Does Afghan War Have Strong Public Support?

President Obama is weighing whether to send more troops to Afghanistan — even as polls show support for the war declining. In what's known as the Powell Doctrine, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that military force should be used only if there was a clear exit strategy. He said the force used should be overwhelming and the operation must have strong public support.

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The president is traveling in Europe today, and he had a visitor aboard Air Force One as it sat on a runway in Copenhagen. General Stanley McCrystal stepped aboard to talk. He is the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The president is considering the general's request for more troops. And one question for both men is whether they can fight a war in Afghanistan without much public support at home.

Here's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: It's a key tenet of what's come to be known as the Powell Doctrine, as in Colin Powell, former secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell argued that military force should be used only if there was a clear exit strategy. He said the force used should be overwhelming, and he said the operation must have strong public support. So does that principle - strong public support - still apply today? The current chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, says yes.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): I'm a Vietnam veteran myself. I'm certainly aware of the criticality of support of the American people for this war and, in fact, any war.

KELLY: Admiral Mullen, speaking recently on NBC. But polls show that critical support is slipping for the war in Afghanistan. Andrew Kohut, who runs the Pew Research Center, says there's no question Americans are now much less enthusiastic about a mission they once endorsed.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): What's clear is that all of these polls show less support than they had been registering earlier in the year - in fact, as recently as this summer.

KELLY: Kohut cites a recent Washington Post-ABC poll that found a majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting. And he says every poll he's seen shows Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. Still, Kohut says the dip in support might be reversible. With the war in Iraq, he notes, support has swung up and down.

Mr. KOHUT: But the overall slope of the line, obviously, in Iraq went down. The question for us now is: What will the overall support for the war in Afghanistan look like? Is this a blip, or is it the beginning of a long-term slide?

KELLY: Generally, when war casualties go up, public support goes down. That's been the case with the three most significant wars since World War II: Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. And it is the case now with Afghanistan, where American casualties in July, August and September are the highest since the war began. But Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina, says the link between casualties and support is not inevitable.

Professor RICHARD KOHN (Military History, University of North Carolina): Americans have shown over their history that they can suffer casualties and, in fact, large casualties. But if a war drags on for a long period of time, American strategy isn't clear and it looks endless, then you have a real problem.

KELLY: That's what happened, Kohn says, during Vietnam - though it wasn't until a couple of years after the first big troop build-ups that public support began to wane.

Prof. KOHN: But it didn't wane simply as opposition to the United States fighting in Vietnam. A great deal of the opposition to the Vietnam War was the way in which the United States was prosecuting it.

KELLY: With what Kohn describes as limited commitment and onerous rules of engagement. Of course, then, as now, the president is the president, and he can decide to fight a war, decide to escalate a war in defiance of public opinion. Remember just two years ago, when President Bush decided to send 20,000 extra troops to Iraq in what came to be known as the surge - this despite polls that showed by that time, more than 60 percent of Americans opposed the war.

Prof. KOHN: What that suggests to me is that it's possible to run against public opinion, but you take great risks doing it.

KELLY: Historian Dick Kohn, who points to how President Bush's party fared in elections the following year. Retired Army Major General Bob Scales says there are also consequences in the war zone if the commander-in-chief commits troops without public support.

Major General ROBERT SCALES (U.S. Army, Retired): To a soldier or Marine who's on his fourth, fifth or sixth rotation, it does matter whether or not he perceives the American people are - appreciate what he's doing, or are even interested in what he's doing. It affects morale.

KELLY: Thus, a dilemma for President Obama. His military commanders in the field favor sending more troops to Afghanistan. Most Americans oppose it. Whatever strategy the president ultimately decides on, there will be a cost and the task of convincing the American public to back him.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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