Afghanistan is the graveyard of once mighty armies. The Mongols led by Genghis Khan invaded the region in the 13th century and continued fighting for control of the land for five centuries until overthrown in the 1700s. The Soviets came and went in a little less time, approximately eight years during which the communist empire collapsed. Then, there was the United States who eight years ago this week embarked on a conflict that today gets bloodier by the day.
President Barack Obama recently told congressional leaders there would be neither a surge (like in Iraq) nor a pullout (like in Vietnam). There have been 400 coalition deaths this year alone – more than the first five years of the conflict combined. The young administration, cognizant of the drag that can be caused by unending conflict, must be fearful of the all-to-recognizable Dover Test. A journalistic term for public support of a conflict, it takes into account war support versus the number of caskets that arrive at Dover Air Force Base on their return home from conflict. In other words, it is a cultural indicator of how much we can take.
If one were to graph the Dover Effect with military casualties on the x-axis and public support on the y-axis, it would be a downward sloping curve. The idea is simple: as casualties rise, support decreases. What is the point where the slope of the curve begins to fall at a sharper pace? What is the tipping point to set this off? Here are a couple ideas I have come up with to determine when American culture will no longer wish to forfeit its treasure to build up Afghanistan while it struggles through recession.
After President Obama took office, public support for the military mission rose on a belief that he would address the deteriorating situation. However, support eroded again. A mid-September CNN/Opinion Research poll showed that 39% of Americans supported the war in Afghanistan while 58% opposed – the highest level of the conflict. Additionally, a plurality of Americans opposes sending more troops into conflict. Frank Newport, Editor in Chief of Gallup, noted after the latter poll: “Should he [President Obama] agree to order more troops, he will go against the wishes of the broad U.S. population — and, in particular, the rank-and-file of his own party…”
But it is more than just poll numbers to factor into the Dover Test. There is discord within the administration about how to proceed. Vice President Joe Biden opposes any build up of forces while General Stanley McCrystal, senior military commander in Afghanistan, warned in a recently leaked report, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term…risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” That is pretty stark language and presents a divide in the administration placing Obama at the center.
If the American public senses administrative division on Afghanistan, public support and trust in the execution of the war will plummet further. This, combined with economic worries at home, may force people into the streets who will question the purpose of continuing to build schools over there when people need jobs right here. Perhaps time will also be a determining variable to ignite the Dover slide. The American people are knocking on Dover’s door and what the president does may be a larger factor than the economy in determining whether he becomes a two term president. Images and news media accounts of coalition deaths have an altering effect on the American cultural consciousness. The president must understand how much the American people can take before the voters break down Dover’s door.