July saw a large increase in British military deaths in Afghanistan and the highly publicised row between the Government and the Opposition (and the military top brass) about the adequacy of equipment for soldiers on the frontline. It is no surprise then that several polling firms were commissioned to ask the public about their views on Afghanistan. Overall the surveys provide us some clear insights into public attitudes. They show how the public is divided on Britain’s continual involvement in the war and suggest there is strong public scepticism about what can be achieved there.
Two polls conducted in the first half of July, by ICM (for the Guardian/BBC Newsnight) and by Populus (for ITN News) show that two thirds of the public (67%) say they feel they understand the purpose of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan and there is a strong consensus that the main reasons for being there are ‘as part of international fight against Al Qaeda terrorists’ (80% say that this is one of the main reasons) and ‘to help the Afghan Government to fight the Taliban’ (78%).
These surveys reveal, however, that the public is split down the middle in terms of its support for British military presence in Afghanistan. The ICM survey shows that 46% of the public supports the ‘British military operation in Afghanistan’ and 47% oppose it. Interestingly, further sub-group analysis reveals that the key opponents of British military presence is over-65 year olds, with more than half (53%) opposing the war.
Perhaps one of the explanations for the public opposition is the high level of concern about military equipment. According to the Populus poll, three quarters of the public (75%) believe that ‘British service personnel in Afghanistan are inadequately supplied or equipped’ and a ComRes poll (for The Independent), conducted towards the end of the month, also found that 75% of the public agree that ‘British troops do not have the equipment they need to perform their role safely in Afghanistan’. And adding further pressure to the Government is a YouGov poll, conducted 16 - 17 July, which found that 60% of the public believe Gordon Brown is ‘deliberately trying to fight the war on the cheap’ – three times the proportion who believe the Prime Minister ‘is doing his best to provide British troops with the equipment they need’, (20%).
Finally, perhaps the most troubling results for the Government are that three in five people (58%) who believe that war in Afghanistan is unwinnable (ComRes/The Independent) and approaching half the public in both the Populus and YouGov surveys felt the objective of stabilising Afghanistan and preventing it becoming a terrorist stronghold was a worthwhile objective but not at the cost of high levels of British casualties.