Panetta: ‘We cannot fight wars by polls’

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that poll numbers showing declining public support for the war in Afghanistan should not change U.S. strategy.

“We cannot fight wars by polls,” Panetta said at a joint press conference in Ottawa with the Canadian and Mexican defense ministers.


“If we do that, we're in deep trouble,” he said. “We have to operate based on what we believe is the best strategy to achieve the mission that we are embarked on. And the mission here is to safeguard our country by ensuring that the Taliban and al Qaeda never again find a safe haven in Afghanistan.”

Panetta acknowledged that the U.S. public is tired of war, but said that 2011 was an important turning point and that Washington could not abandon its mission despite several difficult incidents in Afghanistan.

A New York Times/CBS poll released Tuesday found that support for the Afghanistan war continues to drop, with 69 percent of respondents against the ongoing U.S. presence there.

Calls for a quicker withdrawal have increased in the wake of two high-profile incidents: the burning of Qurans that sparked massive protests and violence, and the massacre of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly by a rogue U.S. soldier.

The Obama administration says it does not intend to hasten the withdrawal from Afghanistan, planned by the end of 2014.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter McKay agreed with Panetta, saying, “A Canadian prime minister once said that ‘polls are for dogs.’ ”

Panetta said “there's no question that the American people are tired of war, just as the Afghan people are tired of war.”

But he said that the public still understands why the country is in Afghanistan, and that gains were made last year.

“We have seen the level of violence go down,” Panetta said. “We continue to have sporadic incidents of violence. Of course, this is a war — we're going to see that happen. But it shouldn't undermine our efforts to continue the strategy we're on.”