Endgame for the West in Afghanistan' Explaining the decline in support for the war in Afghanist
June 29, 2010
In contrast to the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan enjoyed widespread domestic U.S. and international support. Widely perceived in the wake of September 11, 2001 (9/11) as a just and legal war to prevent future terrorist atrocities, the U.S.-led war had the active support of many allies from Europe and elsewhere. However, at the time of writing, this support has dropped off dramatically among the public in all six countries under study. In the United States, support levels as high as 91 percent in early 2002 have declined to approximately 50-60 percent in 2008, with many polls showing a majority now opposed to the war. In the United Kingdom (UK), support fell from over 70 percent in early 2002 to just over 30 percent in the summer of 2008.4 In Canada, previous high support levels of 60-70 percent have been transformed into a current support rate a little above 35 percent.
In Australia, the war in Afghanistan, an electoral asset for John Howard's Liberals in the 2001 election, now enjoys minority support of around 42 percent, according to the latest polls. In France, support fell from 67 percent shortly after 9/11 to a mere 34 percent by
September 2008. Finally, Germany has seen a similar drop in support from a comfortable majority of 61 percent in favor of action to a small minority of 27 percent by December 2009. From a policy perspective, this drop in support is concerning.
As is outlined shortly, the main finding of this monograph is that, although other factors such as confusing and inconsistent rhetoric from political leaders have been important, the key driver of the fall in support for the war in Afghanistan is a combination of casualties with an increasing perception that the war on the ground is being lost. If policymakers wish to halt this decline in public support, the single most important thing they can do is to consistently articulate a clear and credible plan to achieve success in Afghanistan. Other options, such as tightening the rhetorical justification for the war or inducing greater multilateral cooperation, may have some effect at the margins, but if publics do not believe the war can be won, then Afghanistan will be a lost cause in the court of public opinion.
This monograph will address the reasons behind this universal fall in support by looking at each country on a case-by-case basis. While it may be supposed that all of the countries in this monograph share certain generic similarities as highly developed democracies, each public's attitude is also presumed to be shaped by country-specific historical and cultural factors, and by the differing experiences of their militaries in Afghanistan.
Each country will form a separate case study. In turn, each case study will be prefaced with a short outline of the given country's recent historical experience with, and public attitudes towards the U.S. and towards the use of force overseas. Any assertion that a given country is "pacifist-inclined" or "pro-interventionist" must be backed up by historical facts and hard data, because in some cases-for example France or Canada-many stereotypes, which are popular even among well-informed policymakers, turn out on closer inspection to be poorly founded. Along with opinion polls on public attitudes both of the United States and of the use of force in international affairs, this short introductory section will include information on whether the country in question imposes parliamentary caveats on its forces in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, for secrecy reasons, we are not aware of the actual content of most of these caveats. However, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has made public information on which countries do and do not have caveats. This will be used, as it provides a good indication of a given country's preexisting attitudes to the use of force.
In seeking to explain the fall in support in each case, the author draws on both the academic literature on casualty sensitivity developed from the study of public opinion in previous conflicts and on theories that are popular in policy circles and the news media with respect to Afghanistan. The remainder of this introductory section will outline these theories. Academic theories are not important because they hold some kind of intrinsic, aesthetic value but because they provide policymakers with some guidance on where to look for the causes of an important phenomenon such as the decline in support for the war in Afghanistan. Academic debates are ultimately important only in so far as they are capable of yielding actionable and accurate advice to policymakers. At the same time, the academic literature does have some advantages over the news media debate in its ability to clearly and rigorously to spell out the mechanisms by which causes are linked to effects. With some news media-driven theories-such as the theory that the Afghanistan war has contracted illegitimacy from the war in Iraq-the precise way in which this process plays out in the minds of individual voters is somewhat nebulous.
Thus theories that are popular in the news media will sometimes require some additional fleshing out to gauge how crucial they really are.
The first set of explanations popular both in academia and in news media and policy circles is that the decline in public support for the war is a straight-forward result of increasing casualties. There are two variants of this "casualty phobia" explanation. First, there is the view that public support for the war starts high but then drops rapidly when the first casualties are sustained, then drops more slowly afterwards- this is known as the "logarithmic casualties" theory and is associated with John Mueller. Second, there is the view that public support for the war drops sharply with the first casualties and then declines more sedately, unless there are then sudden bursts of increased casualties, which cause correspondingly sharp falls in the level of public support for the war. This theory is termed "marginal casualties" and is associated with Scott Gartner and Gary Segura.
In addition to these claims, there exists a set of explanations that the author terms "casualties plus politics." The first of these, associated with Eric Larsson, states that elite discord about the mission, along with casualties, are what cause public support to fall. Elite discord most commonly means disagreement between the major parties but it could also mean public disagreement over the mission in the news media and upper reaches of the foreign service or military.
A different perspective claims that the public will tolerate casualties provided that the mission is based around restraining the aggressive foreign policy designs of a rival state-like the Gulf War of 1991-rather than around nation-building or counterinsurgency. This is known as the principal policy objective theory associated with Bruce Jentleson and would suggest that the Afghan war lost popularity as it transformed from a straightforward defensive mission to extirpate al-Qaeda's bases post-9/11 to a more complex counterinsurgency and nation-building exercise.
Third, both academic analysts and news media pundits frequently suspect that a lack of multilateral backing for a mission may also be a key factor in causing support for it to fall. A lack of multilateral support for a mission may delegitimize it in the eyes of the peoples of participating nations, it may also cause them to doubt the judgment of the leaders who took them into the war (because other leaders did not come to such a judgment), or it may simply cause them to turn against the war out of resentment at the perceived "freeloading" of their allies. Popular though it is to blame a lack of equitable, multilateral burden sharing for the decline in support for the Afghanistan war, it is problematic for several reasons. First, the Afghanistan war is authorized by a specific United Nations (UN) resolution, and all leaders of the Western alliance at least publicly claim the war to be just and worthwhile.
Second, it is very difficult to tell whether the perceived lack of multilateral burden sharing is really having an independent effect on the downward trajectory of support for the war or whether the unwillingness of some countries to contribute merely reflects the same factors that are causing public support for the war to drop in the main participating countries-such as the deteriorating progress of the war itself. Determining whether the lack of equitable burden sharing is actually having an effect in its own right requires a natural experiment-an instance in which a previous under contributor decided, for its own reasons, to ramp up its deployment. I argue that the reaction to the decision by France's President Nicholas Sarkozy to increase the French deployment to Afghanistan after his election in 2007 provides such a natural experiment, because this decision was essentially personal, not part of his election campaign, and did not reflect a sudden upsurge in France in support for the war or an improvement in the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
Finally, an increasingly popular view of the relationship between conflict and public opinion stresses that the public will be able to support military operations involving significant casualties only if they believe that the war will be won. This theory was developed by Peter Feaver, Christopher Gelpi, and Jason Reifler through close analysis of U.S. public opinion and the Iraq war22 and is here first applied to the war in Afghanistan.
Their work also suggests that the American public contains a segment of around 30 percent of "solid hawks" who will support a mission regardless of costs and who provide a "floor" below which public support will not fall. This author argues that this explanation is the only one that works in all of the cases surveyed, even those such as Australia in which all other factors would suggest a different outcome to what we observe. This author also claims that the solid hawks, as identified, do have counterparts in other developed democracies and account for the interesting fact that in all of the countries surveyed (except Germany), once support hits the mid to low 30 percent level, it tends to flatten out and not decline further.
Consequently, the rising belief that the Afghanistan war will not and perhaps cannot be won, when combined with rising casualties, is the most important factor in causing public support to fall. If policymakers wish to halt or reverse this trend, turning around the public's perception of the likely outcome of the war is the key.
Additionally, this paper examines two other popular explanations for the decline in public support for the war that have developed in the news media, policy circles, and academia and were specifically inspired by the case of Afghanistan. The first of these "Afghanistan-specific" theories is that the unpopularity and perceived illegitimacy of the Iraq war has spread to the war in Afghanistan. As evidenced by the popular slogan "Bush lied, people died," this perspective suggests that the Iraq war destroyed the public's belief in the honesty and integrity of the existing political leadership and made them suspicious of any conflicts initiated by them, even if apparently unconnected to Iraq. This author argues that if this theory holds water, one would expect to see the public's belief in the legitimacy of both conflicts decline at the same time and that if the leadership that initiated the Iraq war were to give way to a leadership that opposed Iraq but supported Afghanistan, we would see an increase in support for the latter conflict. In fact, evidence suggests that neither is the case and that the public is judging the Afghanistan war on its own merits, regardless of the situation in Iraq.
Also, it is widely held that the fall in support for the war derives from a poorly executed rhetorical strategy on the part of political leaders. Leaders have often cycled through numerous rationales for the war- from counterterrorism to counternarcotics to humanitarianism and nation building to women's rights to helping one's allies and protecting the Western way of life. This has been accompanied by often vague and grandiose language. Critics charge that this has left Western publics confused and cynical about the true goals of the war. Far better, it is claimed, if leaders had simply stuck to a clear and simple rationale based on counterterrorism. This author contends that the evidence on this is mixed-most politicians have used the multiple rationales strategy at most times, so it is difficult to say what would have happened had they used some other strategy. Nonetheless, using many rationales probably has not helped politicians rally support for the war. Sticking to a clearer and more consistent rationale may help to stem the decline in support, but it will be insufficient by itself if the situation on the ground does not improve.