The South Asia Channel
Reflecting on Afghan public opinion
Those who argue about the Afghan war on bumper stickers and in sound bites would do well to pay extended attention to the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of Afghan public opinion. The results cut both ways, demonstrating more progress than is admitted by the "Afghanistan is hopeless" crowd, while simultaneously calling into question the more ...
Those who argue about the Afghan war on bumper stickers and in sound bites would do well to pay extended attention to the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of Afghan public opinion. The results cut both ways, demonstrating more progress than is admitted by the "Afghanistan is hopeless" crowd, while simultaneously calling into question the more extravagant declarations of those who claim a clear path to success. The survey is one of the most careful periodic studies of Afghan opinion. Conducted annually since 2006, this year’s survey interviewed 6348 respondents in all 34 of the country’s provinces, with sophisticated oversight and training of the pollsters. No survey can wholly correct for the tendency of some people, especially in countries like Afghanistan where the security situation is tenuous, to give the answers they think an outsider wants. The fact that 95 villages originally chosen (out of 876 villages and urban points originally selected for interviewing with a total of 166 later switched for various reasons) had to be replaced by others because of poor security in sampled areas probably slants the results somewhat more toward positive responses. However, it is fair to note that fewer villages were switched for security reasons in 2011 than in 2010 (95 compared to 138 in 2010). Despite these caveats, though, this survey is brim full of important results.
On the positive side, and at a time when many Americans have an undifferentiated view that everything Afghan is sliding downwards, nearly half the Afghans surveyed believe their country is moving in the right direction, a trend that has held up since 2008. The numbers who are optimistic about the country’s economic future has risen since last year’s survey. The survey also shows continued high esteem for the Afghan Army, the most highly respected institution in Afghanistan by a sizable margin (though those wanting to replicate the Iraq "awakening" example should note that the least respected institution are local militias). Confidence in local government shows improvement, particularly at provincial and district levels, although in this as in every aspect there are wide ethnic and regional differences that merit close attention.
There is strong support for a negotiated peace, although the regional differences evident in the survey results suggest great concern that a badly designed peace might bring the Taliban back to power. This fear of civil war if the Taliban returns to power is one I heard much about when I visited Afghanistan in March. The survey indicates that such fears are particularly wide spread among ethnic minorities, so the kind of peace we pursue matters, in order to prevent a move toward armed conflict from populations who are most concerned about a Taliban return. Support for the Taliban has declined, and there is clearly an increased revulsion among Afghans against the civilian casualties caused by the insurgents. Afghan respondents also show increasing awareness of improvements in health and education. In short, there is progress. But there is also a great deal about which to be concerned.
Afghan fears about security are growing, and now overshadow complaints about corruption (still a major problem). Afghans in the areas of heavy combat in the southwest, south and east show much lower levels of confidence in security than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Suicide bombers are increasingly rattling the confidence of city dwellers, who have more negative views of security than do villagers. More than half of the respondents say they fear for the safety of themselves and their families, a statistic that would presumably be higher if some of the excluded sample points had been included. More worrisome still, the number of respondents showing such fear has not declined from 2010 to 2011, and in eastern Afghanistan, where the Haqqani Network is predominant, such fear is rising.
There are also growing concerns about freedom of expression in the country — a concern that reflects somewhat negatively on the Afghan government and warlords, but is specifically linked by many respondents to poor security and fears of the Taliban. The survey lays bare the great deal of doubt that Afghans see about the Taliban being rolled back, even in the areas where direct confrontations with U.S. and international forces have diminished substantially. Concerns about and resentment of the behavior of foreign troops are also a growing problem. There are wide variations on these views even in different districts within provinces, so it is a mistake to say the survey flatly challenges NATO views of success — but counterinsurgency is as much about psychology as about statistics. These perceptions are a cause for concern that military analysts need to consider.
Ultimately, for all of the negatives in this survey, there are many areas of optimism as well. America has twice ignored Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and after our initial success in 2001. And twice we have paid substantially in blood for our loss of attention. Before we give up and declare everything hopeless, we need to look closely at how much has been achieved in the eyes of Afghans, and what that means in terms of the possibilities that still exist to succeed. But we need to look equally clearly at the negatives, the places where Afghans remain or have grown more skeptical, and think of corrective actions, even as international forces redeploy within Afghanistan and eventually withdraw. In doing so, the Asia Foundation survey is an important document, but only if we are willing to think in terms more complicated than slogans.
Ronald Neumann was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-07 and is the author of The Other War: winning and losing in Afghanistan. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, but the views expressed here are his own.