It Matters Whether Americans Call Afghanistan a Defeat
The public’s judgment about whether the United States won or lost the war will affect civilian-military relations for years to come.
The Trump administration appears poised to announce, within days or weeks, a deal with the Taliban that will involve a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. If that happens, the administration may soon find itself in a new battle over public opinion. The question then would be: Did the United States win or lose?
The answer depends partly on the terms of a potential deal, but also on the public narrative that forms around it. A negotiated peace normally involves concessions by both sides, and can therefore be characterized in multiple ways; critics of the deal now taking shape are describing it as a U.S. surrender, while proponents will likely portray it as an honorable end to America’s longest war. Whether the deal comes to be seen as a victory or a defeat could influence relations between the military and civilian leadership for years to come.
Following the Vietnam War, a narrative developed among the U.S.-military officer corps that civilian leaders had stabbed military leaders in the back by cutting a deal to withdraw U.S. troops, rather than allowing them to win. A broader literature suggests that a “stabbed in the back” narrative is a common cultural response among militaries that have failed to achieve their wartime goals. Many of these frames have staying power. The Powell Doctrine—war should be a last resort, and exercised only with a commitment to using overwhelming military force—played a major role in national-security debates in the 1990s, but had its roots in Vietnam.
The legacy of the Afghan War—now in its 18th year—will similarly depend on whether civilians, veterans, and current military personnel believe the United States won or lost.
In fact, we can make plausible inferences regarding how civilian and military opinions might evolve if a deal is struck. Drawing on an original survey administered for us online by the National Opinion Research Center to 4,500 American adults in late June and early July, the two of us have been studying public attitudes toward the military. In addition to a large number of civilians who had never served in the military, we also reached as many as 700 veterans and 200 active-duty personnel from the various services. (Although our sample of active-duty troops is relatively small, previous surveys have shown that on some key foreign-policy, national-security, and military-policy issues, veteran attitudes track fairly closely with active-military attitudes, and our survey appears no different.) Three major themes emerged from our research:
First, although Americans don’t think the war in Afghanistan is a mistake, they’re probably ready for it to end. In our survey, only 29 percent of respondents told us they believed the Afghan War was a mistake; 45 percent believed it wasn’t a mistake, while 26 percent were unsure. Unlike opinions on the Iraq War—which a supermajority of Democrats but only a minority of Republicans believe was a mistake—opinions on the war in Afghanistan showed few partisan or civil-military gaps. Only 31 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of Republicans told us the war in Afghanistan was a mistake; just 30 percent of veterans and 29 percent of nonveterans said the war was an error.
Still, President Donald Trump has some basis for thinking a troop withdrawal by the 2020 election would be “job-enhancing” for him, as he reportedly told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late last month. Even though most Americans don’t think the war was a mistake, they appear ready for American troops to come home. When asked whether they would support the decision if Trump authorized the withdrawal of U.S. troops, 55 percent said yes, and only 23 percent said no. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans would back a troop withdrawal by Trump, but Democrats were not far behind; 57 percent of them would approve. Approximately 55 percent of both veterans and nonveterans told us they would support a troop withdrawal, along with an overwhelming 72 percent of those on active duty.
Second, whether or not troops come home might not be the only thing that matters. The terms of an agreement with the Taliban and how that agreement is framed—as a victory or defeat—will influence public support for the deal, especially among veterans and active-duty troops.
In our survey, we included an experiment. One group of 619 respondents, the control group, received no additional information about the war in Afghanistan; they answered questions solely based on their own knowledge of the situation. Another group of 584 respondents read a paragraph telling them that the United States had achieved none of its strategic goals, and that it was clear the U.S. had lost the war in Afghanistan. A final group of 574 respondents read a paragraph telling them that no large-scale terrorist attacks have occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11, and that the U.S. may soon be able to declare victory in Afghanistan.
For civilians who were not veterans, the effects of these treatments were modest. Compared with the control group, civilian respondents who were told the war was a U.S. defeat were 6 percentage points less supportive of a potential troop withdrawal (49 percent), and those who were told the war was a victory were a negligible 2 percentage points more likely to support a troop withdrawal (57 percent). For veterans, however, the effects were large and significant. When told the United States had lost the war in Afghanistan, veteran and active-duty support for troop withdrawal dropped 13 points, to 46 percent overall. When told the U.S. could declare victory, veteran and military support increased 11 points, to 70 percent.
Third, and perhaps most important, the perception that the U.S. is cutting a deal and leaving Afghanistan in defeat could have a lasting, negative impact on American civil-military relations if such a narrative takes hold. A final deal has remained elusive because the Taliban has allegedly not yet agreed to denounce al-Qaeda or provide all the counterterrorism assurances U.S. negotiators have requested. The terms of a potential deal likely will shape how civilians and military will view the end of the Afghan War.
In our survey, we asked some respondents whether civilian leaders, military leaders, or America’s enemies deserved the blame for the outcome of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; we asked other respondents who deserved the credit. When veterans were told the U.S. won the war in Afghanistan, more of them gave civilian leaders credit, and fewer of them gave military leaders credit. In victory, nonveteran civilians were similarly charitable toward the military; more of them gave military leaders credit, and fewer credited civilians.
When told the United States had lost the war in Afghanistan, however, civilian and veteran opinions polarized. Veterans were more likely to blame civilian leaders. Fewer civilians blamed civilian leaders, and more blamed military leaders. Moreover, the percentage of civilians expressing confidence in the military dropped by almost 10 points, from 75 to 66 percent, a lower level of public confidence in the military than at any time since 9/11. Among the control group of respondents who weren’t told the United States had won or lost in Afghanistan, 74 percent of civilians and 90 percent of veterans expressed confidence in the military. That civilian-military gap nearly doubled among those respondents who were told the U.S. had lost. Older veterans were particularly likely to blame civilians and express confidence in the military.
Our survey results do not exist in a vacuum. They are themselves a function of a larger context, marked by continued costs in blood and treasure and by the fact that neither Trump nor President Barack Obama spent much energy rallying public support for the Afghan War. President George W. Bush made a sustained effort to do so. Previous research had shown that Americans would be willing to continue to bear the costs of war, provided that they saw that the war was on a trajectory to a successful conclusion. The Bush team internalized this logic—something that one of us, Peter Feaver, saw firsthand. But the uneven rate of progress on the battlefield was an obstacle to mobilizing support. Apart from some high-profile speeches, Bush’s successors have mostly chosen to keep the war under the radar, leaving it often overlooked or misunderstood by the public.
In the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama emphasized the “good” war in Afghanistan as compared with the Iraq War, which he opposed. More than a decade has passed since a prominent political leader made an unequivocal case for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Given the continuing costs and the absence of major political leaders willing to argue for this mission, it is not surprising that the public is open to heading for the exits.
However, our survey suggests that if Afghanistan does again become a matter for sustained political debate, public attitudes about the war and the legacy may be persuadable, in both a favorable and an unfavorable direction. Has the investment been worth it? How Americans answer that question will affect how civilian political leaders and senior military leaders interact with one another well into the future.