Armed Forces / Iraq and Afghanistan

Support for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan

To gauge people's views on the two military missions, half our sample was asked about Iraq and the other half about Afghanistan. This was done to avoid the possibility that people might feel prompted by their opinion about one military conflict into expressing an identical view about the other. People were asked if they agreed or disagreed that:

The UK was wrong to send its Armed Forces to Afghanistan

or that:

The UK was wrong to go to war with Iraq in 2003

undefinedTable 8.6 shows substantial public opposition to both of the military deployments. However, those who object to the Iraq War (agree with the statement) are in the majority - almost six out of ten - while the proportion who say it was wrong to send UK Forces to Afghanistan is just below half. The percentages of men and women who say that British military intervention was wrong are similar, although women are slightly more likely to object (agree) than men. However, men are more likely to indicate support (disagree with the statement) for UK military involvement. We also see among both groups that people are more likely to express a neutral attitude about the Afghanistan campaign than about Iraq, suggesting greater uncertainty or confusion about the UK's role in this conflict.
 

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When investigating general attitudes to the Armed Forces we found that older people were more positive in their views than younger people. We might, therefore, expect younger age groups to be more opposed to the two military deployments. However, previous research points in the other direction, suggesting that it is older people who tend to be more opposed to armed conflict (Gonzalez, 1996; van der Meulen and de Konink, 2001; Scotto et al., 2011), possibly reflecting the influence on succeeding generations of significant world events - such as the Vietnam War or the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001- rather than being a simple consequence of advancing age (Holsti, 2004; Schoen, 2007). In our own survey, it is certainly clear that opposition to the UK's military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan increases with age (Table 8.7). Disapproval of the Iraq War rises steadily from 47 per cent among 18-34 year olds to 66 per cent among the over-65s and, in the case of Afghanistan, increases from 42 per cent among the youngest age group to 60 per cent among the oldest. However, the highest levels of positive support for British military involvement can be found in the middle age range of 35-54 year olds, particularly for Afghanistan, where 34 per cent support the mission. Neutral attitudes towards the two military operations are noticeably highest among younger age groups.
 

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undefinedHistorical analyses of the relationship between people's levels of education and their opinions concerning military interventions has indicated that this is not a straightforward relationship (Gartner et al., 1997; Gelpi et al., 2009). Data from the United States suggest that people with higher levels of education are more likely to disapprove of the mission in Iraq but support Afghanistan (Burris, 2008). This is replicated in the UK, with graduates more supportive of the mission in Afghanistan, while only those whose highest qualification is at GSCE level are more supportive of the mission in Iraq (Clements, 2011). This apparent discrepancy is thought to be related to a greater understanding of the missions' particular objectives and individual merits, arrived at through an increased interest in current events and politics, among those with a university-level education (Holsti, 2004; Sirin, 2011).

Somewhat contrary to these points, the results of our survey show that people without qualifications are one of the groups most strongly opposed to both the continuing military mission in Afghanistan, and to UK involvement in the Iraq War (Table 8.8). In both cases, six out of ten people without qualifications say that UK involvement was wrong. A slightly higher proportion of graduates (64 per cent) take a similar view of Iraq, but only four out of ten express opposition in relation to Afghanistan (42 per cent). Moreover, while the (minority) levels of support for British involvement in Iraq are much the same regardless of educational qualifications, the proportions supporting the Afghanistan mission range from a fifth of people without qualifications to more than a third of graduates.
 

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Existing research has also found that people's views of armed intervention are linked to political partisanship (Burris, 2008) and that this operates primarily through people holding core values that favour or criticise the use of military action (Holsti, 2004). But what differences of opinion should we expect between supporters of the various parties in Britain, given that the involvement in the Iraq invasion was initiated by a Labour government with Conservative support - and that the Conservatives' current coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, like the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, were opposed to the war? Might views also differ about Afghanistan, given that the Conservatives, in opposition, were especially critical about the helicopters and other equipment being provided for the Armed Forces?

Perhaps surprisingly, we find that agreement that the Iraq War was wrong extends across the political spectrum (Table 8.9), with the majority of people opposed to the mission despite their political affiliation. undefinedAround six out of ten people who identify with each of the three main parties at Westminster say Britain was wrong to go to war, rising to seven out of ten supporters of the nationalists and other smaller parties. However, levels of endorsement for the campaign are higher among those who lean towards Labour or the Conservatives (one in four) than Liberal Democrat supporters (one in five) and those of other parties (one in seven). While providing some evidence of a link between party political affiliations and support for military intervention, these findings also suggest that other factors are responsible for the antipathy towards British involvement in Iraq, which are shared by supporters of different parties. These may include continuing doubts about the legality of the invasion and its strategic value, as well as the consequent loss of military and civilian lives.

Opposition to the continuing Afghanistan campaign is also spread fairly evenly among supporters of the three main parties, but at a lower level. Around half of Labour supporters and a slightly smaller proportion of Conservative and Liberal supporters (45 per cent) agree that the UK was wrong to send its forces there. People who identify with minority parties are more likely to disagree with British involvement (55 per cent), including supporters of nationalist parties such as
Plaid Cymru, which consistently opposed the deployment. Active support for military involvement is also lower among the supporters of other parties than those who identify with the Conservatives, Labour and, in this particular instance, the Liberal Democrats.
 

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While it is evident from these findings that more people disapprove than approve of UK involvement in both military missions, public support for the Afghanistan campaign is greater than for operations in Iraq. This may suggest the public considers the core mission in Afghanistan - a declared act of self-defence to root out the planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks - to have greater legitimacy. United Nations authorisation of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and the mission's broader focus on state building and improving living standards for the local population, may also have improved its palatability for the public. Conversely, confusion around the legality of the Iraq War and the justifications proposed for the invasion - not least the notorious claims concerning 'weapons of mass destruction' - may account for the higher level of public disapproval.

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Notes
  1. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1596810.stm
  2. A police estimate of numbers. Protest organisers suggested a figure nearer two million. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/2765041.stm
  3. 'Armed Forces Covenant recognised in law for first time', Ministry of Defence, Defence News, 3rd November, 2011, available at www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/ArmedForcesCovenantRecognisedInLawForFirstTime.htm
  4. A report by the former Liberal Democrat leader and career soldier Lord Ashcroft (2012) recently cast some light on public attitudes towards the Armed Forces, but owing to its sampling strategy the findings were not necessarily representative of the UK population as a whole.
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