Behind the Numbers

Hearts and Minds

As of late 2010, a higher percentage of Afghans than Americans supported the war there. But is that support eroding?

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

It hasn't been a good couple of weeks in Afghanistan. An alleged killing spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales and widely publicized Quran burnings at Bagram airbase threaten to alienate some of the most ardent supporters of America's efforts in Afghanistan: the Afghan people themselves. It may seem hard to believe, but while Americans long ago said the war's costs outweighed the benefits, many Afghans still remained supportive of the U.S. invasion as of late 2010. If that support is now waning, both Americans and Afghans may be calling for the United States to pack its bags and go.

Nearly three quarters of Afghans in late 2010 said the U.S. invasion was a good thing, according to a Washington Post/ABC News/BBC/ARD face-to-face survey. More than six in 10 supported the presence of U.S. military forces and the majority noticed progress in training Afghans to provide security and halting al Qaeda's progress. Kandahar, the province where Bales allegedly killed 16 civilians before dawn on March 11, was one of the few areas where a majority opposed the initial invasion.

Even then, support for the mission didn't translate into glowing ratings for the United States as a whole. A 56 percent majority held unfavorable views in 2010, the highest in six years of surveys, and a monumental shift from 2005, when more than eight in 10 saw America in a positive light. But even after the drop in popularity, America was seen much more positively than its arch enemy: the Taliban. Nearly nine in 10 gave unfavorable marks to Afghanistan's former leaders, with two-thirds seeing the Taliban "very" unfavorably.

Ratings of the war inside Afghanistan differed starkly from those back in the United States. Six in 10 Americans thought the war was not worth fighting in a December 2010 Washington Post/ABC News poll, identical to where it stands in a Post/ABC poll this month.

Most Americans are eager to get out of the conflict. In the latest survey, 54 percent of Americans think the United States should withdraw military forces -- even if the Afghan army is not adequately trained. President Barack Obama's 2010 announcement of troop withdrawals also got positive reviews. Over half thought he was removing troops along the right timeline in a December 2010 Post/ABC poll, and another 27 percent said he should bring them home sooner.

The once-popular war's appeal has waned, in part due to a nose-dive among its strongest supporters. Since Obama took over stewardship of the war from George W. Bush, Republican support for the war has plummeted -- 74 percent said the war was worth it in 2009, but just 47 percent say so now.

Back in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Bales's alleged murder of 16 civilians, less than a month after soldiers were found to have incinerated several Qurans, may have already taken a major toll on support for the U.S. mission.

Hamid Karzai's strong reaction -- calling for the removal of U.S. troops from rural areas and  broad investigations -- may throw a wrench in diplomatic efforts, but from the public opinion perspective his position is critical. More than eight in 10 Afghans had a favorable view of Karzai in late 2010 -- a level of popularity almost unheard of for an American leader.

Even before news about the killings broke, most Americans believed Afghans were opposed to the U.S. military presence. They weren't -- but they might be now.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Behind the Numbers

Persian Mathematics

Despite the Republican claims that Obama's Iran policy is weak-kneed, the American public generally supports his wait-and-see approach. That is, of course, unless it doesn't work.

The poll-watcher analysis series on American public opinion on foreign policy is cross-posted at the Behind the Numbers blog.

President Barack Obama's policy of sanctions and restraint with Iran is widely popular, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, but few give him good ratings when it comes to the nation's intent to develop nuclear weapons.

The issue has election-year implications on both foreign and domestic policy front, with more than eight in 10 Americans believing that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Back at home, rising gas prices are proving a drag on Obama's approval rating on the economy, and providing a potent political weapon for the field of Republican challengers.

Obama has urged restraint with Iran and for allowing sanctions to put pressure on Tehran. "We have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically," Obama argued last week after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Americans by a more than 2 to 1 margin favor a "wait and see" approach on Iran over immediate military action, according to the new poll. Fully 64 percent say it's more important to see if economic sanctions work, even if it allows more time for Iran's nuclear program to progress; only 26 percent support pre-emptive action to halt Iran's progress. Majorities or pluralities across party lines prefer sanctions over immediate action, though Republicans are less supportive than Democrats or independents.

Sanctions may be a core tenet of his administration's approach, but Obama is not reaping much of a reward being cautious. More than half of Americans, 52 percent, disapprove of Obama's handling of the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, while 36 percent approve. The negative assessment could be tied to the political realities of the moment: Most Americans think Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon, and the Obama administration and U.S. allies have yet to ensure that, well, it won't -- and that it will live by its promise to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.

Roughly three quarters of Americans support increasing international sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; even more favor direct diplomatic talks to try and resolve the situation. Support for diplomatic measures is high across the political spectrum, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

Only a much smaller 41 percent support bombing Iran's nuclear development sites, while 53 percent of the public opposes such a move. Partisan divides are sharper on this issue: Majorities of Democrats and independents oppose bombing Iran, while most Republicans favor this option. A similar 42 percent support Israel bombing Iran's nuclear development sites, while 51 percent are opposed.

Americans' hesitance to take direct military action -- or for Israel to do the same -- may be driven by a fear of igniting a larger conflict in the region. More than three quarters of Americans say a bombing attack by Israel would have a major risk of starting a larger war in the Middle East, and this group opposes bombing by nearly 2 to 1. Among those who are doubtful an Iran confrontation would spread throughout the region, a large majority support bombing Iran.

Different surveys have implied mixed conclusions about what the public wants on Iran, as we explored in February. Indeed, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds a 51 percent majority favor military action against Iran, which seems to contradict the Post-ABC poll as well as a CBS/NYT poll last month -- where only 15 percent thought Iran requires "military action now."

The big differences are rooted in survey question wording. When Americans are offered a single solution to combat something they deeply oppose -- Iran acquiring nuclear weapons -- substantial numbers say they're willing to use military force. But when given the choice of military intervention as well as economic sanctions, most opt for the diplomatic route.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images