January 23, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

Spring, Summer or Fall? Leaving Afghanistan

President Obama met with Afghan President Karzai at the White House on Friday, January 11, 2013, their first in-person meeting since they were both here in Chicago for the NATO Summit last May.  At their news conference in DC, Obama announced that US troops may be leaving the country earlier this spring rather than waiting until the summer as originally planned.  At that point, Afghan forces would take the lead in combat missions, and whatever number of NATO troops remain would play an advisory and supporting role in the country. While Obama said the decisions about troop cuts and the US military role after 2014 were not yet final, the announcement suggests his preference toward a more expedient withdrawal.

Public opinion surveys conducted over the past year have shown that an early withdrawal is more or less in sync with American public opinion on the topic.   The June 2012 Chicago Council survey found that four in ten Americans thought all combat troops should be withdrawn before the 2014 deadline (38%), but slightly more (44%) thought the United States should bring all of its combat troops home as scheduled.  We can’t really determine from this question alone whether spring 2014 would qualify as leaving before the deadline (since the question wording did not specify a season or month in 2014). But regardless, we can say that a majority supported withdrawing by that deadline if not before, and only 17 percent believed some combat troops should be left behind after 2014.

A majority of Americans in the Chicago Council poll also sensed that the Afghans themselves want NATO forces to exit their country.  Six in ten thought that most people in Afghanistan want NATO forces to leave now.  Just over a third (36%) said most Afghans want NATO forces to remain for now, and nearly half of this group favored withdrawing before the 2014 deadline. 

Another survey conducted by CNN/ORC in March 2012 found a majority of 55 percent in favor of withdrawing troops before 2014, and an additional 22 percent saying they should all be withdrawn in 2014.  Two in ten favored keeping some troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

CNN/ORC survey:  “As you may know, the US plans to remove all of its troops from Afghanistan in 2014.  If you had to choose, would you rather see the US remove all of its troops earlier that, or wait until 2014 to withdraw all of its troops, or keep some troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014?”


March 2012

All earlier than 2014

All in 2014

Keep some beyond 2014






Half of Americans also chose to speed up the timetable in a USA Today/Gallup poll also conducted in March 2012.  This represented twice as many as the percentage that preferred to stick to the timetable (24%) or stay as long as it takes to accomplish US goals (21%).

USA Today/Gallup poll:  “As you may know, the US plans to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year 2014.  Which do you prefer to see happen – for the US to stick to its timetable for withdrawing troops by 2014, speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan, or keep troops in Afghanistan as long as it takes to accomplish its goals?”


March 2012

Stick to timetable

Speed up withdrawal

Stay as long as it takes






Granted, both the CNN and USA Today surveys were fielded in March 2012, a unique moment for the US presence in Afghanistan.  This was the month when reports of soldiers desecrating Korans and urinating on corpses were in the news, in addition to allegations that a US soldier went on a violent rampage and killed sixteen Afghan civilians.

But Pew’s long term polling trends have shown growing support for an early withdrawal even before those incidents. Pew Research surveys have presented respondents with two stark alternatives, whether the US should “keep military troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized” or “remove troops as soon as possible” since 2008. In their latest reading in October 2012 (conducted after the 33,000 troops deployed for the surge in 2009 were sent back home ), six in ten Americans opted for withdrawal as soon as possible, similar to March and April 2012 results.  Notice that the response option to "stay until the situation is stabilized" is open ended, which seems to yield greater support for keeping troops in the country than other questions that are pegged specifically to the 2014 deadline (as in the CNN, USA Today or Chicago Council wordings).  Looking at the longer term trend on this question, it is striking that opinion has nearly reversed since February 2008, and how divided views were between December 2010 and May 2011.

Although some military experts are not happy about the prospect of an early exit, these poll findings seem to suggest that Americans would probably applaud a spring withdrawal though they are prepared to wait until the initial 2014 deadline.  Attitudes toward the ultimate success of the war are more mixed.  Come back for the next posting for a review of those polling results.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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