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Evenly balanced?

Posted by Richard Monday, July 13, 2009 ,

Says The Guardian, after a week in which British military deaths in Afghanistan passed those in Iraq, there has been no immediate backlash in public opinion. An ICM poll shows support for the war is substantially greater than three years ago and opposition slightly lower.

Research, we are told, was carried out as news broke of the deaths of eight soldiers in 24 hours – taking the British death toll in Afghanistan past the total for Iraq. Yet opposition to the war, at 47 percent, is only just ahead of support, at 46 percent.

Backing for Britain's role in the conflict has thus grown since 2006, the last time an ICM poll was conducted on the subject – up 15 points from 31 percent. Opposition has fallen over the same period by six points, from 53 percent.

That may surprise some, says the paper, but the experience of Iraq shows the public feel loyal to the armed forces while they are in action. The research, carried out by ICM for The Guardian and BBC Newsnight, also suggests the government has been effective in getting across its case for the war.

The Daily Telegraph notes that in November – contrary to its competitor's assertion, an ICM poll was conducted for the BBC. It asked had whether Britain should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within the next 12 months. Of the 1,013 adults questioned, 68 percent said yes and 24 percent said they should stay. Then, in March, a ComRes poll for the BBC found 60 percent of Britons were unconvinced by the government's arguments for keeping troops there.

Nevertheless, says The Telegraph, media coverage of soldiers being brought home in flag-draped coffins and grieving parents' criticisms of equipment deficiencies which they say put their sons' lives at risk has only increased doubts.

Warwick University politics professor Wyn Grant is cited, saying support for the war could crumble if there was a continuing high death rate. "When you get a high level of casualties, people ask what the point of the engagement is," he says.

This is a serious point. But what confuses the issue is that, while Iraq was active, the two campaigns were conflated in the public mind, with the unpopularity of the one reflecting on the other. With full withdrawal in Iraq now imminent, for the first time Afghanistan is exposed to full public gaze in its own right. From that perspective, the current poll is in fact the baseline.

Furthermore, public opinion is ever-fickle and immediate reactions to high profile events are never a good guide of sentiment. We will have to wait a while before a trend emerges to give us a guide as to where the nation really lies. Evenly balanced, says this poll. We shall see.

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