By Sean J. Miller - 08/20/10 10:00 AM EDT
Opposition to the war in Afghanistan, once a mainstay of liberals, is no longer a partisan campaign issue.
A majority of voters want the conflict to end quickly — no matter their party affiliation, according to recent polls.
Prominent liberal activists, reacting to President Obama’s plan to move 30,000 troops into the region, warned late last year the surge could cause Democrats to stay home in the midterm elections.
Now the issue is spreading across the political spectrum as the last of the surge prepares to move into place — just after Obama ordered the remaining U.S. combat troops out of Iraq.
This summer, American forces in Afghanistan suffered back-to-back record casualties, and voters are starting to take notice.
A record number of respondents in the latest CNN poll, 62 percent, said they opposed the war there.
“I see some war fatigue back home,” said Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who’s running for Senate. “There’s a point where we have to say that the Afghan Army is trained up. There has to be a point where we say it’s time to start withdrawing, taking the training wheels off.”
Army Gen. David Petraeus this week sought to reassure war-weary Americans that the conflict in Afghanistan would soon turn a corner. "We're keenly aware that this has been ongoing for approaching nine years,” he told The Washington Post. “We fully appreciate the impatience in some quarters."
Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), a candidate for Senate in Arkansas, said the appointment of Petraeus and the withdrawal of the last combat brigade from Iraq has extended the public’s patience.
“The fact that we are leaving Iraq, that might be taking some of the pressure off of Afghanistan,” he said. “They see we have been able to wrap this up and focus our efforts here fairly shortly as we did in Iraq.”
Boozman, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said opposition to the war was widespread and not confined mainly to liberals as it was in the past.
“It really does cut across support in many different ways,” he said. “You could find among conservatives, liberals or whatever, there is a desire to bring this thing to a close as quickly as possible.”
The Obama administration doesn’t plan to start drawing down forces until next July, but that’s not soon enough for some in his party.
North Carolina Senate candidate Elaine Marshall (D) opposed the surge of troops to Afghanistan and wants American forces to withdraw from the country in an orderly fashion.
"We're spending billions to train a corrupt police force there, and here at home we're laying off policemen and firefighters,” she said in a statement. “We're hiring teachers over there, and here we’re sending teachers to the unemployment lines. If there's a country we need to rebuild, it's America."
Democratic strategist Jim Spencer, who has consulted for Marshall, said her position is no longer considered liberal or left-wing. “It’s a very mainstream message, it’s not a left-wing message at all,” he said.
Liberal Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who faces a tough reelection fight, has been outspoken about a timetable for Afghanistan. He reiterated that stance Thursday.
“Rather than send more troops to Afghanistan, where there is no military solution, the president should lay out a timetable for ending our military involvement there so we are better able to combat al Qaeda’s global network without needlessly risking American lives and spending dollars we don’t have,” he said in a statement.
Candidates in parts of the country where there’s less of a military presence have said they aren’t hearing about the war on the campaign trail.
Washington state Senate challenger Dino Rossi (R) said he’s “rarely” asked about the war when he’s out campaigning.
“Rarely is anyone thinking about foreign affairs when they’re not sure if they’re going to able to put food on the table for their family,” he said. “That’s really the focus — jobs, the economy, budget, spending, deficits. Everywhere I go that’s what people talk about.”
Rossi called Petraeus a “great leader” and said he should make a decision about when American troops should withdraw based on “conditions on the ground.”
“I don’t think you can give a date certain because the enemy will just go on vacation until then,” he said.
Boozman agreed, but with a caveat.
“He’s got my confidence so I’ll support his decisions,” said the congressman. “We’ll see how it progresses — there is a limit.”