On Afghanistan Drawdown, a Rare Note of Agreement in Patchwork Nation

BY Dante Chinni  June 23, 2011 at 3:50 PM EDT

US Army Paratroopers Operate In Northwest Afghanistan

President Barack Obama’s call for steep reductions in the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan is likely to be met with applause from people in nearly all of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types. But their feelings about what will happen after the U.S. military heads home are not so positive.

A Patchwork Nation analysis of this week’s Pew Research Center survey on American attitudes toward the war in Afghanistan finds a level of agreement we rarely see. Nine of our 12 county types, those that lean to the political left and the right, favor “removing the troops as soon as possible” from Afghanistan. None of the types actually favors “keeping military troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized.”

As the 2012 election approaches, that’s significant. And in a country where politics is increasingly polarized, it is also truly remarkable.

Maybe most interesting, the two of our county types that stand at the furthest poles politically – the liberal, big-city Industrial Metropolis counties and the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters — are in close agreement on the question. In both of those county types more than 60 percent favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an issue that people living in those counties would agree on to such a degree.

Should U.S. troops in Afghanistan be brought home as soon as possible or stay until situation has stabilized?

Community TypeStayCome Home
Monied ‘Burbs40.354.9
Minority Central40.757.4
Evangelical Epicenters31.160.2
Tractor Country42.9*38.1*
College and Careers33.359.4
Immigration Nation47.442.3
Industrial Metropolis34.362.6
Boom Towns46.450.9
Service Center35.459.4
Empty Nests36.855.9
Military Bastions32.662.8
Mormon Outposts50*50*

Source: Pew Research Center for People & the Press study
Note: The samples for Mormon Outposts and Tractor Country counties were very small.

What’s Driving the Agreement?

The Pew Research poll suggests two things. First, Americans on the whole have grown tired of having troops overseas. And second, it is the counties that hold more low-income people that are the most interested in bringing the soldiers home. (The Industrial Metro counties have fairly high median household incomes overall, but also high levels of poverty.)

There are a number of reasons why those counties with large numbers of low-income people could be interested in seeing the men and women in the armed forces come home. Many serving in the military come from those lower-income communities. It is their sons and daughters doing the fighting.

Furthermore, President Obama’s quote Wednesday night that it is “time to focus on nation-building here at home” probably has a special resonance in those communities. The Industrial Metros and Evangelical Epicenters have been hit very hard in the recession and have also been slow to recover.

Other hard-hit county types — the small town Service Worker Centers and aging Emptying Nest counties — are also among the places most interested in “removing the troops.” The idea of redirecting federal resources toward home is likely to be a popular idea there as well.

A Reality vs. an Abstraction

The political meaning of these numbers will become clearer in the weeks and months ahead — there seems to be a populist sentiment behind these results. But beyond that, the different attitudes in two county types are telling: the wealthy Monied Burbs and the Military Bastions mostly located around military bases.

The Burbs favor bringing the troops home, but less than most other county types. Why? Well, those places are among the least hard-hit in the recession and also are less likely to have their young men and women serving in the military.

They’ve felt the recession, but in many of those places it actually feels like an economic recovery is underway. The unemployment rate there has been under the national average for months. And with fewer of their young people serving, the war may feel like more of an abstraction.

The opposite is true in the Military Bastions, where nearly 63 percent of those surveyed favor a quicker drawdown. For people in the Bastions, the war is a part of everyday life as we have noted in deeper reporting. Their friends and neighbors are serving overseas and so are their customers.

Area businesses and local economies feel the drain of having hundreds or thousands of their local people deployed. That is something we have heard repeatedly from people in Hopkinsville, Ky., a Military Bastion near Fort Campbell. (The number of respondents from the Bastions is small, but still statistically significant.)

Not a Lot of Hope

But beyond the local economies and who is serving, there is another thought behind the “bring them home” sentiment across the Patchwork Nation communities: there is little hope Afghanistan can become “stable.”

In nine of our 12 county types, people said it was “unlikely” or “very unlikely” that “Afghanistan will be able to maintain a stable government after most U.S. forces leave the country.” That answer, again, came from county types that occupy both sides of the political spectrum. In both the Evangelical Epicenters and Industrial Metropolis counties, more than 60 percent were in that pessimistic camp.

If that is the really the feeling, it’s hardly any wonder there is such a strong interest in bringing the soldiers home.