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Skepticism about the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan spiked this year among many U.S. troops, according to the latest annual Military Times Poll.
When asked whether the U.S. is likely to succeed in Afghanistan, about 53 percent say that is either “not very likely” or “not at all likely,” a sharp rise from the 39 percent who responded that way in the two previous polls.
For troops on the ground in Afghanistan, their interaction with the Afghan people plays a role in making them question the mission.
“We are not going to solve their problems because the people of Afghanistan are not ready to take over their responsibilities once we depart,” said an Army sergeant first class who is now deployed. “There is no self-support for the country to succeed; so I'll say that it will be a major failure.”
Other troops who have deployed recently to Afghanistan say the so-called insider attacks that have killed dozens of U.S. service members have affected their views of the war and undermined their trust in the Afghan troops they were assigned to train and mentor.
“We didn't trust them at all. It was kind of an inside joke — but not so much a joke as a reality — that the unit we trained with was infiltrated [with insurgents],” said an Army staff sergeant who deployed there in 2011.
Back home, some troops are troubled by news reports of Afghan President Hamid Karzai making repeated public statements suggesting that the Afghans do not appreciate the U.S. military's efforts.
“There has definitely been a deteriorating relationship [with the Afghan government] and I think that has got everyone scratching their heads,” said a Marine lieutenant colonel who works at the Pentagon.
The latest outburst from the Afghan government came March 19, when a spokesman for Karzai said “the Afghan people consider this war as aimless and unwise to continue.”
About 66,000 U.S. troops are now deployed to Afghanistan. President Obama's current policy calls for the removal of most combat troops by the end of 2014.
In the Military Times Poll, 38 percent of troops believe the withdrawal should happen more quickly. A roughly equal number say 2014 is an appropriate time to bring the troops home, while about 24 percent remain strong supporters of the mission and believe a substantial number of troops should remain there beyond that date.
Reponses to the Military Times Poll mirror those of the general public. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington asked: “How well is the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan going?” About 53 percent of respondents said “not too well” or “not well at all.”
A Navy chief petty officer who spent part of 2012 in Afghanistan training local police said he understands and shares the pessimism, but he tries not to focus too much on the war's broader strategic questions.
“It's a really touchy subject,” the Navy chief master-at-arms said. “The politicians are going to make their decisions. People at my level, on my playing field, we don't really have a stake in it. We follow the directives from the commanders and the ones put in charge.”
The survey shows that troops' views on the Iraq War also have shifted since the withdrawal of U.S. forces there in late 2011. Some 54 percent of troops in this year's poll said the Iraq War was a success — a solid majority, but a huge drop from the 72 percent who felt that way just two years ago.
“I think that's just from watching the news. You know, how many bombings occurred [in Iraq] last night?” said Army Lt. Col. Gary Mann, who commands a chemical weapons-response battalion in Texas.
“After we left, the sectarian violence took over again, and the indicators are that it's not going well. But … you won't really be able to determine success or failure for at least another decade.”