CLEVELAND, Ohio/AMESBURY, England (Reuters) - Public backing for the war in Afghanistan is fraying on both sides of the Atlantic as casualty counts rise and the conflict emerges from the bloody shadows of Iraq.
While public discontent is nowhere near the levels seen during the peak of the six-year-old war in Iraq, the increasing death toll in Afghanistan, and a sense that a resolution remains far off, are unsettling voters and there are signs this may grow into more widespread disaffection if no concrete progress is made.
“The Americans are there in force, but the other countries seem loathe to be there. It’s just us and the Americans and I really don’t think they can win really,” said Keith Hicketts, a retired police officer from near the small market town of Amesbury on the edge of Salisbury Plain in England.
The sting of a global recession may make public support more fragile on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Why are we fighting a war halfway around the world when the real war is here in America? We should be fighting homelessness or joblessness, not some enemy in a foreign country,” said Louis Hawkins, a pastor in Cleveland, a city in middle America.
Attention has increasingly focused on the rising casualty count in Afghanistan as President Barack Obama fulfills his pledge to take the war to the Taliban by boosting U.S. troop numbers to 68,000 by the end of the year, while winding down involvement in Iraq.
July has become the deadliest month in Afghanistan for both U.S. and British troops since the 2001 invasion, with British deaths now outnumbering the toll from Iraq. The U.S. and British contingents are the two largest in Afghanistan.
Critics are demanding to know what level of commitment will be needed to prevail in Afghanistan, a country notorious for drawn-out wars that have humbled great powers in the past -- the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 after 10 fruitless years during which it had more troops on the ground than the United States and NATO now do.
Afghanistan’s history as a quagmire inevitably draws comparisons to America’s 1960s-era struggle in Vietnam, in which majority support turned into violent protest as the war dragged on into the 1970s.
In Ohio, traditionally a bellwether state in U.S. elections, worries are growing that Afghanistan could become the next Vietnam.
“You don’t hear much about Afghanistan, but you didn’t hear much about Vietnam early on,” said Carty Finkbeiner, the mayor of Toledo. “I worry this will be Obama’s Achilles’ heel. I worry this is not a winnable war and eventually voters will punish Obama for it.”
Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, led the United States to war in Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His popularity sank over time. Britain was an ally in the 2003 Iraq invasion and has now withdrawn all but about 150 troops, as it focuses on the deepening Afghanistan conflict.
As the death toll from Afghanistan has steadily risen, with 39 U.S. troops and 22 British troops killed in July, the conflict has been more deeply seared in the public’s mind, prompting questions about whether it’s a war worth fighting.
“With Afghanistan, it’s only really just become a proper war in the eyes of the public,” said John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
“If it comes to be seen as a war, and then comes to be seen as a war in which we cannot prevail, then that’s obviously not going to be good for the government, and you can see even now how the government is trying to avoid that becoming the case,” he said.
The ruling Labour Party of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who must call elections within a year, is trailing the opposition Conservatives in polls due to the recession, party scandals and criticisms about how the war is being waged.
“I think (British soldiers) are undermanned, definitely. I think they haven’t got enough troops and equipment. I think it can change the way people vote; it will change the way I vote,” said Paula Hastings, 27, a young mother in Amesbury who said she has friends serving in Afghanistan.
The British Independent newspaper published an opinion poll this week that found 52 percent of people thought troops should be withdrawn immediately. An earlier poll by ICM found 46 percent supported the war.
U.S. opinion polls show about half of Americans support the Afghanistan war. A Gallup poll found 54 percent said the war was going well, while 36 percent said it was a mistake from the beginning.
There was broad support globally for the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in light of the ties between the country’s ruling Taliban and al Qaeda, the militant group which carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.
Afghanistan was largely forgotten as attention focused on Bush administration assertions that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat, precipitating the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
At the peak of the protests over U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan was a non-issue for most American peace activists.
“American voters have a reputation for being fickle, but they understand the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Brian Rothenberg of ProgressOhio.
While at this point the economy and healthcare reform dominate U.S. public concerns, voters could turn against the Afghanistan war and Obama if the conflict were to drag on without clear signs of progress.
It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan will factor in November 2010 congressional elections when all 435 seats of the U.S. House of Representatives and a third of the U.S. Senate seats are up for election.
Members of Congress, even some of Obama’s fellow Democrats, have said they will give him a year to prove himself.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month that U.S.-led forces must gain ground against insurgents within the next year to avoid a public perception the war is unwinnable.
“After the Iraq (war) experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway,” Gates told the Los Angeles Times. “The troops are tired. The American people are pretty tired.”