How will the disorganised exit from Afghanistan affect the reputation of the British Government?
Coverage in the media has rightly focused primarily on President Biden’s role – given the US is by far the biggest foreign player in Afghanistan – but the British Government – and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, particularly – have faced harsh scrutiny. What should we expect to follow politically?
Three interesting polls suggest the most fundamental answers. The first comes from YouGov in 2017, which asked the British public whether they thought it was right or wrong for Britain to have become involved in various wars and global conflicts since the Second World War.
While large majorities supported Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 and engaging Argentina in 1982, significantly more opposed than supported British engagement in Afghanistan (43-25 opposed, with the rest saying “don’t know”). In addition, more people opposed than supported engagement in Libya (44-19), Iraq in 2003 (55-18) and Iraq in 1991 (35-30).
The second also comes from YouGov, a few weeks ago, which asked people about whether Britain should accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan – and also, crucially, whether Britain had a “moral duty” to accept those asylum seekers.
While the first question showed a majority support accepting Afghan refugees (52-29), perhaps surprisingly a majority could not be found to support the contention that Britain had a moral duty to accept refugees (48-36 agreed).
Third, another YouGov poll, from 2014 when Britain began scaling back operations in Helmand, which showed how the public had grown utterly weary of our engagement in Afghanistan several years ago.
They supported the withdrawal of troops from Helmand by a massive 83-5; they thought our whole engagement had not been worthwhile by 56-25; they doubted the Afghan security forces could maintain security by 67-13; and they thought the Taliban would return to power by 65-15.
These polls suggest a number of big things. First, and most importantly, that the Government will not face a backlash for the principle of withdrawal because people didn’t want troops to be there (or in the Middle East) in the first place. In fact, the public are generally sceptical about foreign intervention against states generally (as opposed to terrorist groups, which they tend to support).
Second, they show there’s a limit to the “mess” they think Britain specifically is responsible for (if people simultaneously think we should accept asylum seekers but don’t particularly consider it to be our moral duty).
Third, they show the public have long considered Afghanistan to have been a failure and that they long expected a return to the status quo ante.
While political and foreign policy commentators dwell on whether British and American withdrawal will make people think Afghanistan was a tragic waste of lives, or that it will make people question whether politicians can make the case for foreign intervention again, the truth is the public have already made up their mind on these – and did so long ago.
The deep sympathy the public feel for British troops and the sacrifices they made, the anger they feel on their behalf, as well as their general disappointment with how Afghanistan turned out, made themselves felt in the polls several years ago when other Prime Ministers were in power.
While the public are looking on at the Taliban’s advance with horror and sadness – with sympathy for Afghan civilians – they expected it and they doubt there is much that we can do, beyond extending a home for a small number of Afghans (along with other countries around the world).
This Government is therefore unlikely to be affected by those big, existential questions being played out in politics and the media. For this Government, its greatest vulnerabilities are around important but relatively narrow questions over whether it handled the logistics of withdrawal in the right way.
Did it act swiftly, competently and with good judgement as it helped British civilians, diplomats and Armed Forces out of the country – as well as those Afghans directly associated with the British and American operations in the country since 2001? (The questions in whether the Government is providing the right level of asylum support will emerge later).
In short, these are mostly questions of judgement and competence – although, certainly regarding the treatment of Afghans who directly helped Britain, there are also questions of fairness and decency.
It seems very likely that there will be enough horror stories of slow and poor decision-making from various Government Departments and agencies that the Government will take some blame. These stories will come out over the course of the next few weeks.
While unnamed Government sources are seeking to apportion blame to particular politicians (Raab, most obviously), the public don’t and won’t think along these lines; within reason, they think of the Government as an entity, rather than as being devolved in any meaningful way.
This means there’s a limit to what “damage control” the Government can do by throwing particular politicians and officials under a bus. It will all land at the door of the PM where public opinion is concerned.
Will there be enough stories, cumulatively, to provoke a general backlash against this Government at last? Time will tell (I have no idea what’s coming out) but I doubt it. Hard as it is for many commentators to understand or believe, for most of its supporters, this Government has a lot of credit in the bank on questions of judgement and competence.
In a world where politicians are seen endlessly to over-promise and under-deliver, this Government has delivered on two massive promises: to “get Brexit done” and to introduce new controls over immigration.
It has also delivered a world-class vaccination programme. These aren’t small things. Most of this Government’s supporters will not therefore be saying – as opponents will – “there they go again”. This again puts a limit on the negative effects the Government will see.
But competence is a strange question. Beyond extreme incidents that directly affect the lives of ordinary people – like the final days of our time in the ERM, when interest rates were raised, crippling many – most errors, even big ones, just gently chip away at a Government’s reputation.
This is not to suggest that competence isn’t a big deal – on the contrary, it’s vital, and I suspect it’ll be ultimately competence that does it in the end for this Government – but rather that it can take a surprising amount to lose it. We’re not there yet; Afghanistan won’t do it.