WASHINGTON — Nebraskans are eager for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean they've turned into a bunch of peaceniks.
In fact, nearly two-thirds of the state is ready to bomb Iran to stop that country from developing a nuclear weapon, according to The World-Herald Poll.
Nebraskans and Iowans have invested their share of blood, sweat and tears in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. Thousands braved roadside bombs, mortars and firefights. Many were wounded or killed.
But with the war nearing its 12th year, there is evidence that a weary public has tuned out and just wants the whole thing over.
The World-Herald's statewide survey of 800 voters found that a third of Nebraskans want to stick with the current timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Even more, 35 percent, want to see men and women in uniform hit the exits sooner than that.
Only 28 percent said they want to stay for however long it takes the United States to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan, while 4 percent were undecided. Conducted Sept. 17 through 20 by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha, the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Nationally, the desire to get out is even stronger.
A USA Today/Gallup poll from March found that half of Americans favored speeding up the 2014 Afghan withdrawal timeline, while a quarter wanted to stick to the plan. Only 21 percent said that troops should stay as long as it takes. That poll was taken just after a U.S. service member killed 16 Afghan civilians.
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said that polls are a temperature reading on how the public feels about the mission and that national surveys show the public has largely concluded that the war is either unwinnable or no longer worthwhile.
Nebraskans have a little more staying power based on the World-Herald Poll, he said. And there are reasons for optimism in Afghanistan, he said, pointing to recent comments by Ryan Crocker. The former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan spoke highly of the next generation of Afghan political figures, saying he has found more leadership talent in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies and a national Afghan expert, said following President Barack Obama's plan to have combat troops gone in 2014 should provide enough time for them to do what they need to do. And even after combat forces leave, he noted, the U.S. still will provide other forms of support.
Still, the level of weariness revealed in the poll raises concerns for long-term backing of any U.S. activities in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said.
He faulted politicians for not continuing to highlight what is at stake in Afghanistan. The war has gotten little attention on the campaign trail from either Obama or Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“Our leadership hasn't, I think, effectively explained the importance of following this plan and having an ongoing presence of a different nature, how these are so important to our own interests in that area of the world where we have so much at risk, including our energy resources,” he said.
Recent news from Afghanistan has been dominated by “insider attacks,” in which Afghan police officers or soldiers turn on the very Americans they are supposed to be working with hand-in-hand.
It's a treacherous situation for those on the ground, said Dan Donovan, president of the Heartland of America chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.
Donovan said that as those incidents continue to make news, he expects more people to say, “Let's go.”
“If there is a mission to be accomplished, we want to accomplish the mission,” Donovan said. “But it looks like our time over there is coming to an end.”
Gouttierre described the wave of insider attacks as a continuation of Taliban intimidation tactics, which the militants use because they are so outmanned and outgunned on the battlefield.
He said it's an issue the Afghans will have to confront long term, regardless of when U.S. troops leave.
“That means that improved vetting of recruiting for both military and civil institutions in Afghanistan has to be achieved,” he said.
While Nebraskans seem ready to leave Afghanistan, they favor by more than 2 to 1 using military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
O'Hanlon suggested that people may be envisioning an air war like the one in Kosovo or some of the strikes in Iraq in between the larger conflicts.
“We've done a lot of that in the last 20 years,” he said.
But experts say any engagement in Iran risks a regional conflict.
And, Gouttierre points out, Afghanistan is the size of Texas and has about 25 million people. Iran is the size of Alaska and has about 80 million people.
“I don't know that people who say that we should use military options to do that understand what that could mean,” Gouttierre said.
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