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The evolution of support for military action over time

Although data are not plentiful, it is to some extent possible to also trace how support for the war against terrorism/in Afghanistan evolved over time in spite of the possible effects of differences in question wording. The case of Afghanistan/terrorism suggests some of the trend types that we have seen before in the case of Kosovo. We should bear in mind, though, that in the present case the available data are much more limited.

Despite the shortcomings of the data, we can try to plot how attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan developed over time. We observe, in Figures 5.7 and 5.8, for the US as well as for other countries for which trend data are available, a few more general patterns. These include, like the Kosovo case, an upswing in support around the beginning of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, followed by a slow decline once it turns out that 'victory' has been inconclusive. Overall, though, 'Afghanistan' - at least its first phase, which ended early in 2002, was a more popular case than 'Iraq' a few years later, and this relative popularity (or more limited reluctance) continued over the years, as we shall see below.

In the United States, the war against Afghanistan and terrorism in general was not only immensely popular in the fall of 2001 but remained so for a long time, in spite of the fact that, while the Taliban were removed from power, Bin Laden was not captured. In the US, there was only a minor decline in the course of 2002 despite the fact that the war remained inconclusive. On the, always controversial because risky, issue of whether to send ground forces, the public became even more supportive over time,

Support of war against terrorism and in Afghanistan, United States (2001-2003) (in % 'support')

Figure 5.7 Support of war against terrorism and in Afghanistan, United States (2001-2003) (in % 'support')

Sources: Various (missing data have been interpolated to obtain connecting points in the graphs), including -

  • 2001: 'Would you support or oppose the United States taking military action against any nation found to be aiding or hiding terrorists?'
  • 2001-2003: 'Do you approve or disapprove of the current US military action in the war on terrorism?'
  • 2001-2002: 'Do you approve or disapprove of the military attacks led by the United States against targets in Afghanistan?'
  • 2001-2003: 'Thinking now about US military action in Afghanistan that began in October 2001: Do you think the United States made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan, or not?'
  • 2001-2002: 'Do you favor or oppose the use of US ground troops in Afghanistan?'
Support of war against terrorism and Afghanistan, Europe and Canada (2001-2002) (in % 'support')

Figure 5.8 Support of war against terrorism and Afghanistan, Europe and Canada (2001-2002) (in % 'support')

Format of questions:

Canada: 'Do you support or oppose Canadian participation in military retaliation in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001?'

France: 'Are you personally in favor or opposed to an intervention by France in the framework of a military alliance to reply to the terrorist attacks on the United States?'

Germany: 'Do you support the participation of German soldiers in the military actions in response to the attacks on the USA?'

United Kingdom:'Now that the US has taken military action, do you support or oppose British troops being involved in this action?' and 'Do you approve or disapprove of the military action by the United States and Britain against Afghanistan?'

Poland: ['Should Polish troops participate in the war in Afghanistan?']

which of course has much to do with the initial success in removing the Taliban regime. Question wording does not seem to have an effect here on the levels of support (Figure 5.8). Another conclusion that can be drawn is that both in the US and among allied countries, support for using military force against terrorism in general was generally considerably more widespread than support of force in the specific case of Afghanistan. Clearly, support drops when we move from the theoretical to the practical and from the general to the specific.

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