In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last week, the British Parliament reconvened during recess to partake in a lengthy debate on the UK’s involvement in the developing situation in the country. A broader discussion amongst the British public has also been sparked by the events, prompting many to evaluate the UK mission in Afghanistan and the decisions that led to both the intervention and the withdrawal of troops. The latest research by Redfield & Wilton Strategies looks at where Britons now stand on these issues.
Firstly, we find that a majority (54%) of the British public believes the UK’s military mission in Afghanistan has been in vain. A further 21% think it has not been in vain, and a notable quarter (25%) don’t know. There is considerable cross-party consensus on the matter, with 59% of 2019 Conservative voters and 57% of 2019 Labour voters expressing their belief that the Afghanistan military mission has been in vain.
However, Britons are decidedly split on whether or not the decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan in 2001 was the right one. A plurality (39%) thinks it was the wrong decision, 30% think it was the right decision, and 31% say they don’t know. Therefore, while most Britons believe the mission has been in vain, the question of whether the initial intervention was the right call at the time appears much less clear.
Again, we observe significant agreement among 2019 Conservative and Labour voters, with 42% of both demographics saying intervention was the wrong decision. A further 29% of those who voted Conservative and 28% of those who voted Labour think it was the right decision, demonstrating similar views on the matter among 2019 voters of the UK’s two main parties.
Meanwhile, respondents aged 18 to 24 (38%) are the most likely to say that the military intervention in Afghanistan was the right decision, compared to 23% of those aged 45 to 54.
When it comes to the American Government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, we also observe a split in public opinion: a plurality of 36% oppose the American Government’s decision to withdraw its troops, followed closely by 29% who support it, and 24% who neither support nor oppose it. A further 11% don’t know.
Pluralities of respondents aged 18 to 24 (38%) and 25 to 34 (38%) support the withdrawal of troops, whereas older respondents are more opposed, with 45% of those aged 55 to 64—compared to 25% of 25-to-34-year-olds—in opposition.
Amidst mixed opinion regarding the American decision to withdraw troops, the British public is more decisive regarding the UK Government’s subsequent decision to withdraw its remaining troops. A plurality of 42% support the UK Government’s decision to also withdraw its remaining troops from Afghanistan following the American decision to withdraw. In comparison, 24% oppose this decision, 23% neither support nor oppose it, and 11% don’t know.
Here, with respect to the current UK Government’s actions, we observe an element of partisan divide: 51% of those who voted Conservative in 2019 support the Government’s decision to withdraw its troops, an opinion shared by just 37% of 2019 Labour voters. Nonetheless, a plurality of Labour voters say they support the decision, with 30% alternatively saying they are in opposition.
The varying levels of support for the American decision to withdraw its troops and the British decision to follow suit may suggest that many Britons are not comfortable with the idea of British troops remaining in Afghanistan without the support of the American military. Indeed, we find that a plurality (40%) of Britons think that the UK is not capable of engaging in serious military missions elsewhere in the world without military and financial support from the United States. 28% think the UK is capable of doing so, while a third (33%) of respondents are unsure.
Looking at where Britons perceive blame lies for the Taliban’s sudden takeover of Afghanistan, we find that 29% believe the Afghan Government is most responsible for the Taliban taking power in Afghanistan. A similar proportion (28%) of respondents think the Afghan and Western Governments are equally responsible, while 15% think that Western Governments alone are the most responsible. A further 10% think neither are responsible, and 17% don’t know.
Respondents who voted Conservative in 2019 are more likely than their Labour counterparts to consider the Afghan Government to be most responsible for the Taliban takeover, at 38% and 25% of each respective group. Labour voters are conversely more likely to find the Afghan and Western Governments to be equally responsible, with 31% of the group expressing this view, compared to 25% of Conservative voters.
Ultimately, there is a significant lack of consensus concerning the military intervention in Afghanistan, and opinion is far from settled as the chaos continues. The only majority opinion expressed in response to the questions we asked is that the military mission in Afghanistan has been in vain. Beyond this, generational divides split the public, with younger respondents more likely to say the intervention beginning in 2001 was the right decision, yet also being more likely to support the withdrawal of US troops. We see a notable cross-party consensus regarding the initial decision to intervene, although partisan divides emerge where the withdrawal of UK troops is concerned, as well as with regard to who holds the most responsibility for the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.