PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans remain much more likely to say U.S. involvement in Iraq was a mistake than to say the same about Afghanistan, despite the fact that Americans are more likely now than at any point since 2003 to say things are going well for the U.S. in Iraq.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans say U.S. involvement in Iraq was a mistake, contrasted with 36% who say involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake. Americans' views of the way things are going in each war are roughly the same -- 56% say Iraq is going well for the U.S., while 54% say this about Afghanistan.
Since March 2003, Gallup has asked Americans on 79 different occasions whether the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, compared to having asked the same question about Afghanistan only nine times since November 2001. This relative emphasis on measuring public opinion about Iraq versus Afghanistan reflects the fact that Iraq dominated news coverage and political debate in the years after the initial invasion in March 2003, consigning Afghanistan until more recently to a status as the "other" or forgotten war.
The initial reaction to the Iraq war was very positive. Less than half of Americans said the war was a mistake for the first year and a quarter of U.S. involvement there. But by July 2004, perceptions had changed to the point where a majority said the war was a mistake. That percentage fell back under 50% in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election and after President Bush was inaugurated for his second term. Beginning in late summer 2005, however, with only a few exceptions, a majority of Americans have said the Iraq war was a mistake in every survey until now. The high point for the perception that the war was a mistake, 63%, came in April 2008. The current 58% is roughly on par with measures over the last year.
In Gallup's initial 2001 poll about Afghanistan, shortly after the U.S. invasion, and in the poll that followed in January 2002, a very small minority of 9% and 6% of Americans, respectively, said U.S. involvement in that country was a mistake. That number climbed to 25% in the summer of 2004 (at about the same time that a majority were saying the Iraq war was a mistake), and reached a high of 42% in March of this year. In the most recent poll, the "mistake" percentage for Afghanistan has settled back to 36%.
Perceptions of progress in Iraq have varied over the years.
Americans were initially very positive about the Iraq war. That optimism began to fade fast. By September 2003, less than half were willing to say things were going well in Iraq. The "going well" number popped back up to 55% in March 2004, and then was above 50% again in February and March 2005.
After that, however, perceptions that things were going well in Iraq fell back, reaching the all-time low of 28% in January 2007. More recently, in polls conducted last September and in March of this year, as well as in the current July 2009 poll, majorities have returned to the viewpoint that things are going well in Iraq. The current 56% "going well" percentage is as high as Gallup has measured vis-à-vis Iraq since July 2003, just months after the war began.
Gallup did not ask Americans about progress in Afghanistan using this question format in the first months of the involvement there, and has asked the question only sporadically since September 2006.
Almost half of Americans said things were going well for the U.S. in Afghanistan in that initial 2006 poll, but these positive perceptions began to slip, reaching a low of 38% in a survey conducted in March of this year. In the current poll, views of the situation in Afghanistan have rebounded to 54%, the highest in Gallup's limited record.
Views of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan vary by partisan orientation, as would be expected for two wars begun in the Republican administration of George W. Bush.
Although all three partisan groups are less likely to view U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as a mistake than is the case for Iraq, major differences exist in the views of the three partisan groups for both wars. There is a 52-point gap between Republicans and Democrats in the mistake percentage for Iraq, and a 43-point gap between the same two groups in the mistake percentage for Afghanistan.
American public opinion about U.S. involvement in the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveals important and lasting distinctions. Americans have been more positive about the rationale for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan than for Iraq over the years, a distinction that persists to this day. A clear majority of Americans continue to say U.S. involvement in Iraq was a mistake, while a little more than a third say the same about Afghanistan.
These perceptual differences regarding the rationale for U.S. involvement in the two wars persist even though at this point, Americans are no more likely to say things are going well for the U.S. in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In fact, the 56% who say the war is going well in Iraq is the highest since July 2003, just a few months after Bush's famous "mission accomplished" speech. It is probable that this uptick in the public's views that things are going well in Iraq is related to the fact that the U.S. has withdrawn troops from major cities there and plans to withdraw most of its combat troops from the country by the end of 2011. Still, these more upbeat views have not materially altered Americans' negative views of the underlying rationale for the war.
At the same time, the U.S. has been ramping up its involvement in Afghanistan, and that has been accompanied by an increase in the percentage saying things are going well for the U.S. there. In the case of Afghanistan, in contrast to the situation in Iraq, the upbeat views of how things are going have been accompanied by a more upbeat view of the initial rationale for U.S. involvement.
All in all, the data suggest that in the long term, even after full U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, there is a good chance that a majority of Americans will remain doubtful that involvement in that country was worth it. At the same time, it appears that even with continuing U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan situation, Americans may well remain much more positive about the rationale for the United States' going to war there.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,018 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 10-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.