An ICM poll has shown that 56 per cent of those surveyed opposed the war, while only 37 percent supported it. When Operation Herrick, as it is known, was launched in October 2001 following the attacks of 11 September, military action was opposed by just 16 per cent. However, eight years of conflict and the deaths of 220 British soldiers has sapped public support.
The results come at a crucial time in Britain's long campaign in Afghanistan as this year the number of military personnel rose from 8,000 to just over 9,000, the second largest deployment after America. Forces have also endured the bloodiest fighting in a generation, with 83 soldiers killed since January during operations to provide security for democratic elections that were riddled with corruption and beset by a dismal turn-out.
The poll, for a BBC Radio 4 panel discussion entitled Afghanistan: Is it Mission Impossible?, found that of 1,010 people questioned, 56 per cent were opposed, 37 per cent were in favour, while 6 per cent were unsure and 1 per cent refused to answer.
Half of all men surveyed said they were opposed to the conflict, while 65 per cent of women expressed opposition. Perhaps surprisingly, those most opposed to military operations were aged 65 and over, while the least opposed were aged between 18 and 24.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence yesterday confirmed that some soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan have had their operational tours extended because of "complex" handover arrangements.
Troops from 19 Light Brigade had been due to end their six-month tour this month, with soldiers from 11 Light Brigade set to be deployed in their place.
The MoD denied suggestions that the delay was a result of ministers failing to reach a decision on whether to send more troops. General Stanley McChrystal, the head of Nato forces, has stated more troops are requiredm but US president Barack Obama has not yet made a decision on the matter, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown appears to be awaiting his lead.
A Cabinet sub-committee will meet today to consider how the operation is resourced, but will not make an immediate decision on increasing troop numbers before consultation with Britain's allies, according to a Downing Street spokesman.
General Sir David Richards, the new head of the army, is believed to want an extra 1,000 troops, according to Michael Codner, director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute. But it is thought that the government may decide instead to send an additional 500 soldiers from the UK with the other 500 being redeployed to Helmand province from elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, said the Prime Minister refused his request for 2,000 extra personnel on grounds of cost, a claim that the government denies.
MP Eric Joyce – a former aide to the defence secretary who resigned in protest at the government's handling of the Afghanistan campaign – took part in the Radio 4 debate.
Last night, he told The Scotsman that the public would not tolerate casualties and deaths at the rate of recent months stretching out over the next five years. He also questioned why other European nations had contributed so few troops. Mr Joyce said: "We say very glibly we are there to protect people on the streets of Britain, but it is not any safer here than it is across Europe and yet we need to give a disproportionate effort.
"We need to make it clear that it is time-limited."
However, Stephen Grey, author of Operation Snakebite, about the liberation of Musa Qala, insisted that bad news and casualties did not turn people against a war. He cited a study by American psychologists in the Second World War, which found that reports of military disasters led people to rally round and queue up at enlistment centres.
He said: "What's missing from the war in Afghanistan is a sense that anyone can see a way to actually win this war. It comes down to a failure of leadership, political and military."
Last night, in reference to the BBC poll, an MoD spokesman said: "Our boys need the public's support because they are out there fighting in the vital national interests of the UK."
Yet Rose Gentle, who lost her son Gordon in Iraq and now co-chairs Military Families Against The War, said: "The government will not listen to anyone. It is not their sons who are sitting out there without equipment and in need of helicopters. They put it in their own pockets instead of sending it out to the troops.
"Some of these lads, their families are still buying them boots. You can't put a price on a boy's life (but] we can bail out the bankers. No. Bail out our sons first."