Britain "crucial" to Afghan war

IssueSeptember 2009
News by Gabriel Carlyle

“I don’t think the public are up for it any more. Everything has changed. We as a nation don’t want to send out soldiers anywhere” – former foreign office minister Kim Howells

Though the British government has run a highly successful propaganda campaign, significantly boosting support for the war amongst the British public, the recent media furore over British casualties has been causing concern in Washington.

Some anxiety

A senior US official told the Financial Times that there is “some level of anxiety” within the Obama administration: “It’s hard to see our most capable partner struggling in this debate. “When it happens in a country like Germany, you think, ‘well, that’s Germany and they have special difficulties in light of the upcoming [German] elections’, but when it happens in London it hits hard. If we are going to have to backfill European countries that decide to leave, could we sustain that with US public opinion? That’s an open question.”

British are crucial

Likewise, Bruce Riedel – who chaired the White House review of US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year – told the FT: “The British are crucial to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Public opinion here will be affected negatively against the war if our key ally in Helmand starts to look for a path out. “On the other hand, a boost in UK forces would send a signal to the US public that ‘we won’t cut and run’.”

In an August poll, 51% of the US public said the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, and 45% wanted to decrease the number of military forces there.

British support grows

While four recent polls have all found a majority of people in Britain demanding rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan (see p10), the polls also indicate growing support for the war. An ICM poll published in the Guardian on 13 July found 46% of people backed the British operation in Afghanistan, up from 31% in 2006. That’s a 50% increase in support.

The proportion of people opposing the war has declined from 53% to 47% over the same period. Back in January, according to a Harris/FT poll, 57% of Britons rejected calls for any more British troops to be sent to Afghanistan.

A BBC poll in January found 73% of Afghans think that US-led forces in the country should either be decreased in number (44%) or “kept at the current level” (29%). Despite this opposition, British prime minister Gordon Brown is expected to order further troop deployments to Afghanistan.