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Polls Show Increasing Concern About Afghan War

The war in Afghanistan rivals the war in Iraq as a top foreign policy concern, according to a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted in February 2009. That poll found Americans almost as likely to choose the war in Afghanistan as the war in Iraq for the foreign policy area that the public wants the President and Congress to concentrate on most.

Afghanistan is a priority for more Democrats than Republicans. President Obama has drawn attention to the war there in recent weeks, and the war in Iraq has long been unpopular with Democrats.

In addition, a growing percentage of Americans thinks the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be increased, even as most also say it's important to bring troops home from Iraq. Forty-two percent think troops in Afghanistan should be increased, up from 34 percent in January.

Support for sending more troops there is consistent across party lines. As is often the case with public opinion about war, there is a gender gap; 49 percent of men would like to see troop levels increased, compared to just 36 percent of women.

A look back at public opinion about the war in Afghanistan shows that while Americans were initially optimistic in their evaluations, in recent months they have become far more pessimistic.

From 2001, when the war began, through early 2003 majorities thought the war was going well for the United States: 83 percent in October 2001, rising to a high of 93 percent in December 2001, and 72 percent in September 2002.

But as the war there continued, Americans' initial optimism dwindled, and by late 2008 views of the war in Afghanistan had drastically changed. In August 2008, just 28 percent thought the war in Afghanistan was going well, and again in December, 27 percent held that view.

By comparison, Americans were never as optimistic about the war in Iraq as they were about the war in Afghanistan. The highest level of optimism about how things were going in Iraq was 72 percent, reached in May 2003, a few months after the war began.

The timing of the war in Afghanistan no doubt contributed to the public's positive assessments of it. Americans rallied around their flag in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. In January 2002, 89 percent approved of the military attacks led by the U.S. against targets in Afghanistan.

The benchmark with which Americans say they judge the outcome of the war in Afghanistan has been the capture or Osama bin Laden; and the failure to do so may account for why the public has turned sour on the progress of this war. Throughout 2002, a majority of Americans said that if bin Laden was not captured or killed, then the U.S. would not have won the war in Afghanistan.

Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series..