The runaway war

70 percent of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, but SecDef says it must continue as planned.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans say the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan — and yet, it is. And it will continue to be so, in some form, for at least the next decade.

There may be no bigger example of the oft-discussed “gap” between the civilian population and the military than the disconnect between popular opposition to the war and its stubborn persistence. Americans say they don’t want the war to continue, but they don’t care enough to elect lawmakers who’ll end it sooner, or to march in the streets themselves. To the Pentagon, this means ‘stay the course.’

Secretary Panetta said Tuesday that polls cannot dictate the conduct of the war — that way lies madness, he argued. Here’s how AP’s Lolita Baldor put it:

Panetta said that there is no question that the American people are tired of war. But, he said, the public understands the U.S. is engaged in Afghanistan because of the attacks on Sept. 11, and to prevent al Qaida from again finding safe havens there to launch attacks.

“We cannot fight wars by polls. If we do that we’re in deep trouble,” Panetta told reporters at a news conference after a day of meetings with Canadian and Mexican defense ministers. “We have to operate based on what we believe is the best strategy to achieve the mission that we are embarked on. And the mission here is to safeguard our country by ensuring that the Taliban and al-Qaida never again find a safe haven in Afghanistan.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 69 percent of those questioned believe the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan, and roughly the same amount say the fighting is going either somewhat or very badly. The numbers are up sharply from four months ago, when a bit more than half said the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan.

The survey reflects a growing frustration among the public and on Capitol Hill with the war, even as the Obama administration tries to map out an exit strategy that would shift the security lead to the Afghans by mid-2013.

But let’s be clear: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he expects some $4 billion per year from the West for at least a decade to subsidize the Afghan National Security Forces — and that’ll no doubt include continued training from American and international troops. Plus a large contingent of special operations forces will likely remain in Afghanistan to mow the ¬†terrorist lawn. So the war is going to put on a low simmer, but it’ll still be there well after the Afghans take “responsibility” next year.

What does it say about our Republic that it can persist with a war that most of its citizens oppose? Maybe that it isn’t really “opposition” if people don’t do anything about it. Maybe it’s an indictment of a general public that mostly is not affected by the war, insulated by the disproportionate load borne by the all-volunteer force. Maybe it’s a vindication of Panetta’s point: Suppose the U.S. has a great few months and the polls fluctuate the other way, with 70 percent of people surveyed saying they want Afghanistan to be the 51st state. With the pullout on course, would Washington have to reverse once more and send in another surge?

There’s also a case to be made that nearly every war the U.S. has fought since World War II was done in the face of home-front opposition — Korea partly meant the end of the Democrats’ hold on the presidency; Vietnam felled several presidents of its own; and Iraq and Afghanistan have been consistently unpopular since about 2006. Yet each one kept up in spite of protests, speeches, petitions and all the rest of it. Even the heavy tumult of the late 1960s did not actually end the war in Vietnam.

At this point, the U.S. is in Afghanistan because the U.S. is in Afghanistan, and as Panetta said Tuesday, it has to stick it out now because others stuck it out before:

Panetta said that a lot of lives have been lost in the war, and “our commitment must be to ensure that those lives have not been lost in vain.” He said that he and his military commanders are convinced that 2011 was a turning point in the war and that the levels of violence are declining.

That means — let’s all say it together — “The next X months in Afghanistan will be critical.” Just as the last ones were.