Afghanistan war in an election year

Seems that Afghanistan is back in the news again. A number of Australian military personnel have died, and people are starting to ask more questions about whether we should be there. The polls show that the majority of Australians do not want our country involved in this war.

Coincidently, there is also a federal election on the way. Presumably the government will read the polls and decide that it is in their political best interests to withdraw? Sadly, no. The reality is that most people are passively opposed to the war in Afghanistan. If they had to decide, they would decide against, but in the scheme of things, it’s really not a big issue.

I found an interesting document on Wikileaks - a CIA report into shoring up support for the Afghan war in Western Europe. The document is dated 11 March 2010, and notes a poll that indicates that 80 percent of the German and French respondents opposed increased troop deployments in Afghanistan. Yet, the report says, "public apathy enables leaders to ignore voters". The report goes on: "The Afghanistan mission's low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ASAF)". People oppose the war, but when it comes down to it, they don't really care that much. Only 0.1 to 1.3 percent of these poll respondents identified "Afghanistan" as the most urgent issue facing their nation.

Presumably the reason this CIA report was written is because they are nervous. The Dutch government fell over the Afghanistan issue, which led to the Dutch withdrawal of troops. In the Netherlands, Afghanistan became an election issue. There is concern that the same thing could happen to other coalition partners, like France and Germany - especially if there are more casualties. Summer is upon Afghanistan, which is the 'fighting season'. With the recent troop surge, there could be a lot more Western deaths. The report is concerned "that a spike in French or German casualties or in Afghan civilian casualties could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal."

Until people begin to care and actively oppose the war - through demonstrations, letters, lobbying etc - Australia's troops are unlikely to budge. Australia's involvement in the war is completely beholden to domestic politics - one of the great things about democracy. Right now there is bipartisan support for the war, but perhaps if enough Australians cared, the Liberals would differentiate themselves by introducing a platform to bring troops home. It's entirely possible - after all, they're just politicians, fickle as the wind.

But until the war hits the voter radar, the status quo will be maintained.

My question is: how does public disapproval turn into public resistance, and what do we do to help that happen? Perhaps we could learn some lessons from the Dutch?

[Update: Defence Minister Steven Faulkner has just indicated that some troops might be coming home 2 to 4 years from now. I would say this announcement is likely due to increased disquiet about recent deaths. The other thing is that Australia isn't terribly committed to the war in Afghanistan - we're there mainly to look like we're supporting the US. So maybe withdrawing some troops isn't such a biggie.]