America must keep up the fight in Afghanistan despite the polls. Fifty-one percent of Americans now think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week. That is a dramatic 10-point move since March, when the number of war skeptics was at 41 percent. It’s the first time since the question was asked in 2007 that the “not worth it” number was higher than 50 percent. Among Democrats, the antiwar number is 70 percent.
The Afghan war is following a pattern established more than 50 years ago. Since the end of World War II, every long-duration limited conflict has witnessed a slow erosion of public support on the question of whether the war was worth fighting. This makes sense intuitively; the longer a war continues, the more it costs and the less the original reasons for fighting it seem to matter. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor said the Korean War “illustrated the difficulty of convincing the American people and keeping them convinced for the long pull of the necessity and justification of exposing the lives of a small segment of our manhood for a stake far from home with little visible relation to the national security.” The same could be said of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Public belief in the value of the Korean conflict dropped slowly but steadily after the first 18 months of war. The same was true of Vietnam. By the fall of 1967, a majority of Americans were saying that military intervention in Indochina was a mistake. According to polls on the Iraq war, a majority of Americans had concluded the war was not worth it in September 2004, and that number stayed in the high-50 to mid-60 percent level through the most recent poll last month.
The question of whether a war is worth fighting is unrelated to the public assessment of how the war is going generally. For example, President Obama’s Afghanistan policies are rated positively by 60 percent. This tracks with experience in other wars. In June 2007, 32 percent of Americans thought the United States was making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, while 64 percent did not. After the successful implementation of the surge counterinsurgency strategy, the numbers reversed, with 61 percent believing progress was being made and 34 percent thinking otherwise as of last month. But the “not worth it” number barely budged; it stood at 61 percent at the beginning of the surge and now stands at 62 percent. What this says is that whether the United States is winning or losing doesn’t matter to how people value the war overall.
It helps to remember why the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place: to destroy al Qaeda’s functioning terror infrastructure and overthrow the Taliban regime that had given Osama bin Laden safe haven and oppressed the Afghan people. The United States achieved these goals in a few months, more rapidly than most people predicted. Since then, the coalition has been working to stabilize the country to prevent the return of the same evils that brought us the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The question of whether the war has been worth it cannot reasonably be answered without taking into account the costs of inaction or failure — a resurgent Taliban and restored al Qaeda, both with even more reason to target the United States.
In a speech last week to the annual conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Mr. Obama said, “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” We agree. The war in Afghanistan is worth fighting because we cannot afford to face the alternative.