UK doubts

by Dafydd on 11/9/2009 · 18 comments

In the UK, the popularity of the Afghan campaign has slumped yet further. While not the sort of country where public support is absolutely necessary for war, there are real problems in the way.

While the elite (national newspapers, politicians & the military) seem pretty solid in their support, as many as 75% of the public want troops out within a year. Around two thirds think the war cannot be won.

On Sunday, one national newspaper broke ranks.

Still this sort of opinion prevails. Basically the idea is if only the public could understand, they would support. While that article (in the FT) recognises the basic problem (the public “turning a deaf ear”), it doesn’t suggest any remedy other than “explain better”, which I read as “shout louder”.

Senior Officers seem to be in much the same position.

On top of this come reports that Gen McChrystal also wants UK troops out.

So far as I can work out, the UK public has turned decisively against this campaign. The timescales for ending it (five to ten years) voiced by the people in power are a whole order of magnitude out of what is possible (one to two years max, IMO).

We are due an election in six months. Will an incoming prime minister really attach a ball and chain to their administration? The war is not only unpopular, in very tight fiscal times it is close to unaffordable.

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– author of 23 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

I am a UK citizen & resident with a long standing interest in Central Asia. This probably has something to do with student days, a late night TV show called 'The Silk Road' and a TV with no remote control. I currently work in software and live with my wife & three children.

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Prithvi November 9, 2009 at 9:58 pm

It seems that most of the European states in NATO don’t feel like they have a stake in the war. As it was, they saw NATO involvement in the Balkans as a stretch, but at least that was in Europe. Now it’s inconceivable that any NATO country will get invaded, so these people are baffled when the US expects them to gear up for a war in Central Asia.

If the Americans have a stake in Afghanistan, it’s that withdrawing may make them more susceptible to terrorism, destabilize their interests in the region, and be a generally humiliating experience.

But what is Latvia’s or Spain’s or even Britain’s national interest in staying in Afghanistan? Some of their nationals feel as if they’ve been trapped by a legal clause to go fight, not a compelling danger.

NATO was never meant for this. NATO was meant to deter the Red Army when it was better to have a Yank in your backyard than a Russian on your wife*, and after 1991 was used as an auxiliary to the larger project of European integration and stability. But no matter how well advocated such a war is, there is something Quixotic about European troops fighting in Central Asia in order to defend Europe’s freedom and safety.

*my apologies to Russian readers, I do not mean to say that Russians are predisposed to this, although it must be admitted the Red Army committed a great deal of sexual violence in 1945.

Karaka November 9, 2009 at 10:16 pm

even Britain’s national interest in staying in Afghanistan?

I wouldn’t discount the threat of terrorism for the UK, as a reason to remain. The governments hasn’t forgotten the successful airport bombing in Glasgow in ’07 nor the foiled one from the same time. Britain is as much a target of terrorism and backlash against the Western world as the US is, and at this point it’s certainly closer than the US is.

Combine that with the longstanding history between the US and the UK and you have the beginnings of a rationale. The attentive media coverage as a result of the British troop deaths in Helmand have shone a light on an otherwise somewhat dormant issue, and that paired with the upcoming elections and waning faith in the PM, and you’ve got a narrative. But I suspect a strong figure could come in and turn the public opinion back towards support, particularly if done in concert with the US president.

That’s not to say I particularly think UK withdrawal is better or worse than UK surging; but it’s notably a reactive narrative built on those troop deaths in Helmand from a believed ally.

I wish I could speak to the continent, particularly eastern europe, but my first-hand knowledge only goes as far as the Isles and perhaps Germany.

Dafydd November 10, 2009 at 5:25 am

Karaka, what you fail to take account of is the London bombings, the Glasgow bombing, and almost all foiled plots were planned in the UK by UK citizens.

Most of these people are of Pakistani descent. People of South Asian descent outnumber people of African and Carribean descent significantly in the UK. While they may have received training, Pakistan is seen as them ost likely venue for this training.

The majority of UK citizens who are of south Asian descent are muslim (I don’t know the breakdown between Bengali/Pakistani/Indian muslim, but I am aware that many UK citizens view themselves as more Punjabi than Pakistani, for instance).

While it is possible that a strong leader may turn around support for the war, why would a recently elected politician expend politcal capital on that?

Obama does not look like he will give McChrystal all that he has asked for, an incoming government is likely to be Conservative (and therefore more sympathetic to the Republicans).

Given the current fiscal position, I expect an incoming government to attempt to wind down UK involvement. Whatever rationale you present, troop deployment in South/Central Asia is something we simply cannot afford over here.

While the troop deaths in Helmand are significant, their effect is more to raise the question of ‘why are we there’?

The politicians provide as many answers as there are hours to listen to them, none is good enough.

karaka November 10, 2009 at 6:26 pm

The part about the terrorists in those cases being UK citizens is an excellent point, and I had indeed forgotten that. That being said, the allied status of Pakistan does, I think, support an argument that a UK presence in Afghanistan is an oblique way to attempt to quell terrorist camps in Pakistan. It’s not an argument I could argue effectively, but I can see it, anyway.

why would a recently elected politician expend politcal capital on that?

Oh, several reasons. Privileging a relationship with the US over internal politicking, taking a long view of the engagement in Afghanistan as a preventative measure against terrorism. I’m not even saying they’re good reasons, really, but that there are some.

Regarding McChrystal, I doubt he expected to get all that he asked for, but I do expect he conferred with his colleagues in ISAF and took the British presence in Afghanistan well into account when making his assessment of what could be accomplished there. I doubt in July/August he viewed British withdrawal as likely.

While the troop deaths in Helmand are significant, their effect is more to raise the question of ‘why are we there’?

Well, yes, that’s more or less my point. I think the place of divergence is that I don’t think the politicians, whether Labour or Conservative, will actually draw down British troops, despite public opinion; but those troops deaths went a long way towards inflaming public opinion.

As to its affordability…while it seems a good point, I don’t know that it will matter, honestly. I think, despite the recession (an economic hurt I felt intimately living in Britain last year) a war commitment will continue. As to whether the politician’s answers are satisfactory, well, I suppose the election will play that out in some way. But from what I’ve read, I don’t think either Labour or the Conservatives are arguing a withdrawal. Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.

Prithvi November 9, 2009 at 10:24 pm

I guess the UK is an exception as far as the European powers go, since it feels, or at least its political leadership feels equidistant between Brussels and DC. So possibly they could interpret the UK’s national interest to mean maintaining the special relationship, even if this means further casualties in Afghanistan.

I certainly didn’t mean to discount the UK as a victim of terrorism; but possibly, there exists the attitude among many Britons that these attacks were a result of the UK’s involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars (by no means am I saying these attacks were justified because of this.) That seems to have been the attitude of the Spanish people in the spring of 2004 when they voted in Zapatero.

M Shannon November 9, 2009 at 10:39 pm

The British aim is to remain to be seen as an important country. Its primary way of doing this is to maintain its “special relationship” with the US. Maintenance of nuclear missile subs is the other. Both Labour and the Tories support trying to maintain Britains 2nd Tier position regardless of public sentiment, cost or plausibility of military success on the ground.

The UK will stay in Afghanistan until given the green light to leave by the US. Its a carbon copy of Iraq: Initial Brit hubris about being insurgency experts, surprise things aren’t going well, escalating tactical failure to the point of most bases being besieged by gangs of rag-a-muffins, blame and cover-up, US reinforcement, US takeover and finally a slow drawn down in a foolish attempt to save face.

Karaka November 9, 2009 at 10:50 pm

there exists the attitude among many Britons that these attacks were a result of the UK’s involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars

Oh, I disagree. I mean, that sentiment might exist, but it certainly isn’t mainstream, and neither Labour nor the opposition would argue from that standpoint. It’s my view that Britons believe that terrorism of their nation is largely unjustified–mind the outcry against al-Megrahi when his transfer was approved–and unprovoked, and in accordance with the world-wide support NATO and its allied nations gave upon the US entering Afghanistan, so too was the British presence justified there; both as an ally, and from a source of empathy to the US after 9/11, and thirdly as a protective, preventative thrust against being targeted itself.

And, the UK military being arguably of greatest strength in Europe, it acts not only as the UK but as an EU member as well.

It’s why I think a strong leader could turn opinion around, because those beliefs can still be tapped; it’s the duration of time this war has gone on, combined with the burden of Helmand squarely on British backs, and the resultant casualty numbers that give Britons pause.

I do think Britain is a bit of a different duck even from its partner EU members. It has a different history, a different martial capacity, and a different language, which is no small division between the Isles and the continent.

Prithvi November 10, 2009 at 3:34 am

I’m not trying to paint the British as quasi-capitulationists. I was just under the impression that post 9/11/01 sympathy for the US has been worn a little thin, and that international goodwill in the wake of POTUS 43’s election doesn’t necessarily mean shouldering a rifle and manning the ramparts next to US troops.

Of course I understand that the British people see the terror attacks as undeserved, and rightly so, although I’m not sure what al-Megrahi has to do with Al-Qaeda or Afghanistan.

If the British political leadership is really concerned about preserving the UK’s status as a major regional power, then I can see a concrete motive for toughing it out in Helmand. I do think you’re right in that public opinion can still be swayed.

Prithvi November 10, 2009 at 3:35 am

sorry, I meant #44

David M November 10, 2009 at 11:34 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/10/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

kayu November 10, 2009 at 1:29 pm

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Faisal Nazir November 10, 2009 at 1:53 pm

What is really means in Britain? I am not sure if the public opinion has any influence on government’s policy making process? The above post clearly gives an impression that situation in Britain is no different from the one in a third world country where public opinion is disregarded by the politicians.

karaka November 10, 2009 at 3:36 pm

has been worn a little thin, and that international goodwill in the wake of POTUS 43’s election doesn’t necessarily mean shouldering a rifle and manning the ramparts next to US troops.

I would agree with this, in the sense of my above point that the eight years fighting this war has dampened public support of it. But I don’t think the political pressure is actually there to withdraw, at least not more significantly than maintaining the international political balancing act between the US and the EU.

If the British political leadership is really concerned about preserving the UK’s status as a major regional power, then I can see a concrete motive for toughing it out in Helmand.

Sure, that’s certainly part of it. Probably the main part. But it isn’t merely about power; it’s also about defense, and protectionism, and the fragile creation of a president-led EU that may or may not find a British leader in that role. As Britain becomes further ascendant within the EU, it seems to me that it also shoulders some responsibility for defense of the institution, and insofar as its identified enemy comes out of Afghanistan/Pakistan there is a line of reasoning that offers another motive for presence there.

I won’t speak to whether those motives are correct, but I do think they exist.

I am not sure if the public opinion has any influence on government’s policy making process?

In Britain, and the US, and Germany, and other nations, it most assuredly does.

AJK November 10, 2009 at 3:41 pm

I’m surprised nobody is latching on to your “tight fiscal times” note at the end. If the money isn’t there to support a military excursion, or if that money is seen as best put towards other interests, than their can’t be a war effort. The UK isn’t nearly as reliant on military contractors, for better or worse.

Prithvi November 10, 2009 at 4:16 pm

If I understand you correctly, Karaka, you’re arguing that by being able to better project power abroad (i.e. in Afghanistan), the UK will be better placed to assume a position of leadership in the EU and have more say over decision making in further European integration?

karaka November 10, 2009 at 6:09 pm

@Prithvi, sort of, but reversed. My thought is that the UK already possesses a significant share of martial power and leadership within the EU, power that will be shored up if Blair or Miliband are nominated, and that they act as a protector not only for their own interests but the interests of the EU. I think they already have a fair amount of “say over decision making in further European integration”.

@AJK, I’ve gone off on a sort of abstract political thought, but the fiscal support (or lack thereof) a good point.

Dafydd November 11, 2009 at 4:39 am

Folks, while Britain is one of the larger EU members, it is most definitely not what you would call a leader.

France is the most influential EU member. Germany is second. Italy and the UK come somewhere like joint third.

Britain is not a member of the Schengen agreement (passport free zone) and is not a member of the Euro. While Britain and France are both significantly better equipped militarily than other EU members, the chances of Britain ceding any sort of control of military or defence matters to collective EU decision making are damn close to zero.

Besides his record on Iraq, this pretty much kills the Blair candidacy for the EU council president’s role.

Milliband has already withdrawn from the process to select a high representative (foreign minister role).

Besides, the UK fiscal position is WORSE than that of the US, and we don;t have the worlds reserve currency. If you can imagine how it would be for the US if the world didn’t buy and sell all commodities in US$ any more, then that is where the UK is right now.

We really can’t afford this war., and the public are against it.

@Faisal Nazir – once elected a British administration operates with “Royal Prerogative” i.e. it really does have the ability to operate pretty much as a third world dictatorship. Because they know that another election will come, this is limited BUT a prime minister can take the country to war without reference to either parliament or to the public. I think Blair seeking the approval of parliament for the Iraq campaign was a first for us.

Dafydd November 11, 2009 at 5:38 am

In the news today we have this. There has been a decisive turn in UK public opinion. Unless it turns back the UK deployment will be very time-limited.

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