23 August 2021

Twenty years on, the British public have a very different view on intervention abroad


The speed and scale of the Taliban’s advance across Afghanistan has raised a number of big questions.

Should we have intervened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks? What was achieved during 20 years of Western military presence? Was this the right time to withdraw from the so-called ‘graveyard of empires’? And what should our refugee policy be towards a Taliban-controlled society with non-Muslim minorities? 

Public attitudes polling on Afghanistan in the British context provides a mixed picture – one which is far from straightforward for the Government to digest. YouGov polling on whether or not it was the right decision for Western troops to withdraw has shifted dramatically. On August 9, 44% of Brits were in support of Western military withdrawal (with 26% opposing this). Just a week later, that number had shrunk to 28%, with 42% saying it was the wrong decision and just under a third ‘unsure’. Clearly the scenes of airport chaos and triumphant Talibs, signs of a reckless and incompetent Western withdrawal, have had a profound impact – and it is the Biden administration that must take the lion’s share of the blame here. 

What’s striking is how public attitudes have changed to the original 2001 intervention, prompted by the Taliban’s refusal to offer up Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks. At the time, YouGov polling for The Guardian and Observer found that nearly seven in ten Brits (68%) favoured the deployment of British troops to the country. These days the public see things quite differently: three in ten (31%) think Western military intervention was right, while 32% aren’t sure. A plurality – 36% – now believe it was the wrong course of action.

Perhaps most dispiritingly, another poll by J.L. Partners on August 18 found that a comfortable majority of Brits – around six in ten – believe that British forces and Ministry of Defence civilian staff who lost their lives in Afghanistan died for nothing. Only one in five people disagreed with this view and 45% believe we should never have sent troops to Afghanistan to begin with. And who can blame them for wondering what we achieved in the last 20 years, given the speed and ease of the Taliban’s advance, as provincial capitals and then Kabul itself fell like so many dominoes.

What kind of state were Afghans being asked to defend against the Taliban exactly? If the objective was to construct a ‘new Afghanistan’ with robust and functional state systems, motivated and well-ordered military and law enforcement institutions, and a society generally supportive of Western liberal democratic values (and despite what US President Joe Biden is now claiming, that was the aim), that project has been an unmitigated disaster. Delusional liberal interventionists ignore the fact that after 20 years, Afghanistan remained a resolutely Islamist society – one with a dysfunctional state riddled by administrative corruption and incompetence. There is an embarrassing romanticisation of ‘modernisation’ efforts in post-2001 Afghanistan, among establishment politicians in the House of Commons, which is simply not rooted in reality.

None of that means we don’t want to help the victims of Taliban oppression, however. That JL Partners poll found that the majority of British voters (53%) believe we should do more to accept refugees, and 65% take the view that the West has let down the women and children of Afghanistan. Given the obvious chaos on the ground and the furore over the Government’s response, it’s not surprising to find that a huge 67% of respondents said the Prime Minister and his team had not been in control of the situation.

We cannot help everyone from Afghanistan, however, and our refugee resettlement scheme should prioritise those who closely co-operated with British forces during the war (such as interpreters), as well as non-Muslim minorities, such as Sikhs and Hindus. Sheltering members of the Hazara ethnic minority – predominantly made of Shia Muslims who have historically suffered from Sunni Islamist-led persecution – should also be prioritised. 

We must also learn lessons from past failures of policy in this area. Too often the UK has failed to complement a generous, open-hearted refugee system with robust plans for social integration. It should go without saying that you cannot simply take people from a society such as Afghanistan and plonk them in the middle of a largely secular, non-Islamic society and expect them to flourish, especially when some will have experienced profound trauma. Assuming these people will integrate smoothly is the kind of misplaced idealism that undermines public trust in the immigration and asylum system.

We need a dedicated social integration regime and mental health support infrastructure in place for any refugee resettlement project. It’s also important that the cost and resources needed to welcome Afghans to this country are shared evenly, rather than some areas taking a disproportionate share. The Government will also be aware that many of their own voters, particularly Leave voters concerned about immigration, are not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of tens of thousands of Afghans relocating to the UK.

But aside from the practicalities of our refugee scheme, the broader lesson of recent days is that the public no longer see nation-building and intervention as a plank of British foreign policy. Instead, we ought to be focused on creating a well ordered and fair asylum system and working on the cohesion of our own society. Ultimately, the biggest threat to the Western liberal democratic model is not the mad Mullahs thousands of miles away, but the breakdown in state-citizen relations in our own countries.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is the author of the forthcoming book 'Manufactured Grievance' (June 2022).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.