The Afghanistan Paradox: Evaluating Prospects for a New Antiwar Movement

The antiwar movement is all but dead and buried.  Turnout at the March 20th, 7th year anniversary of the Iraq invasion in Washington D.C. was pitiful, estimated at approximately ten thousand.  To make matters worse, approval of the war in Afghanistan has not fallen, but slightly increased in the last few months as U.S. marines led 15,000 troops in an assault on the southern town of Marjah (in the Helmand province) in an effort to dislodge Taliban forces from the area.  Tragically, the February assault was accompanied by the deaths of dozen of civilians, severe shortages of food and medicine, and the displacement of upwards of 3,700 families — or more than one fourth of Marjah’s pre-siege population.

Obama’s most recent visit to Afghanistan was accompanied, as the New York Times reports, by “a backdrop of tension between [Afghan President] Karzai and the Americans that has not substantially abated since Karzai was declared the winner of an election tainted by fraud.”  Criticisms of U.S. progress are also becoming increasingly common in U.S. discourse, as Newsweek documents the failure to train Afghan police who “are central to Washington’s plans for getting out of Afghanistan.”  Afghan trainees “don’t listen, are undisciplined, and will never be real policeman.”  Newsweek laments that “crooked Afghan cops supply much of the ammunition used by the Taliban,” while the State Department’s efforts “to build a post-Taliban policy force have been plagued from the start by unrealistic goals, poor oversight, and slapdash hiring.”  This is the same old story we’ve heard in intellectual discourse during past wars: ungrateful third world locals simply can’t, or won’t appreciate the major sacrifices U.S. leaders reluctantly endure.  The selfishness and ineptitude of the occupied eventually forces a rethinking of our “humanitarian” efforts in light of wars that are increasingly seen as “too costly” or “unwinnable.”  Pragmatic concerns about “mismanagement” of wars dominate heated debates in the mass media.

A Paradoxical War

The study of public opinion on Afghanistan begins with a paradox, revealed in recent polling data: how is it possible for Americans to be both opposed to the Afghan war in general, but supportive of the recent surge of 30,000 troops?  A Bloomberg poll from December 2009 found that 62 percent of Americans approved of Obama’s troop increase.  At the same time, 55 percent opposed the Afghan war when asked in a CNN poll from the same month.  How could such seemingly disparate results coexist?  The answer lies in the progression of a culture of dissent that’s evolved over the last 45 years and has reached new heights in the last six months.  A close examination of public opinion on Obama’s troop increase shows that support for the surge is carefully qualified, with majority support reached only when pollsters preface their questions — as in the Bloomberg poll – with the promise that the surge will be accompanied by “a timetable to begin withdrawal of additional forces in July 2011.”  This qualifier contains the key to the Afghanistan paradox: support for escalating foreign wars can now be sustained only when accompanied by explicit promises of withdrawal within a relatively short time period.

Short-Term Manipulation

No one is denying that the public can be manipulated in the short term by officials.  This clearly happened in December 2009, when Obama mustered razor-thin majority support for the surge following an eloquent propaganda campaign — echoed in the mass media — stressing the dire need to “fight terror” in Afghanistan and invoking the memory of 9/11.  A “rally around the flag” effect consistently takes hold at the onset of wars, as political officials convince Americans to support invasions through fear mongering about imminent foreign threats and the need to “support the troops” that are in harm’s way.  A small rally appears to have materialized as of late 2009, when Obama ordered another 30,000 troops into battle in Afghanistan.

Exposure to pro-war messages from the president and mass media are often followed by substantial jumps in public support for war.  I’ve demonstrated this long standing trend in relation to the 2001 and 2003 Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, and the rhetorical war with Iran from 2007 onward (see my newly released When Media Goes to War from Monthly Review Press).

Recent evidence from the Pew Research Center finds that presidential and media propaganda also exerted a considerable effect in Afghanistan, encouraging support for escalation.  As of December 2009, a majority of Americans — 53 percent — had “heard a lot” about Obama’s planned troop surge.  Sixty-one percent of those who “heard a lot” about the surge in the media supported it, in contrast to those who heard “little or nothing,” of whom just 40 percent supported the war.

Institutionalizing Opposition to War

Political propaganda is extraordinarily powerful in the short term, but is far less effective in the long term in molding the minds of Americans.  The culture of dissent has evolved to the point today where tolerance of casualties is at its lowest in history.  Public opinion on the Afghan war, just three months after Obama convinced the majority of Americans to support his surge, is at a tipping point.  As of March 2010, just 48 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, while 49 percent oppose it.  Scarcely has an escalation been so unpopular (excluding perhaps the 2007 surge) at such an early stage in its development.  Furthermore, public opposition is likely to increase in the coming months and years, at least if past wars are an indication.  Numerous scholarly studies of the Iraq war suggest that antiwar feelings grew as a function of (1) feelings that the war was exacting unacceptable costs in dollars and American lives; and (2) beliefs that the war was unwinnable and immoral in light of escalating violence, suspicion of U.S. oil motives, WMD-related propaganda, and false promises that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators.  As casualties grow, as economic costs increase, and as violence escalates in Afghanistan, opposition is likely to grow as rapidly as it did in Iraq — perhaps faster.

The massive growth of antiwar dissent in recent decades is evident after assessing the pace in which the public turned against the Vietnam and Iraq wars.  In the case of Vietnam, it took far longer for Americans to challenge the invasion, as majority opposition didn’t materialize until at least four years after the 1965 mass invasion of troops.  The majority of Americans didn’t “oppose” the war or conclude that it was a “mistake” until 1969, even though President Kennedy escalated U.S. military involvement as far back as 1961 — eight years earlier.  Moral opposition to the war as “immoral” didn’t reach 58 percent until 1971 — ten years after Kennedy’s escalation.

Public disillusionment with government grew dramatically following the political scandals of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly after the emergence of the Pentagon Papers (which demonstrated that U.S. leaders had systematically lied to the American public about the war in Vietnam), the revelation that the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” (an alleged Northern Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships) probably never occurred, and the fiasco over Watergate.  In hindsight, between 66 to 72 percent of Americans, when asked during the 1980s and 1990s, said retrospectively that the Vietnam War was “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” rather than a noble cause.  By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, deep suspicion was institutionalized in the public mind.  Public opposition to war was openly conceded when the Bush administration implemented the “Powell Doctrine,” which was premised upon the short-term use of overwhelming force, as opposed to relying on long-term occupation and open-ended conflict — both of which would no longer be tolerated by most Americans.

As President Bush concluded in 1991, a “Vietnam Syndrome” had taken hold of the public.  Bush explained this problem in greater detail: “I don’t think that [public] support [for the 1991 Gulf War] would last if it were a drawn-out conflagration.  I think support would erode, as it did in Vietnam.”  It is quite telling that public opposition to open-ended wars is seen as akin to a medical sickness in the eyes of U.S. political and military elites.  No longer are Americans willing to tolerate wars with no end in sight, accompanied by dramatic financial and human costs, and for morally questionable purposes.  Public distrust of government had thirty years to germinate between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the 2003 Iraq war.  The invasion proved enormously popular at first, as the majority of Americans were convinced through media and political propaganda that Iraq posed an imminent threat and was allied with al Qaeda.  By March of 2003, 64 percent of Americans supported the invasion, while 90 percent felt that Iraq posed either an “immediate” or “long term threat.”  Most believed Saddam Hussein was personally responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and that Iraq and al Qaeda were engaged in a WMD-related secret alliance.  Immediately following the attack, 69 percent thought that invading Iraq was the “right thing” to do, rather than a “mistake.”

All this quickly changed, however, within less than a year and a half.  Most Americans disapproved of Bush’s handling of the war by late 2003, less than a year into the occupation.  Majority sentiment that the war was a “mistake” materialized in mid 2004, while most concluded that the U.S. should have “stayed out” of Iraq by July of the same year.  Majorities said by June of 2004 that the war was no longer “worth it,” and most concluded that it was “wrong” to invade Iraq by the end of that year.  Majority support for a timetable for withdrawal emerged soon after, in mid 2005.  Such opposition is notable for a number of reasons.  First off, opposition to the Iraq war emerged within less than two years of the invasion.  Resistance, then, materialized more than twice as quickly as during the Vietnam War by conservative estimates, and more than five times as quickly by more liberal estimates (see the Iraq and Vietnam public opinion statistics above for more on this).  Secondly, opposition occurred during a conflict in which there was no draft and in which far fewer American lives were lost (58,159 lives in Vietnam compared to the 4,387 to date in Iraq).  As these figures demonstrate, antiwar dissent has grown much more prevalent and vigilant at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The culture of dissent has progressed in other ways as well.  Antiwar protests were far larger at the onset of the Iraq war than during Vietnam.  The first protest against the Vietnam War didn’t take place until December 1964 — more than three years after Kennedy’s escalation — with a turnout of 25,000 in Washington D.C.  This contrasts dramatically with protests in early 2003 — which took place before the Iraq war even began — in which an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 demonstrated in San Francisco and between 200,000 and 500,000 marched in Washington D.C.

Public support for antiwar protestors also increased dramatically regarding the Iraq war, in contrast to opinions held during Vietnam.  During the antiwar protests of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, for example, less than 20 percent of Americans felt that Mayor Daley used excessive force in his violent attacks on demonstrators.  By 1969, 52 percent of Americans opposed peaceful protests by students, and 82 percent believed that students who marched against the war should be expelled from school.  In contrast, with Iraq, by March of 2003, 58 percent of Americans felt the war would “start a peace or protest movement like the one during the time of the Vietnam War,” despite the fact that 60 percent thought the war would not “lead to reinstatement of a military draft in this country.”  Sixty-four percent of Americans said during the same month that those “who oppose the war should be able to hold protest marches and rallies.” 

Afghanistan and the Evolution of Dissent

Afghanistan represents a special case whereby we observe a further progression of the culture of dissent.  Obama’s December 2009 speech in favor of the surge represented a historical landmark.  I can think of no other time in American or world history when an imperial power escalated a conflict while simultaneously promising a drawdown of troops within a year and a half.  Obama’s promised troop cuts stand in contrast with Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge, when he refused to promise any troop reductions or foreseeable end to the war.  Obama’s promise, however, should not be taken as evidence of his stronger commitment to democratic representation, so much as a reluctant admission from political elites that Americans will no longer tolerate open-ended conflicts.  It seems clear that public opposition to war has greatly intensified in the last few years, considering that it took approximately a year and a half for the public to turn against the Iraq war, but just a few months for it to turn against Obama’s renewed war in Afghanistan.  Such a rapid escalation in opposition to Obama’s war emerged as a result of the deaths of a few dozen U.S. soldiers between the months of July and August of 2009 — the highest monthly totals for the entire conflict.  It was within these two months that opposition increased by nearly 20 percent, leading a majority to reject the war.  While majority opposition to the Iraq war emerged following the deaths of thousands over the period of a few years, majority opposition to the Afghan war in late 2009 followed the deaths of just a few dozen troops over the period of only a few months.

Progressive activists should be encouraged by the evolution of America’s antiwar culture.  However, a relevant question remains: if Americans are more intolerant of imperial wars now than at any time in history, why is the antiwar movement nonexistent?  During my involvement with the movement over the last seven years, I’ve come to a number of conclusions.  First off, most Americans during the later Bush years became discouraged and depressed after years of protest, only to see the administration mock the movement by escalating the war and refusing to consider a timetable for withdrawal.  Second, and more recently, many Americans fell victim to an unwarranted ecstasy as they stood in awe of the “antiwar” Obama administration, which promised to end wars in the Middle East, but presided over the continuation of one war and the expansion of another.  Sadly, many liberals have yet to shed their ignorance and recognize the imperial aspirations of Obama and the Democrats.  Third, the antiwar movement has lost much of its visibility at a time when the economy is in terrible shape.  Understandably, Americans are concerned with the dramatic cuts in private employment and the draconian reductions in state budgets and employment that are right around the corner.

Now is the time to organize a new antiwar movement, if only we make the effort.  The movement has been dead for the last few years, as anyone who attended recent protests can tell you.  While hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered at marches to protest in D.C. from 2003 through 2005, the turnout for D.C. marches shrunk to between 10,000 to 25,000 by late 2007.  In light of the disappointing turnout in March of this year, it seems that the movement is a shell of what it once was.

There’s no magic solution for how to reinvigorate this movement.  As opponents of war, we simply need to take to the streets and organize with a sense of immediacy that we once had at the onset of the Iraq war.  Without a sustained antiwar movement that enjoys widespread visibility, it’s unlikely that the Obama administration will pursue an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anthony DiMaggio is the author of the newly released When Media Goes to War (Monthly Review Press, 2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).  He teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at: <>.

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