After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public does not think the United States has achieved its goals in either country. About half of Americans (52%) say the U.S. has mostly failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan while 38% say it has mostly succeeded. Opinions about the U.S. war in Iraq are virtually the same: 52% say the United States has mostly failed in reaching its goals there, while 37% say it has mostly succeeded.
In both cases, evaluations of the wars have turned more negative in recent years. In November 2011, as the U.S. was completing its military withdrawal from Iraq, a majority (56%) thought the U.S. had achieved its goals there.
Similarly, the public’s critical assessment of U.S. achievements in Afghanistan stands in contrast to opinion in June 2011, shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed in neighboring Pakistan. At that time, 58% answered a forward-looking question by saying they thought the U.S. would achieve its goals in that country; the question in the current survey asks whether the U.S. has achieved its goals.
The national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA TODAY, conducted Jan. 15-19 among 1,504 adults, finds more positive views of the original decision to take military action in Afghanistan than about whether the U.S. has achieved its goals. About half (51%) say the decision to use military force was the right one while 41% say it was the wrong decision. However, the share saying the war was the right decision has fallen five points since November (from 56%) and 13 points since January 2009 (64%), shortly before Barack Obama took office.
The decisions to use military force in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to draw majority support among Republicans. By contrast, Democrats are divided about evenly over whether it was right or wrong for the U.S. to use force in Afghanistan, and Democrats continue to overwhelmingly oppose the decision to use force in Iraq.
However, there are no significant partisan differences in opinions about whether the U.S. has achieved its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fewer than half of Republicans, Democrats and independents say the U.S. has mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in either country.
More Say U.S. Has Failed than Succeeded in Achieving Iraq Goals
In November 2011, a majority (56%) said that the U.S. had mostly achieved its goals in Iraq, but last March opinion was evenly split (46% mostly succeeded, 43% mostly failed). Today, just 37% believe the U.S. has mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq, a 19-point decline since 2011.
Prior to 2011, the Pew Research Center asked whether the United States would or would not mostly succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq.
In August 2006, about three years into the Iraq war, the public was optimistic that the U.S. would succeed in achieving its goals (54%-40%). Optimism declined by the early part of 2007 and views remained mixed throughout the course of that year, as U.S. forces suffered their highest level of fatalities of any year of the conflict. By 2008, the public’s outlook had improved and remained positive through 2010, leading up to the American troop withdrawal in 2011.
Views of the success of the Iraq war differ little across party lines. More Republicans say the U.S. has mostly failed than mostly succeeded in achieving its goals in Iraq by a 51%-36% margin; Democrats (54%-37%) and independents (53%-38%) hold this view by similar margins.
All groups have become more pessimistic about U.S. achievements in Iraq since the fall of 2011, and the decline has been especially steep among Republicans. In November 2011, Republicans (68%) were more likely than Democrats (56%) and independents (52%) to say the U.S. had mostly achieved its goals in Iraq. Since then, positive views have fallen 32 points among Republicans, 19 points among Democrats and 14 points among independents.
Fewer than Half See Success in Afghanistan
Overall views of the success of the war in Afghanistan are nearly identical to opinions about the Iraq war. By 52%-38% more say the U.S. has mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan than mostly succeeded.
In June of 2011, just one month after the death of Osama bin Laden, a similar question asking about expectations for U.S. success in Afghanistan found far more optimism than pessimism. At that time, 58% said the U.S. would definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals while just 34% thought they would definitely or probably fail.
Currently, 39% of Republicans, 42% of Democrats and 36% of independents say the U.S. has succeeded in achieving its goals in Afghanistan. Three years ago, majorities of Republicans (67%) and Democrats (61%), and 51% of independents, said the U.S. would definitely or probably succeed in attaining its goals there.
Young people were highly optimistic about prospects for success in Afghanistan in 2011 – 73% of those under 30 expected the U.S. to achieve its goals. In the current survey, just 40% of young people say the U.S. has mostly achieved its goals in Afghanistan while 56% say it has mostly failed to achieve its goals.
Less Support for Decision to Use Force in Afghanistan
While skeptical about U.S. achievements in Afghanistan, the public narrowly supports the original decision to use military force in Afghanistan. By contrast, more people view the decision to use force in Iraq as wrong than right.
Currently, 51% say it was the right decision to use military force in Afghanistan, while slightly fewer (41%) say it was the wrong decision. That is among the lowest levels of support for the original decision to use force in Afghanistan since the Pew Research Center began asking the question eight years ago. In January 2006, fully 69% endorsed the decision to take military action in Afghanistan.
The public initially supported the decision to take military action in Iraq by wide margins. But as the conflict continued and U.S. casualties mounted, opposition to the war steadily increased. By late 2006 the balance of opinion turned against the decision to use force.
In recent years, opinion about the original decision to go to war had been evenly divided, but in the current survey it has once again turned negative: 50% say it was wrong to use force in Iraq, while 38% support the decision to go to war.
Republicans Back Decisions to Use Force in Iraq and Afghanistan
On balance, Republicans approve of the decisions to use force in both Iraq and Afghanistan. By contrast, Democrats and independents are divided over the use of force in Afghanistan and say it was the wrong decision to use force in Iraq.
By nearly two-to-one (61%-31%), Republicans say it was the right decision to use force in Afghanistan. Among Democrats (48% right decision, 45% wrong decision) and independents (47%, 45%) opinion is about evenly divided.
On the use of force in Iraq, 55% of Republicans say it was the right decision, while 33% call it the wrong decision. Democrats say it was the wrong call to use military force in Iraq by a wide 64%-28% margin. Among independents, more say it was the wrong (53%) than right (37%) decision.
Republicans have consistently offered more support for the decisions to use military force in Iraq and Afghanistan than Democrats and independents.