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Afghanistan Poll Shows Increased Support for Significant Troop Reductions

This Washington Post headline about support for the Afghanistan war rising is half-right at best. First of all, support in measured in the question of whether the war is worth fighting. The killing of Osama bin Laden almost certainly colored the opinions of those who may have otherwise looked skeptically on the war. But that’s a backward-looking reflection. And even then, only 43% of the public agree that the war is worth fighting, up from 31% in March.

The forward-looking question is whether the drawdown should begin. And here’s that answer:

In addition, nearly three in four Americans say the administration should remove a “substantial number” of troops from Afghanistan this summer, although fewer than half of those polled think the government will do so.

I think the implications of the poll are clear. The killing of bin Laden may not have had a lot to do with the war as its being fought right now, but the two events are conflated in people’s minds, and it makes them more comfortable with the outcome of the war in a general sense. But it also signals to many that the war is essentially over, that the mission has been accomplished, and that the removal of many if not most troops can now begin. So the bin Laden factor is a double-edged sword for war defenders.

This is what the White House has to look at when making determinations on troop numbers. Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday that the drawdown would be “real,” but there’s no telling what real will mean. It’s possible that the language will shift from talking about the immediate reduction in troops to giving a timeline for the return of surge forces, which numbered around 30,000. Even though that would bring the force level back only to the pre-2009 status quo, the White House might use that marker to indicate that they are winding down the war. There are suggestions that the impact may be bigger; the President told a local news interviewer yesterday that ““By killing bin Laden, by blunting the Taliban, we have now accomplished a lot of what we set out to accomplish 10 years ago …it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for the Afghans to take more responsibility.” But the actions will be more important than the words.

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David Dayen

David Dayen