Page last updated at 15:26 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 16:26 UK

Poll watch: British in Afghanistan

By David Cowling
Editor, BBC political research unit

Recent polls on public attitudes towards Britain's military engagement in Afghanistan are in sharp contrast to the support this policy received in 2001.

An ICM/Guardian poll in October 2001 suggested 74% approval of the joint British/US military action in Afghanistan.

In July this year, ICM found 59% who said Britain should withdraw, compared with 36% who said our forces should remain. Support for the mission was at 47%.

Support for Afghan mission

A ComRes/Independent poll in July found 58% agreeing with the proposition that "the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable". Also, 60% disagreed that "more British troops and resources should be devoted to Afghanistan". The data shows support for withdrawal has increased.

Support for withdrawal

The public's current opposition to Britain's continuing military presence there seems to be fuelled by the view that we are paying too high a price.

When ICM in July put the defence secretary's case for remaining in Afghanistan - enabling the Afghan government to provide security for its people, the suppression of extremists and ensuring terrorists do not return - they found 47% of respondents thought this was a worthwhile objective but that the price in British casualties was too high; and a further 21% who thought it was not a worthwhile objective at all.

Populus/Times (fieldwork 17-19 July, 2009) offered a more nuanced answer to the question of British withdrawal. The figures below also highlight the strong gender differences that appear in many responses to questions about Britain's engagement in Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter):

Which of the following is closest to your view?

British troops should remain in Afghanistan until the Taliban are defeated and the situation there is stable, even if that takes many years:

All: 29% Men:38% Women: 20% Don't know:4%

A timetable should be set for withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan within the next year or so and we should stick to that timetable regardless of the situation in Afghanistan at the time:

All:33% Men:29% Women:36% Don't know:4%

British troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan now:

All: 34% Men: 29% Women: 38% Don't know: 6%

ICM/BBC Newsnight-Guardian (fieldwork 10-11 July, 2009) asked whether Britain's presence was helpful or not.

Do you think the presence of British forces in Afghanistan is helping improve the situation there, making it worse, or making no difference one way or the other?

Helping improve situation: All: 33% Men: 37% Women: 29%

Making no difference: All: 46% Men: 42% Women: 50%

Making it worse: All: 16% Men: 16% Women: 16%

Don't know: All: 5% Men: 5% Women: 5%

US Afghan poll

All of this is in marked contrast to support for British intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Three ICM/Guardian polls that autumn illustrate the difference.

Approval ratings dipped from 74% on 10 October to 64% on 28 October before rising slightly to 66% on 18 November.

In the US, polls for ABC News/ Washington Post also show fluctuations in support for the operation in Afghanistan in recent years.

Support for the US role in Afghanistan has dipped from 56% in December 2008 to 47% in August this year.

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