New Left Project

Afghanistan and the myth of public opinion

Last week’s massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in Panjwai by an American serviceman, and the death of six British soldiers in Afghanistan the previous week, have focused attention on the support, or lack of it, among the public for Britain’s continued military presence in the country. A YouGov survey, for example, found that the proportion calling for withdrawal of British troops either “immediately” or “soon” rose to 78 per cent after the British deaths, and 79 per cent following the civilian killings. Parallels have been drawn between the Panjwai murders and the My Lai massacre of 16 March 1968 (“one of those seminal incidents that changed public perception of the Vietnam War”).

One could be forgiven for thinking that the latest, well-publicised, outrages might indeed prove something of a tipping point, and that the opposition of a war-weary public might influence policy makers. It is over a decade since British forces joined the US-led attack on Afghanistan; the death of the six soldiers brought the British tally of war dead to 400; it is six years since Democratic Audit launched a campaign, in the shadow of the illegal invasion of Iraq, against Britain’s unaccountable system for war policy; and a year ago this week, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: “We will enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action”[1].

Yet we did not need to wait for the ritual confirmation by David Cameron and Ed Miliband that “the mission” in Afghanistan would continue regardless, to know that the British Prime Minister remains almost uniquely insulated from shifts in public opinion towards war. On the contrary, democratic accountability for the decision to deploy British troops remains both formally engineered out of the British constitution, and kept that way by a combination of cultural and political factors:

“The democratic deficit is so severe that we might question whether we have a system that is little different from that which surrounded the king in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.” White, N (2009): 30[ii]

Public opinion as superpower

Grand claims are made for public opinion by the media, by politicians and by policymakers. The day after the worldwide Iraq protests in 2003, The New York Times declared that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”[iii]

The Ministry of Defence makes the link between warfare and popular consent quite explicit in its definitive policy document on Strategic Communication, published last year:

“War...requires the political and majority support of the population in whose name it is waged. The authority to use the military instrument is nuanced and can occur without prior approval by Parliament. However, for major operations such approval is expected by the wider UK population and it is important to maintain public support.”[iv]

In fact, as we shall see, the authority to use the military instrument can only be exerted without prior approval by Parliament. The constitution provides no mechanism by which Parliamentary approval may be given at the point at which decisions to deploy military forces are taken.

In 2010-11, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee conducted an inquiry into the UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan. Evidence submitted to the inquiry, and the committee’s final report, are revealing in terms of British war aims, policy, the significance of public opinion and the way that policy makers might respond to it. 

“Communicating with the UK population about the purpose of any mission involving UK Armed Forces is crucial. We have found that the Government’s descriptions of the nature of the mission and its importance to UK interests have varied throughout the campaign, lacking a consistent narrative. Whist MoD polling data has shown some limited improvement in the public’s understanding of operations in Afghanistan, we have observed some confusion in the communications on Libya which reminded us forcefully of earlier stages in Afghanistan.”[v]

In its written evidence to the inquiry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) admitted that “the international community continues to contend with waning public support for its engagement in Afghanistan” [vi], and that “opposition has grown over recent years at the same time as any perception of progress has diminished”[vii], yet this appears to have had little, if any, impact on British policy towards Afghanistan. Rather, as the FCO notes in the very next sentence, the effect should be on the government’s communications strategy:

Our principal challenge, therefore, is to demonstrate more effectively the real progress that is being made across the country, particularly on governance, justice and economic development. [Emphasis added][viii]

In other words, pace the Ministry of Defence, declining public support for the war is an issue for presentation, and not for policy.

Armed conflict and democratic accountability in the United Kingdom

The capacity for domestic public opinion to influence decisions on the deployment or withdrawal of Britain’s military forces is heavily circumscribed, not least by the constitution itself.  The power to authorise deployment of military force is among several key executive powers vested in ministers by the Crown, under the so-called royal prerogative. These prerogative powers were the subject of an inquiry in 2004 by the House of Commons Public Administration Committee[ix].

The formal definition of the royal prerogative is:

“... the remaining portion of the Crown’s original authority, and it is therefore ... the name for the residue of discretionary power left at any moment in the hands of the Crown, whether such power be in fact exercised by the King himself or by his Ministers”.[x]

The United Kingdom has been involved in more military operations than any other country, including the United States, since 1945[xi], and its history of testing the limits of the post-War system of international law began within months of the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, with the Corfu Channel case[xii]. The democratic basis for the decision to deploy forces is weaker in Britain than in any comparable state, and of course, once the Prime Minister has authorised deployment, the military commanders guard their operational autonomy jealously, which is in turn respected by the politicians for fear of appearing unpatriotic or meddlesome.

Whilst some of the prerogative powers were dealt with under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, those dealing with armed conflict still formally exclude parliament from decisions to deploy British military forces, and indeed leave such decisions at the discretion of the Prime Minister. The question of the democratic basis for war making powers has thus been the focus of extensive debate since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It has been the subject of several Private Member’s Bills, two public consultations and of three parliamentary inquiries, most recently in 2011.

Despite cross-party agreement on the need for constitutional change in 2006, the Blair government resisted proposals for reform. The issue formed part of a public consultation process launched within days of Tony Blair’s resignation[xiii], but a proposal for parliamentary accountability to be based on statutory legislation failed to make it into the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Last year, the Government rejected[xiv] a recommendation from the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee[xv], for a detailed parliamentary resolution as a (heavily watered-down) mechanism for executive accountability to Parliament.

International policy élites and the double democratic deficit

The multinational character of the majority of armed conflicts in which British troops are involved places further barriers between policy decisions and the public - a so-called ‘double democratic deficit;’[xvi] barriers that rest, not in vertical relations within nation states, but in horizontal relations among international policy élites.

Sarah Kreps[xvii] presents opinion poll data from various sources covering 13 NATO members, including the US and UK. The data record far lower support for the war in non-US countries than in the US, and a generally declining trend of support as troop levels increased after the Obama “surge” in 2009.  However she also points out the consensus among political parties between and within NATO countries, which she puts down to the perceived benefits and costs of maintaining or withdrawing from the Afghanistan operation among political and policy élites.

This consensus exerts a powerful form of peer pressure among different NATO countries. Furthermore, crucially, it leaves no alternative for voters within individual countries, and thereby eliminates the electoral risk of pursuing an unpopular policy. The 2010 General Election in Britain, for example, saw Afghanistan receive very little discussion as an issue, despite the significant increase in troop deployments and casualties since 2005. Such discussion as there was, for example in the television debates among the party leaders, confirmed all-party agreement on the commitment to the war and to the military.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO member states have struggled to identify and maintain a clear rationale for the organisation’s continued existence, and the military spending that goes with it, not least in the UK - both prior to and since the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. In his supplementary written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former Ambassador to Kabul, stated that “The war in Afghanistan has given the British Army a raison d’être it has lacked for many years, and new resources on an unprecedented scale.”[xviii].  He cited the then Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, as having told him in 2007 that he had quite deliberately allocated battle groups leaving Iraq to the Afghanistan campaign as a means of securing maximum resources. ‘“It’s use them or lose them,” he said.’.[xix]

The related issue, to which Cowper-Coles’ comment above alludes, is the significance of NATO and the relationship with the United States. It is clear that the questions which arose in the immediate post-Cold War years about the purpose of NATO have not gone away since 9/11.  The role and effectiveness of NATO are seen as subject to constant scrutiny in Washington, and the US-Europe (US-UK) relationship is seen as dependent upon the effectiveness of European NATO member states, collectively and individually. Words such as “credibility” and “relevance” crop up very often in such discussions. Anxiety over American interest in NATO is also a source of pressure for increases in military spending by European NATO members.  The 2009 Foreign Affairs Committee report on the war in Afghanistan, published during the early months of the Obama administration, makes explicit reference to “Unspoken aims: NATO’s credibility and relations with the US”[xx].

“The core of the problem is that NATO, in present circumstances, has many functions and serves many purposes, not all of them declared or generally acknowledged, and certainly not all related to its original role. For the United States it is a tool for exerting influence in Europe, and perhaps for joining others with it in power projection elsewhere. For the Europeans generally it is a forum where they may hope to catch the United Stares’ ear. For the EU it will be a provider of military services. For many candidates [for NATO membership] it is a club whose badge is a sign of their being in the West. For some it is a guarantor of territorial security. According to its own statements, NATO is a purveyor of security and stability to the wider Euro-Atlantic area.”[xxi]

In the face of the vested interests in belonging to the NATO “club”, and the determination of HMG to seal war policy off from Parliamentary, never mind public, accountability, we may expect the death and destruction in Afghanistan to continue, new military adventures to erupt from time to time, and the idea of public opinion as having any influence over them to remain a convenient myth.

John Brissenden is researching a PhD on public opinion and the Afghanistan War, and is a co-editor of New Left Project.

Front page image is ©Mick Lobb, and is licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

[1] Daily Hansard, Commons Debates, 21 March 2011, col. 799

[ii] White, N., 2009: Democracy Goes To War: British Military Deployments Under International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[iv] Ministry of Defence, 2011. Joint Doctrine Note 1/11 Strategic Communication: The Defence Contribution. Shrivenham: Ministry of Defence Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, para 207

[v] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2011. The UK's Foreign Policy Approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan: Fourth Report of Session 2010-11, HC514. London: The Stationery Office, page 5

[vi] Ibid., para 179

[vii] Ibid., para 185

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] House of Commons Public Administration Committee, 2004. Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament. Fourth Report of session 2003-04, HC422. London: The Stationery Office

[x] Dicey, A.V., 1959. An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (10th edition) London: Macmillan, page 424

[xi] Human Security Group, 2005. Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[xii] White, N, 2009: chapter 2

[xiii] Ministry of Justice, 2007. The Governance of Britain - War powers and treaties: Limiting Executive powers. Consultation Paper CP26/07. London: The Stationery Office

[xiv] House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, 2011. Parliament’s role in conflict decisions - further Government Response. Government Response to the Committee’s Ninth Report of Session 2010-12. HC1673 London: The Stationery Office

[xv] House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, 2011. Parliament’s role in conflict decisions. Eight report of session 2010-12. HC923 London: The Stationery Office

[xvi] House of Lords Constitution Committee, 2006. Minutes of Evidence taken before the Constitution Committee: Memorandum by Ambassador Dr Theodor Winkler, Director, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), 5 October 2005. The Stationery Office, page 214

[xvii] Kreps, S., 2010. Elite Consensus as a Determinant of Alliance Cohesion: Why Public Opinion Hardly Matters for NATO-led Operations in Afghanistan. Foreign Policy Analysis, 6(3), p.191-215. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons

[xviii] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee 2011, Ev 85

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2009. Global security: Afghanistan and Pakistan, eighth report of session 2008-09, report, together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence, HC302 London: The Stationery Office. Page 100

[xxi] Hopkinson, W., 2001. Enlargement: a new NATO. Western European Union Institute for Security Studies Chaillot Paper no. 49. Paris: Institute for Security Studies.


About this article

Published on 23 March, 2012
By John Brissenden