Politicians and generals struggle with public opinion over Afghanistan

By staff writers
9 Nov 2009

Politicians and military leaders have been struggling to justify the war in Afghanistan in the face of growing public opposition.

The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, London Mayor Boris Johnson and the head of the armed forces, Jock Stirrup, have all offered different justifications for the war since polling revealed that their view is not shared by the British public.

A ComRes poll commissioned by the BBC revealed that the public want the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan immediately by a majority of two to one (63 per cent to 31 per cent). Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) described the war as “unwinnable”.

At the same time, the Independent on Sunday became the first major national newspaper to call for the withdrawal of UK troops from the country. The pressure grew as the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan rose to 231 and the government admitted that they were investigating the deaths of nine Afghan civilians, allegedly killed in a British attack.

The news came on the same weekend as Remembrance Sunday. The political and military establishment were already embarrassed by another ComRes poll, commissioned by the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, which showed that 95 per cent of the public believe Remembrance Day should have a message of peace.

Challenged about public opinion, Jock Stirrup acknowledged that the public is “not convinced” by the war and said that it is “incredibly important that we do better at explaining the successes we are having".

His implication that the public do not really understand the war appears to be undermined by the BBC poll to which he was attempting to respond. Despite their opposition to the war, the majority of those questioned said that they felt that they had a “good understanding” of its purpose.

The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, triggered a shocked response by suggesting that British involvement in the war could not be determined by public opinion.

His Tory shadow, Liam Fox, insisted that “our troops are there for our security at home”, despite the warnings of commentators who suggest that the involvement of UK troops is fuelling international hostility to Britain and possibly making terrorism more likely.

Fox's fellow Conservative, Boris Johnson, attempted a different justification, arguing that the war continues to be motivated by Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. He did not comment on Jock Stirrup's admission that Al Qaeda is no longer active in Afghanistan.

“We have 9,000 troops in Afghanistan because the Americans have 70,000 troops there, and because America is our closest ally” said Johnson, writing in the Daily Telegraph today (9 November). His comments are likely to provoke criticism from those who suggest that British lives are being lost for the sake of good relations with the USA.

Anti-war campaigners suggested that the views on peace and war held by the British public are now radically different to those held by most politicians and military leaders.

Andrew Murray, chair of the Stop the War Coalition said “At a time when so many families, particularly from working-class areas, are mourning the death of soldiers fighting an unjust war in Afghanistan, the best way to observe Remembrance Sunday would be to call a halt to the slaughter and bring the troops home."

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