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Trump’s challenge: A wall of public skepticism on Afghanistan War

When President Donald Trump unveils his plans for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan on Monday night, he will be confronting an American public that’s deeply skeptical of increasing the nation’s investment in the long-running conflict.

After more than 15 years of war in Afghanistan, Americans don’t believe the U.S. is making significant progress, and they’ve soured on keeping troops in the country, polls show. And in recent years, a majority of Americans has said the Afghanistan War — which began in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — was a mistake in the first place.

A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted earlier this month underscores Trump’s challenge. Only 23 percent of voters said they believe the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan. Thirty-eight percent said the U.S. is losing the war, though 39 percent said they have no opinion.

If Trump announces that he intends to increase troop levels, the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll suggests it won’t be popular initially. Only 20 percent of voters said they thought the U.S. should increase the number of troops it has in Afghanistan — compared to 37 percent who want to draw down troop levels and 24 percent who want to keep levels about the same. Nineteen percent had no opinion.

Increasing troop levels is more popular among Trump’s electoral base, however. Thirty-one percent of both Republicans and Trump voters said the U.S. should increase troop levels, and 38 percent of voters who strongly approve of the president’s job performance.

But a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan could also amplify the historically wide gender gap concerning the president’s job performance. In last week’s Gallup tracking poll interviews, Trump approval among male respondents, 43 percent, ran far ahead of his approval rating among women: 29 percent.

This month’s POLITICO/Morning Consult poll showed a gender gap on Afghanistan troop levels, too: 26 percent of male voters supported sending more troops to Afghanistan, but only 15 percent of female voters agreed.

Polling suggests that Trump, who will become the third president to address the nation on Afghanistan, will find the country’s mood has moved substantially from the tenures of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In November 2001 — roughly a month into the conflict — only 9 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they thought the U.S. made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan; 89 percent said it wasn’t a mistake.

Even after more than seven years of war, two weeks into Obama’s presidency just 30 percent said it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan, while 66 percent said it wasn’t.

But that slipped as Obama’s presidency progressed and the U.S. drew down its troop levels. The last time Gallup asked the question, back in June 2015, a 54 percent majority said the war was a mistake, and only 42 percent said it wasn’t.

Other pollsters asked Americans to evaluate the war in another way — was it worth it? On those questions, there was even less support for the conflict. In December 2014, 56 percent of Americans told an ABC News/Washington Post poll that, “considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits,” the war was not worth fighting. Only 38 percent said the war was worth fighting.

Still, this month’s POLITICO/Morning Consult poll points to a path forward for Trump to sell a troop increase to Americans. Despite the overall hesitance to commit more troops to the effort, 40 percent of voters agreed with this statement: “When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs a new, more aggressive strategy, even if that means deploying more U.S. troops.” That’s more than the 32 percent who agreed more with the alternative statement: “The U.S. should withdraw all U.S. troops, even if that means a decreased ability to combat insurgent forces, such as the Taliban and ISIS extremists.” Twenty-eight percent had no opinion between the two statements.

It’s an argument that would play best with the president’s political base: 56 percent of self-identified Trump voters think more troops should be on the table given those two choices, but only 28 percent of those who said they voted for Hillary Clinton agree.

Should Trump frame a troop increase as necessary to the U.S. effort, however, he risks advocating a policy that runs counter to his past statements and own political instincts. Like the majority of Americans in polls in recent years, Trump called the war a “mistake” during the early days of his presidential campaign — though he later denied saying it.

Previously, on his now-famous Twitter account, Trump’s views on the Afghanistan War appeared unequivocal.

“We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation,” Trump tweeted in November 2013. “Let’s get out!”

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