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Global Issues >> Terrorism


General Support for Military Action

An overwhelming majority supports the bombing campaign against Afghanistan, with a very strong majority supporting the goal of overthrowing the Taliban government. Support for strong military action, including the possible use of US ground troops, has been consistently overwhelming since September 11 and has remained strong even when questions mention the possibility of retaliation against the US, US troop casualties, innocent civilian casualties, or a long war. At the same time the public has shown patience, with a strong majority willing to restrain military action to ensure that it is correctly targeted. Support for taking such military action in response to terrorist attacks predates September 11.

Overwhelming support for strong military action has been in place since September 11 through to the present. Questions that have asked about taking action against the responsible parties show support ranging from 85 to 92%. Most recently, in a December 12-13 Fox News poll 91% said they supported "US military action being taken in response to the terrorist attacks." On December 6-7 Newsweek found 88% approving "the current US military action against terrorism." At the time bombing began, NBC found 90% approving of the action. [1] Only 6% thought the action was too strong, while 76% said it was about right (53%) or not strong enough (23%). [2a]

A growing portion of the population is showing satisfaction "with the amount of progress made by the US military in the war in Afghanistan." On December 14-16 69% said they were very satisfied and 23% somewhat satisfied. This is up from November 2-4 (very 27%, somewhat 52%) and November 26-27 (very 58%, somewhat 35%; (CNN/USA Today). [2b]

Overwhelming majorities have favored the more ambitious goals of overthrowing the Taliban government and taking out the terrorist networks there, not just capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. The ABC/Washington Post poll asked on October 7, "What do you think should be the main goal of the United States in this military action-capturing or killing bin Laden and his associates, overthrowing Afghanistan's Taliban government, or both equally?" Seventy-one percent said both, while an additional 6% specified overthrowing the Taliban government as the main goal. Only 19% chose killing Osama bin Laden as the main goal. When NBC/Wall Street Journal on November 9-11 presented three different goals for the operation in Afghanistan, the majorities saying it was necessary to fulfill the more ambitious goals of "removing the Taliban from power" (75% extremely important) were essentially the same as those endorsing the necessity of "capturing bin Laden" (72% extremely important). This has not varied from findings of earlier weeks. When CNN/USA Today (October 19-21) asked what is the most important goal and presented the same three options, a plurality (41%) thought "destroying terrorist operations in Afghanistan" was the most important goal, while 29% chose "removing the Taliban from power" and only 25% chose "capturing or killing bin Laden." [3]

Americans have not been dissuaded by the prospect of retaliation against the US. Asked in an October 7th NBC News poll (taken the day of the first strikes against Afghanistan) whether "combating terrorism is worth risking retaliation against the United States," an overwhelming 89% said that it was; on November 9-11, this view was unchanged (87%). [4] Also (as discussed below) support for military action is strong even though overwhelming majorities have believed that there is a substantial likelihood of further terrorist strikes against the US in response to US action.

When polls have mentioned the prospect of employing ground troops, support is a bit lower but still a strong majority (now that ground troops are present, however, there is no new question at the time of writing that mentions this fact). A November 6 ABC/ Washington Post poll found 71% in support of "sending a significant number of U.S. ground troops into Afghanistan" with 26 opposed. The October 7 ABC/Washington Post poll asked in two questions about "sending a significant number of US ground troops into Afghanistan." Seventy-five percent supported it if the goal was overthrowing the Taliban, while 80% supported it if the goal was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his associates. Earlier, Pew found 82% supporting "military action, including the use of ground troops, to retaliate against whoever is responsible" (September 13-17). [5]

Support for using ground troops has been somewhat lower, though generally still fairly strong, when the prospect of large numbers of fatalities or a long war is mentioned. Seventy-seven percent favored "taking military action, including the use of ground troops…even if that means that US armed forces might suffer thousands of casualties" (Pew, September 13-17). Reasked on November 13-19, the question found exactly the same majority. More recently (November 9-11), 74% told NBC/Wall Street Journal that the "war on terrorism in Afghanistan" was "worth risking substantial numbers of American military casualties." A lesser 60% majority thought it was "worth risking a large number of US military casualties" just to effect bin Laden's capture or to kill him (34% not worth the risk; ABC/Washington Post, November 27). [6]

Several polls took the overwhelming percentage of those who said they favored military action and then asked a follow on question that mentioned the possibility of casualties. Fox found 64% continued to support the current military action in Afghanistan when a follow on question added "even if it means thousands of American soldiers' lives will be lost" (Fox, October 17-18). A September 27 ABC/Washington Post poll, found 67% of the full sample favored this course of action even when the follow on question asked about "getting into a long war with large numbers of US troops killed or injured." CBS/New York Times (September 20-23) found 72% still supporting action "if that meant that thousands of American military personnel will be killed"; and, in a second follow on question 72% expressing support even if "the United States could be engaged in a war for many years." Most recently, CNN/USA Today found only 41% (36% of the full sample) who were willing to say they would "prefer…to stop using combat forces if the number of US military service people who are killed becomes too high"; 53% (47% of the full sample) chose the rather dramatic alternative offered, "to continue with the use of combat forces regardless of how many US military service people are killed." While it is unlikely that the latter phrase really expresses the views of those who chose it, the fact that a plurality would accept such far-reaching language does show an unwillingness to be deflected from the military pursuit of terrorists by the prospect of casualties. [7a]

Two polls have found somewhat lower support in the face of casualties. One is a November 6 ABC/Washington Post poll that started with the 71% who supported "sending a significant number of US ground troops into Afghanistan" (unlike the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph that found 9 out of 10 favoring military action per se). When asked the follow-on question "What if it meant getting into a long war with large numbers of US troops killed or injured?" the number reaffirming their willingness to send troops went as low as 52%. Also, on October 25-28 CBS/New York Times told respondents to "Suppose several thousand American troops lose their lives in Afghanistan?" and then asked--not whether they favored or opposed taking action--but whether they thought that "the war in Afghanistan would be worth that cost or not." Sixty-one percent said that it would be worth it, 27% that it would not, and 12% said they did not know. (While it is noteworthy that these lower numbers are more recent, the fact that they are so different from earlier questions makes them non comparable.) [7b]

Furthermore, public support for the operation has been high even though most Americans have the expectation that casualties will be significant. When Newsweek probed public expectations about what "the number of Americans killed or injured in the fight against terrorism will be" several days after bombing began, the median estimate was more than several hundred and "up to a thousand" (October 11-12). More recently-November 27-in the wake of the Taliban's rapid loss of territory, a bare 51% majority still said it was very (14%) or somewhat (37%) likely "that there will be a large number of US military casualties in Afghanistan (46% unlikely; ABC/Washington Post). [7c]

When Fox News asked "how many soldiers…the US military should be prepared to lose in Afghanistan before stopping military involvement," only a 12% said "under a hundred." Ten percent said "between 100 and 1,000," 7% said several thousand and a 44% plurality replied "as many as it takes to stop terrorism." (October 17-18). [7d] Consistent with the current support for action against al-Qaeda and the remains of the Taliban, earlier polls that asked about attacking countries that harbor terrorists found overwhelming support. Ninety-three percent said that "If the United States can identify the groups or nations responsible," they would support military action (ABC/Washington Post, September 13). Eighty-three percent favored "military action against any nation found to be aiding or hiding the September 11th terrorists" (Fox, September 19-20). Seventy-five percent favored such action "against a nation that knowingly allowed the terrorists who are responsible for these attacks to live in their country, even if the country played no role in the attack" (NBC/Wall Street Journal, September 15-16). [8] However, when asked directly whether they believe that a national government was involved in the September 11 attacks, only a slight majority (51%) thought this was the case, while 36% thought the terrorists acted independently (NBC/Wall Street Journal, September 15-16). (Back in 1993, when terrorists exploded a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center, an even smaller number assumed a foreign government was involved.) [9]

Early polls also showed a strong readiness to take military action against Afghanistan specifically if the Taliban government did not turn over or was determined to be harboring bin Laden. When ABC/Washington Post posed this question on September 13, 85% said they would favor attacking Afghanistan if it did not turn over bin Laden.The Los Angeles Times found that 82% favored attacking Afghanistan if it was determined that the Taliban was harboring bin Laden. (September 13-14). [10]

The prospect of going to war did not deter support. On September 27, in a follow-on question, 83% still supported military action "if that meant getting into a war" (ABC/Washington Post). CBS/New York Times found 83% willing "if that meant going to war with a nation that is harboring those responsible"-up from 67% on September 13-14. Eighty-six percent said they would "describe [the] attacks as an act of war against the United States" (CNN/USA Today, September 11). [11]

The prospect of large numbers of innocent civilians being killed has driven support lower, but still the majority in favor of military force has been quite strong. Asking four times since the attacks, CBS/New York Times consistently found two thirds saying that military action "against whoever is responsible for the attacks" should go forward "even if it means that innocent people are killed." Likewise, ABC/Washington Post found on September 27 that 70% supported military action even "if it meant innocent civilians in other countries might be hurt or killed." Sixty-five percent favored "attacking terrorist bases and the countries that allow or support them even if there is a high likelihood of civilian casualties" on September 27-28 (Newsweek). CBS/New York Times used the phrase "What if…many thousands of innocent civilians may be killed?" and still found 68% support. On October 7th (while the US bombing was underway) NBC News found 78% saying that "combating terrorism is worth risking civilian casualties in Afghanistan." On October 17-18 Fox used strong language in a follow-on question ("even if it cost the lives of thousands of civilians in the countries we attack?") and still found 62% of the full sample in support. [12]

Support Includes Patience

At the time of the first air strikes on Afghanistan, the public certainly did not feel that action was premature. Eighty-two percent said the US "had done enough" "to find a diplomatic solution," and only 14% thought it "should have done more." [13] In the same poll, 69% thought the US was doing enough "to win the support of Muslim people around the world" (not enough: 18%; ABC/Washington Post). [14]

At the same time, in the four weeks following September 11 the public showed remarkable patience, with a strong majority saying it was willing to restrain military action to make sure that the military strikes were properly prepared and correctly targeted. Asked when military action "should start," 63% said it "should take as long as necessary to plan something that will work," while an additional 4% said it should start within the next six months--making 67% looking at a longer time horizon. Ten percent said it "should start within the next few weeks" and 18% said "it should have already started" (Newsweek, September 27-28). In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 81% thought that the US "should not retaliate until we are completely sure who is specifically responsible, even if that means we have to wait"; only 15% preferred to "retaliate…immediately, even if we are not completely sure who is specifically responsible" (September 15-16). Similarly, 73% told CNN/USA Today that "the US should take military action only against terrorist organizations responsible for the attacks, even if it takes months to clearly identify them," while 26% said action should be immediate "against known terrorist organizations, even if it is unclear which organizations are responsible for the attacks" (September 14-15) [15] At the same time, when it comes to bin Laden or his associates, a majority has not demanded absolute certainty that they are responsible. Fifty-six percent favored "attacking people suspected of terrorism against the US like Osama bin Laden even if we're not sure they're responsible", with 38% opposed (Newsweek, September 20-21). [16]

Both before and after the air strikes began on October 7, Americans also expressed the patient expectation that the operation will be quite extended. Asked in a September 13-17 Pew poll, "Once their mission starts, how long do you think it will take for US forces to kill or capture those responsible…Will it be a matter of days, weeks, months or years?" only 18% thought it would be days (7%) or weeks (11%), while 69% thought it would be months (31%) or years (38%). On October 7, the day of the first air strikes, 82% thought this was "the start of a long war" while just 12% thought it would "be a quick military action" (ABC/Washington Post).When challenged as to whether their support would hold up for a long war, large majorities persist in their views. Seventy-seven percent (72% of the full sample) supported "the military action even if it means a war lasting up to five years" (Fox, October 17-18). [17]

The public's expectations for the broader war on terrorism are also quite extended. When an NBC News poll taken November 9-11 asked about the "duration of a campaign against terrorism," 58% said that it would take several years, 35% thought it would take one or two years, while just 4% thought it would last a few months. Similarly, CBS found 65% expecting "a year or longer" (October 8) and Newsweek found 76% expecting several years or more for the "struggle against terrorism" (October 11-12). Fox asked, "Not just counting Afghanistan, how long do you think the current war against terrorism will last" and 80% chose the longest option offered of a year or more (October 31-November 1). [18a]

In relation to this broader war, a majority expresses readiness to support a long term effort. Two-thirds described themselves as "very supportive" of "a war that lasts six months to two years" with another quarter saying they
would be "somewhat supportive" (Zogby, October 11-13). [18b]

Past Support for Military Action Against Terrorism

Support for taking strong military action against terrorists is not entirely new. In the October-November 1998 poll conducted by Gallup for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, respondents heard a list of possible measures to combat international terrorism. Seventy-four percent favored "US air strikes against terrorist training camps and other facilities." More strikingly, though, 57% favored "attacks by US ground troops" against such camps (34% opposed). This was just several months after the August 1998 airstrikes against terrorist training camps in Khost, Afghanistan. At the time of the August 1998 strikes, 73% supported them (Newsweek), and 65% said they would "generally approve of future attacks using ground troops to attack terrorist groups or facilities" (Gallup). [19]

However, support for taking military action against a country that supported the terrorists is far higher now than it was in response to a hypothetical question about TWA Flight 800 in August 1996. Told to imagine that "we find out that the crash…was caused by…[a] group connected to a country that is known to support terrorism," and that the suspects were put on trial in the US, respondents were asked whether and how the US should retaliate against the country involved. A 40% plurality chose the option of economic sanctions; 24% wanted military force (10% of this group wanted these combined with sanctions); and 26% said there should be no retaliation aimed at an involved country. [20]



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