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Americans Speak Out on New Afghanistan Strategy

December 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Americans throughout the country expressed both approval and concerns regarding President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy. Spencer Michels reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Now voices of Americans around the country on the Afghan war.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

BARACK OBAMA: As your commander in chief…

SPENCER MICHELS: Across the nation, America heard the president’s words.

Together with some PBS colleagues, we fanned out, from Falls Church Virginia, to San Antonio, Texas, to San Francisco, and points in between, to take the pulse of Americans who heard or heard about the president’s address.

We met Velma Askey in Northern Virginia.

VELMA ASKEY: But I — I don’t really understand how — how it can be beneficial to say, OK, in 18 months, it’s over. Of course, that’s not what he said. He said they would start coming home in 18 months. So, I — I just don’t know what that means or why it’s a valuable thing to inject in this process at this point.

SPENCER MICHELS: She also had concerns about the cost of escalating the war, which the president said will be $30 billion this year alone.

That’s also a lot of money to another Virginian, Chris Bolton, but he says it’s necessary.

CHRIS BOLTON: I’m sure its going to cost a lot, and considering the debt we’re already in, and — but we have to do something. We just can’t leave them stranded, because we already put so much effort already into it. And — but I don’t know. I’m just praying for the best, and I think that’s all we can do.

SPENCER MICHELS: Thomas Condenzio of Falls Church said he sees no end in the president’s new plan.

THOMAS CONDENZIO: George Bush, he thought he was going to go in there and solve the problem, but it just seems like another Bush strategy, and something that is just going to go on, because, as far as I can see, those people — those — those persons over there have no regard for human life and they will just keep on killing. There doesn’t seem to be a resolution. I don’t see a resolution to that.

SPENCER MICHELS: Here in San Francisco, of the dozen or so people we talked to, not a single one had seen President Obama on television last night, when his address was broadcast at 5:00 p.m. Pacific time. But every one of those people knew about the president’s plans for Afghanistan, and had an opinion.

Mixed opinions

Lynn Gray
I will just be glad when it is totally over with.

NOWELL VALERI: The job needs to get done. I -- I agree with the president's decision.

QUESTION: There are some people who think maybe it's -- it's a waste, that...

NOWELL VALERI: I'm sure they think that way, but, you know, when we don't do things like that, people run planes into buildings.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Karen Strecker, an acupuncturist and an admirer of the president, was unhappy.

KAREN STRECKER, Acupuncturist: I don't understand why the escalation. And -- and, just basically, it's not what I -- what I pictured in his presidency. So, I'm kind of disappointed.

QUESTION: What should we do instead? What should President Obama do?

KAREN STRECKER: I know he -- he has got the toughest job probably that any human being has at this time. But I wouldn't want to be in his shoes.

SPENCER MICHELS: Others we talked to near San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art were conflicted as well.

Anupama Pamdey, who was born in India, but lives near San Francisco, approved the troop buildup.

ANUPAMA PAMDEY: I think the troops should be increased there, because, really, the problem is right there. I'm definitely for withdrawal as soon as possible, but it shouldn't be hasty, right? If we withdraw from there, they're going to grow, grow strong again.

SPENCER MICHELS: And Brett MacMinn, who works in finance, said he trusted the president.

BRETT MACMINN: If he's already set a tentative date to be moving people out, I think that's good.

QUESTION: So, do you kind of trust the president in this case? Is he on the right track, do you think?

BRETT MACMINN: I think there's people a whole heck of a lot smarter than me that are advising him. And I think he's surrounded himself with the right people -- so, yes.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was also difficult to find people in Rochester, New York, who had tuned in to the president's address last night.

But Lynn Gray did, and she's losing patience.

LYNN GRAY: Go over there, do what you got to do, come on back, and it will be done, you know, because, really, I am not a fan of the war. I will just be glad when it is over, honestly. I will just be glad when it is totally over with.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Terry Ahern is willing to give the president's plan a chance.

TERRY AHERN: Well, we will have spent eight years there or nine years or 10 years. And if we are leaving it better -- by that, I mean a society that has more control over their own destiny, that they are not a backyard operation for the Taliban and everybody else, that they have some free -- some free will in what is going to happen in their own country, then I think that is -- that is a good thing.

Looking for clarity

SPENCER MICHELS: At the Sameem Afghan Restaurant on the south side of Saint Louis, owner Fahime Mohammad wanted clarity.

FAHIME MOHAMMAD: I do agree with Mr. Obama, as it seemed like, you know, we, first of all, didn't have a clear and crystal-clear strategy over there. That is why, you know, he really took his time to, first of all, like to hear various scenarios, and then just pick the best one that he thought would be suitable.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many people we talked with still had questions, like the residents of Boise, Idaho, we met on a busy street corner today.

WILMA BOWLER: I sort of am at the opinion that, if you don't set a timeline, you don't get anything done. And I don't think, just because you have set a timeline, that that means that you absolutely, positively have to stick to it.

I hope so much that everything is taken care of and our troops are home then. But I also feel like we have enough intelligence to realize that, if we aren't quite finished at that point in time, we need to invest a bit little more time and effort and finish it, but not to go on forever and ever.

SPENCER MICHELS: And, in San Antonio, Texas, with the Alamo in the background.

WOMAN: The cutoff date is ridiculous. You don't tell your enemy when you are leaving. You let it be a surprise.

BARRY WINSTEAD: Well, I think he finally stepped up and did what he needed to do. It just took him too long to make the decision. Sending more troops to finish the job is a good idea.

SPENCER MICHELS: Our rough sampling seemed to support polls taken before the speech that show the public is divided about the war strategy.