Will Americans Support a War in Afghanistan?

By Emanuel Boussios and Stephen Cole

President Barack Obama emphasized in his campaign speeches the importance of increasing the size of military forces in Afghanistan. An increase in military forces may lead to an increase in casualties. If this happens, will Afghanistan become President Obama’s Iraq?

In answering this question it is necessary to look at what factors influence the attitudes of Americans towards war. The primary explanation of attitudes towards war put forth by political scientists is the number of casualties. However, we have just completed a study which suggests that this explanation does not really hold up. For example, look at WWII. In this war, the US Armed Forces suffered in excess of 400,000 fatalities—far and away the greatest number of fatalities a US military operation has led to. Yet the great majority of Americans continued to support the war. The justifications of war for WWII were convincing to the American public and were grounded on a rational basis—self defense and sheer survival—and a moral basis (to defeat Fascism). In fact we found that it is primarily whether or not the public accepts the justification for the war which determined whether they oppose or support it.

We have detailed data from the Iraq War. In that war, with the increase in the number of troops on the ground, there was a significant decline in the number of fatalities. Looking at casualty figures before and after the “surge” in Iraq clearly indicates the success of this operation. The “surge” began in January 2007. At the time, we were experiencing approximately 100 fatalities a month. After the “surge” troops were fully deployed, American deaths in Iraq have been in steady decline. In the month of March 2009, for example, American fatalities—9—is the lowest monthly tally of the Iraq War.  

After the “weapons of mass destruction” justification failed, the Bush administration tried to convince Americans that the purpose of the Iraq War was to protect Americans from terrorists and help us win the war against terrorism. These efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The “surge” has not made Americans anymore likely to accept the “terrorist” justification. If the “casualty” explanation were correct, we should see a sharp decline in the opposition to the war after the “surge.” Instead we found an increase in opposition despite the success of the “surge.”

The probability that Americans will begin by supporting the new administration and the war in Afghanistan and then continue to support it as the number of troops and fatalities mount depends on how the Obama administration defines the justification of the war and whether or not Americans accept this justification as legitimate.

Although Obama is not responsible for starting the Afghanistan War, he will be responsible for increasing the number of troops deployed.

The justification for the war in Afghanistan should be defined as an important step in the war against terrorism and al Queda. In particular it will be more likely to be accepted if the war is seen as part of an effort to eradicate the terrorist training camps there, to eliminate the resurgence of the Taliban, and to bring Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist followers to justice. Then, Americans will probably continue to support the war effort.

We can expect, however, that there will be many critics of the Afghanistan war. If these critics succeed in convincing a significant part of the population that the war there has little to do with the spread of radical Islamic terrorism and is unwinnable, then it is likely that opposition to the war will increase and President Obama will have a serious problem on his hands.

Emanuel Boussios is a visiting assistant professor at Hofstra University. He is currently working on a monograph on attitudes of Americans towards war. Stephen Cole is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University. For many years he ran a public opinion research company.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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