» Download Audio
New questions are being raised about U.S. domestic support for the war in Afghanistan in the wake of leaked secret documents about the war and a recent congressional vote on funding for the conflict.
Jim Malone 30 July 2010
President Barack Obama (file)
NATO announced that six more U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, bringing the death toll for July to at least 66 and surpassing the previous month's record as the deadliest for American forces in the nearly nine-year-old war.
But the focus was on the secret military documents leaked by the Internet website WikiLeaks that highlighted the military difficulties in Afghanistan.
Longtime liberal critics of the war in Congress, like Democratic Representative Lynn Woolsey of California, took the opportunity to weigh in.
"I believe this war to be a tragic failure that continues to undermine rather than advance our national security interests," Woolsey said. "The American people are running out of patience, and with 114 members of the House [of Representatives] voting this week against the war spending supplemental [funding bill], Congress is beginning to catch up to the public."
Woolsey referred to a House vote on a war funding bill for Afghanistan and Iraq. The bill passed by a margin of 308 to 114, but 102 Democrats and 12 Republicans voted no. Last year on a similar bill, only 32 Democrats voted no.
Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia was initially a supporter of the war in Afghanistan, but no more.
"You have lost me, for whatever it is worth, in terms of the viability of this mission," he said.
Obama administration officials, from the president on down, condemned the leaks as reckless and dangerous. But they also said the material released by WikiLeaks will not undermine the mission in Afghanistan.
"These documents represent a mountain of raw data and individual impressions, most several years old, devoid of context or analysis," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "They do not represent official positions or policy, and they do not, in my view, fundamentally call into question the efficacy of our current strategy in Afghanistan and its prospects for success."
President Obama finds himself relying more than ever on Republican support to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, even as Republicans seek to block his agenda on most other issues.
Republicans like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have vowed to keep the pressure on Mr. Obama on Afghanistan, as he did in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"We cannot afford defeat in Afghanistan," he said. "The moral effects around the planet, the increase in morale of the radical jihadists and the damage to western civilization will be incalculable. Great powers should be careful about starting, but once they start they should be relentless and implacable about winning."
Gingrich, by the way, is one of a growing number of prominent Republicans considering a run for president in 2012.
Opinion polls suggest public support for the war in Afghanistan has slipped in recent months.
The latest Quinnipiac University poll found 43 percent support the president's handling of the conflict, while 46 percent disapprove.
But the polling on Afghanistan is complicated. That same Quinnipiac poll also found that by a margin of 59 to 34 percent, Americans believe that preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base of operations is still a worthwhile goal for the United States.
On the other hand, only 44 percent believed the war is worth the cost in a recent ABC News Washington Post poll, down from 56 percent in March of last year.
"And so the question is, even if it is real successful, is it worth the cost and effort and money and so forth? And I think a lot of that previous support is turning to, if not opposition, at least to a sort of weariness and discontent," said John Mueller, who monitors public opinion on the war at Ohio State University.
Some analysts predict that the discontent among liberal Democrats over the war will grow in the months ahead.
"I think Obama is going to feel under great political pressure from his political left to at least have a token withdrawal next summer," said political expert Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News.
The Obama administration would like to begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by July of next year, depending on circumstances on the ground. Pressure from the president's liberal Democratic base is likely to have an impact on that decision, says former assistant secretary of state Teresita Schaffer.
"The administration has a political problem. This war is increasingly unpopular," she said. "You've got congressional elections coming up in a few months, another presidential election coming up in 2012. Obama's got a problem with the Democrats. He's got a different kind of problem the Republicans, and I think there is every reason to think that Obama would like for the build-down to be meaningful."
But in terms of this congressional election year, public opinion polls show that the war in Afghanistan still ranks well below the economy and jobs as a top issue for U.S. voters.