have never come close to those that the nation experienced during the height of the Iraq War, or most certainly during Vietnam. Of course, that’s in no small part due to the fact that the number of American troops on the ground in Afghanistan have never been as high as those in Iraq, and well below those of Vietnam. In any case, on some level at least, these two facts — the low level of media coverage this war has historically gotten and the relatively low and, since 2010, declining casualty figures, makes it somewhat puzzling that the War in Afghanistan would rank as low as it does in polls at this point.

The most plausible explanation for this, I suppose, is that it is simply just another example of the war weariness that the American public now feels about the decade or more of war that the nation has been through since the September 11th attacks. At the beginning, of course, the Afghan War had near universal support given its connection to our justified desire to punish those responsible for the attacks themselves, and the nation that was giving them safe haven. As time went on, though, and especially as the War in Iraq unraveled in the wake of a post-Saddam insurgency that many had warned about, the tide began to turn. That turn in public opinion also seems to have coincided with the time during which the war in Afghanistan changed its nature from one of seeking to eradicate al Qaeda or hunt down their leadership to one of nation-building in a nation where the central government still doesn’t seem to have much real control outside of Kabul and the other major cities. When President Obama took over and, on the advice of his Generals and civilian advisers, sent a “surge” of U.S. troops into the country and vastly increased the level on-the-ground combat that they were engaging, polling seemed to shift into a permanently downward direction. Was this because of the mostly mixed results of the Obama surge, or because Americans were just getting sick of the wars themselves?

Public opinion in other areas seems to suggest that it’s largely war weariness that was pulling public opinion along rather than something specific about Afghanistan. Evidence in favor of that can arguably be seen in polling during the U.S.’s involvement in the Libyan Civil War, when the public largely opposed President Obama’s policies, as well as the polling in August and September of this year when President Obama was pushing the nation toward military intervention in Syria before the Russians stepped in with a diplomatic solution to the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons. Even polling about military action against a three decade old adversary like Iran shows an American public that is far less eager to be the world’s policeman than they used to be. All in all, that strikes me as a good thing.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Public Opinion Polls, , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I think a lot of it is that people are just tired of the Middle East. They see the entire area as a hopeless cause and just want the US out. There may be limited reports on Afghanistan itself but almost daily reports on Syria and Egypt.

  2. john personna says:

    One of the things I read, before the Afghan invasion, was an article which borrowed heavily from the British experience in the 19th century. It explained the territory, the difficulty of managing competing tribes, etc. And of course it bridged that to the bad Russian experience, which despite technological advantages went quite the same way.

    And so, while I gave Afghanistan a clean moral call for “get Bin Laden,” I was worried.

    Sadly, history repeats even for those warned beforehand.

  3. john personna says:

    (We really should have knocked over the Taliban and then just gone home. Really.)

  4. al-Ameda says:

    We hate it, the Russians hated it, and I’m guessing that, throughout history, anyone (everyone) who has waged war in Afghanistan has hated it.

    Seriously, we should have declared victory 5 years ago and come home.

  5. john personna says:

    BTW, saw a documentary on the new British series “Sherlock.” The producers mentioned the realization that as they brought the series into the 21st century, they could make Doctor Watson, originally a 19th century veteran of Afghanistan … a 21st century veteran of Afghanistan.

  6. Tony W says:
  7. Woody says:

    What does your average American actually know about the current state of the Afghanistan War?

    * It’s an immense expense
    * Drip drip drip of wounded / dead soldiers + affected families
    * bin Laden is dead and lots of jihadists (many No. 2s) stinking up hell with him
    * Awareness of the U.S. getting involved in 13th century blood feuds with absolutely no chance of coming out well
    * Hey, the heroin market is thriving
    * Acid-scarred young women who want an education

    What is there to favor? It’s as blogger Duncan Black has remarked: We’ll stay until we kill those who wish us to leave, then we can leave.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    Six months after we leave Hamid Karzai and his family will get on a plane to Switzerland to be re-united with the billions of American dollars they’ve stolen.

    However, I tend to doubt that the Taliban will ever again give Al Qaeda free rein to attack the US or Europe.

  9. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    There was never any connection to the Taliban on the planning side, was there? I think they just (very foolishly) shielded Bin Laden after.

    Now, sadly the Saudi connections on the planning side have been piling up, but few people want to think or know about that. (For what it’s worth though, I think it was not really state sponsored terrorism on the Saudi side either, probably more favors extended without knowing the full implications.)

  10. Rafer Janders says:

    @john personna:

    There was never any connection to the Taliban on the planning side, was there? I think they just (very foolishly) shielded Bin Laden after.

    True, there wasn’t. The Taliban gave bin Laden shelter, but they weren’t operationally entwined in planning their attacks.

    We tend to forget that bin Laden only wound up in Afghanistan because we forced the Sudanese government to kick him out a few years earlier. Had he planned the 9/11 attacks from Khartoum, we might well have invaded Sudan instead (had their government not given him up) and left the Taliban alone in Afghanistan.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    Of course none of this stops the most dangerous people in the world – the neocons.

    Joe Lieberman Predicts Military Action Against Iran Before the End of 2014

    As we’ve already discussed here, the legislation being pushed by a bipartisan group of Senators could very well draw the United States into a war with Iran, and the White House has said that President Obama would veto the bill if it passes, but that didn’t stop neocon and former Sen. Joe Lieberman from making this prediction on Fox News Sunday: – See more at:

  12. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: Dr. Watson was a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), the good one from the British point of view, as it forced Afghanistan to client status until at least 1919, and the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

    I think the British history is such that if the objectives in Afghanistan are limited (non-disruption of neighboring states), they are achievable with a limited military garrison with payoffs to the central government.

  13. Tillman says:

    Support for the war in Afghanistan has dipped below 20%, according to a new national poll, making the country’s longest military conflict arguably its most unpopular one as well.

    It’s a culture of instant gratification, Doug. You don’t need a thousand words to put together why Americans don’t like the war anymore.

    Americans (most anyone, really) also prefer long, time-reliant, paced storytelling to have an appropriate payoff, and that isn’t working out well either.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    The political lesson is that most Americans have very short attention spans and have a very limited amount of patience. No matter whether it is war, a massive new entitlement, or massive spending program: The government has a very short time period to succeed. All policy, planning, and implementation should be based on the understanding that citizens of the U.S. wanting something now and will not wait.

    That is why problems such as public education cannot be significantly improved in the U.S. and why politically savvy politicians stay away from issues that cannot be fixed quickly.

  15. john personna says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I think the British history is such that if the objectives in Afghanistan are limited (non-disruption of neighboring states), they are achievable with a limited military garrison with payoffs to the central government.

    Oh man, that appeals to my darkest humor.

  16. Mike says:

    Don’t foget on top of the deaths, wounded, and unachievable objectives, this war costs about $6 billion a month. You can build a lot of schools and bridges for that. To put it into perspective, $6 billion is what the NDAA hopes to achieve over 10 years with the recent military retiree cuts.

  17. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Mike: The only problem is no schools or bridges will be built with the savings, at least not with the current political situation.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: I omitted the darker part, which is to maintain a wide latitude of tolerance for corruption and human rights abuses, like forced conversions to Islam or relocations of troublesome tribes. Its quite possible that the U.S. cannot maintain decades of limited control over Afghanistan without feeling ,or being held, responsible for the fact that Afghanistan is not becoming a liberal democracy or an Asian tiger.

  19. C. Clavin says:

    We don’t build schools or fix roads…we cut taxes for rich folks.
    Because massive inequity spurs tremendous economic growth.

  20. Todd says:

    In addition to just general war weariness, another possible explanation to why wars are more unpopular now, is simply to observe that there’s a Democrat in the White House. That was almost certainly the case with Libya, and to some extent, if Afghanistan can be painted as going “badly”, with Obama to blame, many Republicans will be quite happy to “oppose” that war too.

  21. Mike says:

    @C. Clavin: Don’t worry, I have little faith that if we stopped spending the money in Afghanistan today that we would turn around and spend it here on our own infrastructure. I am just pointing out that pouring $6 billion a month in Afghanistan pisses people off – this and kicking the Patriarch off of Duck Dynasty.

  22. Todd says:


    Mike, unfortunately the Afghanistan war “savings” have pretty much all been “spent”. That said, as a military retiree, I do think there’s a pretty good chance that the changes to retirement pay enacted in the latest budget deal will most likely be repealed before they come into effect in 2015. They’ll play some politics first with the funding replacement bills (ie. the Dems care more about illegal aliens than veterans … or, the GOP cares more about protecting companies who hide money overseas than veterans). But eventually, they’ll find a way to change things back to the way they were.

  23. rudderpedals says:

    If we could turn the clock back and try again, but this time without Orrin Hatch giving away the satphone intercepts and with Tommy Franks deploying more than a small team of special operators to Tora Bora, I wonder if we’d still be in Afghanistan? Things would certainly be different.

  24. PD Shaw says:

    @Todd: Republicans supported the Afghanistan War until April of 2013, while the country as a whole no longer thought the war was worth it by 2009. So in a sense you are right, loss of Republican support is important here, but because they were the ones most supportive to begin with and Obama didn’t build any fresh support among Democrats or Independents. And I frankly don’t think many Obama supporters listened to the POTUS campaign on Afghanistan as the good war, or didn’t believe him.

  25. Tyrell says:

    Most people would think that the Vietnam War was the most unpopular – by far. The reason for that was the increasing negative coverage it got in the media. Also, media reporting would have people think that just about the whole country was in a huge protest and upheaval when in actuality most people supported the war effort and our troops. It was the no-win policy of the administrations that they opposed.
    Afghanistan has been a forgotten war, but not as forgotten as the Korean “Conflict”.
    “Somebody wouldn’t let us win” (John Rambo)

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    The Taliban knew Al Qaeda was in their country and gave them moral support although they knew – as everyone did – the type of jihad AQ was pursuing. You can’t shelter a killer and then be surprised when the cops kick your door down.

    Of course the Taliban are evil even without the AQ connection. But we wouldn’t have gone after them had they not sheltered Bin Laden.

    It’s tough to beat someone and make sure they stay beaten when you’re on their turf. See: Vietnam. To pull it off requires an approach that’s more Scipio Aemilianus than we’re comfortable with as a nation.

  27. michael reynolds says:


    The media coverage turned negative because we’d been there for ten years and accomplished nothing. And had no rational reason to be there at all. It was a stupid war, stupidly fought, for no good reason, and unsurprisingly people got sick of having their teenaged sons drafted to die there.

  28. michael reynolds says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I agree that a lot of Obama supporters thought he was a secret dove. In fact he was a not-at-all secret hawk. Neither right nor left has ever really gotten the guy. They each prefer their fantasy version.

  29. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: If you listen to the Johnson White House tapes you see that Johnson and McNamara new the war could not be won in 1964 yet they continued to send resources over there. Tis makes the entire thing criminal.

  30. Lounsbury says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Afghanistan is not in the Middle East. It is Central Asia.

  31. michael reynolds says:

    Interesting isn’t it how some wars remain in the public consciousness and others don’t. Korea no, Vietnam yes. Mexican-American War is all but forgotten (except in Mexico) but we love us some Civil War. War of Independence yes, 1812 not so much. Probably not one American in 20 knows we invaded Canada. No one remembers the Seminole war. Few recall the Philippines occupation or the Spanish-American War that prompted same.

    It’s a sort of macabre popularity contest.

  32. Tony W says:

    One thing the military has done brilliantly is manage that media coverage by embedding reporters with troops. It’s awfully hard to criticize the guys who just saved your life from an IED or mortar attack.

    No news organization with any scruples (I’m looking at you NPR) would agree to such an arrangement – except they all did.

  33. Ron Beasley says:

    @Lounsbury: While true I doubt that many Americans make the distinction.

  34. wr says:

    @Tyrell: Just wondering — what would “winning” in Vietnam have looked like to you? And how many more deaths would it have been worth?

  35. Mike says:

    @Todd: I agree – Congress will cave by April after milking the issue for their own particular gains and pass new legislation.

  36. Ron Beasley says:

    @wr: Wining in Vietnam would not looked very much different than fighting the war. The vast majority of the Vietnamese did not want us there anymore than they wanted the French there. We won when we pulled out – we now have a trading partner and it looks like we are going to get a refueling and staging port for the Pacific Fleet.

  37. Lounsbury says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    All too true.

  38. JKB says:

    Wasn’t this Obama’s war? The good war? His promised top priority?

  39. al-Ameda says:


    Wasn’t this Obama’s war? The good war? His promised top priority?

    I believe that Bush sent troops to Afghanistan, right?

    It is true that Obama placed more emphasis on Afghanistan because of the pursuit of Bin Laden, and it is also true that Obama is implementing a phased down approach to our military involvement there – although, not fast enough for my preference.

    It is unfortunate that Bush invaded Iraq for no reason related to the security of the United States. If he had focused his efforts on Afghanistan rather than Iraq we might have squandered far fewer resources and realized a marginally better outcome.

  40. rudderpedals says:

    @JKB: How could it not be his war? He’s on the spot. Fortunately we’re winding the visible presence down. That’s a good thing.

  41. PD Shaw says:

    @JKB: Obama nearly tripled the number of troops sent to Afghanistan, increased DOD spending on Afghanistan 50% per month, and during his Presidency approximately 77.3% of U.S. casualties from hostilities in Afghanistan occurred.

  42. wr says:

    @Ron Beasley: Well, sure. But you’re not the guy quoting “they wouldn’t let us win.”

  43. john personna says:

    @PD Shaw:

    So where did the idea for the Afghan surge really come from? Doug says:

    When President Obama took over and, on the advice of his Generals and civilian advisers, sent a “surge” of U.S. troops into the country and vastly increased the level on-the-ground combat that they were engaging, polling seemed to shift into a permanently downward direction.

    In that case, Obama would have made the “mistake” of trusting domain experts.

  44. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I believe as a first principle in self-determination.

    I can see, that in extreme situations, we might want to override that. The world might unite to address some horrible and oppressive government, but I think we’ve seen that when we displace pretty terrible governments, it is really hard to just hand them anything much better.

    The dream falls short of the reality, probably because those terrible governments were caught in the dark side of self-determination. They were governments of the people.

  45. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there’s major revisionism going on in the comments here. The objectives in Afghanistan always included leaving a country that was stable and able to defend itself when we left. That was never an achievable goal. It wasn’t achievable after two years, after five years, after ten years. It probably wouldn’t be achievable in fifty years or a century.

    The last successful invader of Afghanistan was Alexander and he left a colony of loyal followers behind when he left. That was never our plan.

    Just invading, killing Osama Bin Laden, and removing the Taliban and Al Qaeda was also never our plan.

    So those of you who supported the initial invasion bought into either a) colonization of Afghanistan or b) an objective that was never achievable. Or else you just didn’t want to listen when the goals were stated.

  46. john personna says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    When was nation-building actually announced?

    I remember “give us Bin Laden,” and then sending the WTC flag to fly on the battle group. (The moment the Taliban should have given up.) I don’t remember nation-building until after.

  47. john personna says:

    A blast from the past:

    Taliban Rejects Bush Ultimatum

  48. Dave Schuler says:

    @john personna:

    Unless you assume that we were willing just to let the Taliban and Al Qaeda set up shop there again it was implicit. It was also implied in the statement G. W Bush made announcing the invasion (something about “we are friends of the Afghan people”) and the Bush Administration’s outline of its strategy for the War on Terror.

  49. john personna says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Are you saying the ultimatum was a lie, then?

  50. PD Shaw says:


    The invasion of Afghanistan, particularly in the context of support from the international community, was partly draped in self-flagellation over how “the West” abandoned Afghanistan after aiding the rebels in ousting the Soviets in ’79. While I think a lot of the finger-pointing was overwrought in failing to recognize Afghan agency in the matter (something that should be clearer by now), I do think there was at least some sense that “the West” should help Afghanistan get back to a point before ’79 when we could safely ignore the country.

    Example: “I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974.” from Remembering Afghanistan’s Golden Age.

  51. Rafer Janders says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    The last successful invader of Afghanistan was Alexander and he left a colony of loyal followers behind when he left.

    Well, no, that’s not quite true. While there’s a trope that “Afghanistan can’t be conquered” it has in fact been conquered and held many, many times over the last 2000 years. However, most of those conquests have been by non-Western, Central Asian conquerors such as the Mongols, Timur the Lame (aka Tamerlane), Babur the Tiger, etc. who are not as well known in the West.

  52. john personna says:

    If the Taliban had kicked Bin Laden to the curb world history in the early 21st century might have gone quite a bit differently.

  53. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think we needed to colonize, but if we were going to remake Afghanistan we were going to have to be harder people than we turned out to be, and more patient as well.

    The whole “blow sh!t up and democracy ensues” approach was doomed. It’s missing the middle part, “place boot on neck, replace old institutions with new ones, maintain for 20 years.”

    @Rafer Janders:

    Exactly. Hence my Scipio reference earlier. It’s not that it can’t be done, it just can’t be done by people who are going to go weak in the knees every time they see a village blown up. Conquest is cruel business. We burned Germany and Japan to the ground and left their people starving. Then we wrote them a constitution. You can’t half-ass the whole thing — as any Mongol could have told us.

  54. superdestroyer says:

    @Tony W:

    If they are not embedded, they how are they suppose to report from the front lines. Do you really think they are going to drive around Iraq or Afghanistan alone?

  55. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: War of 1812 : one of history’s most bizarre and curious events. Yet most people would not be able to give one fact about it.It also was one of the most important events in US history, a war that the US came close to losing. The key issue can be summed up with one word: shipping. At the end both sides decided it was not worth it and signed an agreement. The largest battle was fought after the war was over: Colonel Andrew Jackson led a motley crew of pirates, prisoners, and Tennessee back woodsmen to victory over a superior British army at New Orleans in one of the greatest military accomplishments in history.
    The History Channel has an excellent program about this overlooked event: see “First Invasion”.

    “We fired once more and they began a runnin’ right down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico”
    (Johnny Horton).

  56. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: “Manifest Destiny Manifest Destiny “