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Afghanistan: A good war goes bad

Not long ago, the war in Afghanistan, unlike its companion in Iraq, enjoyed wide public support, enabling Democrats to demonstrate toughness in response to terrorism. For reasons substantive and political, many complained that President George W. Bush, and the press, ignored the more important conflict there to focus on an unnecessary war in Iraq.

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In the “be careful what you wish for” category, as American involvement in Iraq has begun to wind down, the war in central Asia has grabbed more headlines, leaving the American people with a less than palatable portrait. Success, the rule of law and democracy all appear uncertain, with widespread corruption apparently the only enduring verity.

Our deteriorating circumstances are evident in the changing views of Afghans themselves. While they certainly despise the Taliban, they have also grown somewhat weary of the United States. Polling by ABC News and others revealed that between 2005 and 2009, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. plummeted by 26 points, while unfavorable views skyrocketed by almost 40 points. While Afghans support the efforts of U.S. troops in their country, just  18 percent want to see more soldiers, while pluralities want the American presence decreased.

A once-certain victory now appears to be unraveling. In 2003, CBS found 76 percent of Americans saying the war in Afghanistan was going well. Just half as many express that view today.

The result is a dramatic decline in support for the war, particularly among Democrats. Back when victory seemed at hand, some nine in 10 Americans supported military action in Afghanistan. By 2006, Americans divided evenly on the war, according to CNN polling. Now, however, opposition has escalated to 58 percent, with a 39 percent minority continuing to support the war effort. Just 23 percent of Democrats now support what once seemed the “good” war.

Americans are also unwilling to commit more troops — Ipsos found only 35 percent supporting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request — including just 27 percent of Democrats.

Our own polling suggests the president retains considerable leeway with his base, even as Democrats oppose his policy. In a poll of primary voters, we allowed everyone to vote for a candidate who favored withdrawal, but then split the sample. For half, we pitted the candidate of withdrawal against an opponent who favored “President Obama’s policy in Afghanistan.” The supporter of the unstated Obama policy won Democratic primary voters by a 28-point margin. We offered the other half of the sample a choice between the candidate who favored withdrawal and one who “says the U.S. was attacked by al Qaeda and their Taliban allies who ran Afghanistan and we need to ensure they don’t retake control of that country even though it means putting our troops in harm’s way.” Asked to choose between withdrawal and the president’s actual position, primary voters preferred withdrawal by an 11-point margin.

Political calculation seems to favor a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, even at the cost of “failure” — as Gen. McChrystal put the choice. A critical caveat complicates the political calculus, however.

We are not dealing with a defanged and disarmed Saddam Hussein here — we are dealing with those who did attack us on Sept. 11 and have vowed to do so again. Should another attack, planned in Afghanistan, follow an American withdrawal, the political consequences for having “lost” that country to the Taliban and al Qaeda would be catastrophic — not to mention the real consequences for our country.

Difficult choices define a dilemma.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.