The War in Afghanistan: Coherent Strategy or Public Opinion Fire Fighting?

08/11/2011 01:15 GMT | Updated 07/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Staying in Afghanistan has been hard, but getting out may yet prove politically to be the greatest challenge of all. According to a poll undertaken by YouGov-Cambridge, 56% of the British public think Nato and the UK should not negotiate with the Taliban if it means giving up on promoting human rights in Afghanistan and 44% oppose the idea that the Taliban should be allowed to impose Sharia law if it leads to a peaceful settlement. Yet, the military and diplomatic consensus is clear; a settlement will have to be reached with the Taliban if there is to be any hope for a peaceful transition to Afghan self-rule and the establishment of stable institutions for government. Negotiations are on-going and concessions are likely to be made.

Withdrawal of troops as a policy goal

For the British and Western military and political leadership such a transition is increasingly forming the bottom line as public opinion turns decisively in favour of withdrawal. When polling at the end of July, YouGov-Cambridge found a net approval rating of -5%; a figure that appears to buck the trend of rapidly declining public support for protracted wars on foreign soil.

This in fact conceals a substantially more nuanced and fluid public opinion dynamic. To better understand public sentiment on troop withdrawal we undertook a surveying design called scenario testing. Respondents are presented with a selection of alternative situations and the same question is asked each time to measure their reaction.

In this case respondents were presented with a series of potential developments in Afghanistan and asked approval ratings for each. If there were over 1000 casualties, support drops by 14%, if the conflict were to last beyond 2014, 11%, and if the cost of the conflict began to affect our economic situation, 12%. Moreover, 66% of respondents disagree that Britain should leave troops in Afghanistan as long as the Afghan government wants it to-perhaps indicative of future constraint on British foreign intervention.

Public Pressure

Policy-makers have paid heed to this pressure, with announcements in both the UK and US of withdrawal timetables mirroring domestic electoral cycles for 2014 and 2015. There is a clear and understandable cautiousness among politicians throughout the West, after a decade that has seen the prosecution of two wars where any success has not been clear cut, and where there have been clear failures to achieve primary goals (specifically the creation of pro-western and self-sufficient democratic states).

This reaction, though, is to overestimate the homogeneity of public opinion and the sources of their concerns. Significantly it runs the risk of producing ill-informed national strategy.


The YouGov-Cambridge survey demonstrates dual public concerns. Of primary importance is a marked conviction among the public that events in Afghanistan have broader security implications, with 58% stating its importance for their security in Britain and 57% for their security abroad.

Tellingly, if attacks on countries by terrorist organisations based in Afghanistan increased, approval for UK involvement there increases by 16%.

Nato action in Iraq has had significant success in hounding and dismantling the terror networks associated with al-Qaeda; in particular since 2009 following the surge strategy implemented by the US under the Obama administration and the dramatic upswing in the use of drone strikes. The killing of Osama Bin Laden marked a symbolic, but also real, landmark for Western security policy.

Yet only 31% believe we have been successful in breaking up al-Qaeda and ending its use of Afghanistan as a base, while 68% believe the war is unwinnable. UK foreign policy formulation based on pressure brought to bear under an incomplete understanding among the public should not be sustainable. A coherent security strategy needs to be articulated and discussed.

The liberal mission

Of the people who said their support for intervention had increased since 2001, 61% said it was because we are making a positive difference to the lives of ordinary Afghans and 58% because the establishment of democracy would be good for the region. Meanwhile 44% say we should not bring our troops home until the Afghan government can support itself and prevent the return of the Taliban.

Support for moral intervention in certain circumstances remains clear; belief in our ability to fulfil it has been undermined. Merely 22% believe we have been successful in creating a viable democratic state.

National strategy

The UK population is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Broadly supportive of liberal motivations and acutely concerned with security implications, they no longer believe British military intervention is delivering either. This should not be a sop for reactionary policy making however. A coherent strategy needs to be built around a more engaged public dialogue and Afghanistan would be a good place to start.

See the survey details and full results here and here