With over 10,000 British troops fighting the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan is inevitably shaping up as a major issue of the 2010 general election campaign.
But while uncertainty about the ongoing presence of British service personnel is going to be a big talking point among the public, we’re unlikely to see the same handwringing doubts about the mission’s validity in mainstream politicians’ rhetoric.
That wasn’t always the case. Six months ago it seemed that if the situation continued to deteriorate British forces would find their involvement in the international struggle to prop up the government in Kabul the subject of an intense debate.
Instead, growing popular unease about the conflict throughout 2009 reached an unexpected climax towards the end of the year when Gordon Brown spelt a dead serviceman’s surname incorrectly.
The Sun, which had turned against the prime minister after his speech to the Labour party conference, launched another scathing attack with the story. But in an emotional press conference in Downing Street Mr Brown communicated with the nation’s frustrations in a way he had failed to do previously.
Together with Barack Obama’s injection of new troops and the January 2010 London conference, the sense of a fresh start helped lift the gloom from what was a desperately bad year for British families of personnel serving overseas.
Critics will continue to voice doubts about the validity of the mission, but for now Stanley McChrystal’s strategy – and the impression of progress as the Operation Moshtarak offensive takes hold – is likely to diminish this fundamental question’s potency in the election debate.
Even if the raison d’etre for the mission is off the agenda, for now at least, there are still many political points to be won and lost on Afghanistan. Arguably the biggest impact the conflict had on British voters’ thoughts during 2009 was an anxiety the soldiers were being let down by inadequate support. From helicopter shortages downwards, the press were happy to jump on any suggestion of shortcomings.
Nothing has changed since last year to remove this hypersensitivity. A well-timed story could have a big impact on the election.
In Westminster, at least, another fundamental debate is taking place. The future of Britain’s armed forces will be decided by the strategic defence review which follows the election.
Cuts are inevitable over the coming decade, but where will they fall? The Army, RAF and Royal Navy are desperately bickering to get the best possible outcome. They realise this review goes far beyond Afghanistan, but its significance is likely to pass the average voter by. For the 2010 general election, we need look no further than Helmand province to find voters’ biggest anxiety on defence issues.