The South Asia Channel

Happy to be Moving in the Wrong Direction

Happy to be Moving in the Wrong Direction

A new 2015 Asia Foundation survey of the Afghan people, released today, paints a gloomy picture of a country in the throes of extraordinary change. The main findings of the survey, which polled 9,586 Afghan men and women in June, is that the national mood has, perhaps not surprisingly, become more pessimistic, reflecting increasing concerns over insecurity and a stressed economy. To a large extent, these concerns have been sparked by factors that the Afghan unity government inherited — including significant security threats posed by regionally backed militant groups and the uncontained legacy of massive international military and economic drawdown last year. The poll shows sharp drops in many areas, including confidence in the government. Yet, at the same time, it shows that three-fourths of Afghans are happy with their lives.

Below are some of the poll’s key takeaways.

First, reflecting the opinions of different ethnic groups across all 34 provinces, Afghan optimism about the overall direction of the country has tumbled to the lowest point in a decade, after steadily rising through 2014. In 2015, 36.7 percent of Afghans say their country is moving in the right direction — a drop of 18 percentage points from 2014. Concerned primarily about security, more than half of respondents say the country is moving in the wrong direction, citing insecurity (44.6 percent) followed by unemployment (25.4 percent) as chief concerns. Over two-thirds of Afghans report that they always, often, or sometimes, fear for their personal safety, the highest rate in a decade.

Second, the economy and unemployment have emerged as chief concerns, especially for youth and for women. More than half of respondents report that employment opportunities for their household are worse in 2015 as compared to last year. Additionally, three-quarters of Afghans cite unemployment as the biggest problem facing youth, followed by illiteracy (26.5 percent). One in five respondents identify education and illiteracy as the main problem facing women.

Third, the survey reports a sharp decline in the level of confidence and satisfaction with government performance and public institutions. In 2015, 57.8 percent of Afghans are satisfied with the government, down 17 points from 2014. The survey also shows Afghans are less confident in parliament, with its approval rating dropping almost nine points. Moreover, confidence in the Independent Election Commission, the subject of controversy in last year’s election, has fallen by 30 points to 36.4 percent in 2015. Although the government has taken important measures to curb corruption, a whopping nine out of ten Afghans say that corruption is a problem in their daily lives, the highest reported in a decade.

Fourth, despite these sobering numbers, there is also encouraging news. This year’s survey shows higher confidence in the Afghan army (80.8 percent) and in the Afghan police (70 percent), which assumed full security responsibility last year. However, despite higher confidence in their abilities, 80 percent of Afghans also say that the Afghan army police need international support to do their job.

Intriguingly, in spite of the dismal national mood, a staggering three-quarters of Afghans say they are generally happy with their lives. Asia Foundation’s survey data since 2004 shows that Afghans have seen significant progress in the provision of basic government services. In 2015, two-thirds of Afghans report satisfaction with the quality of education for children; almost nine in ten report satisfaction with access to drinking water, and half are satisfied with their access to health facilities. Nearly half also report satisfaction with roads — all critical improvements compared to past surveys.

Furthermore, this year has seen major wins for women in Afghan politics: the cabinet now includes four female ministers, and the government appointed two new female provincial governors. The percentage of Afghans who support women making their own electoral decisions has climbed steadily in the last decade, from 21 percent in 2004 to 50.1 percent in 2015. Additionally, over three-quarters of Afghans say that women should have the same educational opportunities as men, and 64 percent say women should be allowed to work outside the home.

Although some of the survey findings may appear as a setback for the Afghan government, there are reasons to believe that the shifts in national mood were expected. For starters, the survey was conducted during a period of uncertainty and intensified violence over the summer that drove many young Afghans out of the country. A major part of that uncertainty has now been mitigated, after the White House announced recently to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan through 2016, a key gesture that Afghans have welcomed and which has already revived optimism in the country. Additionally, the poll was taken before the Afghan government had presented its reform plans to international donors at the Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) in September.

Preliminary data collected since the poll was conducted shows that Afghanistan has made considerable progress in implementing significant structural reforms, including reducing economic and fiscal vulnerabilities, introducing banking laws, reforming the budget process, raising revenues by increasing business taxes, levying telecom taxes, reforming customs, and cutting government spending. Such reforms have set the foundation for inclusive growth in the Afghan economy that will stimulate employment and expectedly restore people’s confidence in government. Most importantly, SOM served as an opportunity to assess Afghanistan’s immediate macroeconomic outlook, grounded in Afghan priorities and backed by international partners, in order to reduce financial uncertainty. Additionally, Afghanistan’s recent accession to the WTO should boost domestic reforms, attract investments, and create jobs. This optimistic outlook was not taken into account at the time of the survey.

Moreover, it is crucial to recognize that the Afghan government is under severe constraints caused by the foreign military and economic drawdown that constituted a large part of the Afghan economy, an austerity budget, and incipient peace talks — all factors that have added to pessimism in the country. However, Afghan optimism can be restored in at least three ways.

  1. Commitment to the transformation decade. The uncertainty over the last year as to whether President Obama was going to keep troops or withdraw them exacted a heavy toll. But now that U.S. troop withdrawal plans have temporarily ceased, the future U.S. president should commit to stability in Afghanistan and not pursue a politically expedient solution and withdraw troops.
  2. Commitment to Afghanistan’s self-reliance agenda, with sufficient funding. With its reformist outlook, President Ashraf Ghani’s self-reliance plan is a strategy that could alter Afghanistan’s economic woes, by making the public finances sustainable, boosting growth, and creating jobs. Allowing the reform agenda to take shape requires a steady flow of financial support that covers core costs while Afghan revenue streams begin to flow. This is not the time to impose austerity on a government seeking to consolidate its authority and credibility in the wake of a massive military and economic drawdown.
  3. Be tough on Pakistan. Pakistan’s murky role in Afghanistan remains a contributing factor in Afghanistan’s instability. Despite repeated statements by Pakistani leaders to back a stable Afghanistan, Pakistan’s actions speak to the contrary and the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan is still intact. Using either the carrot or the stick, the world needs to hold Pakistan’s leaders accountable for their hypocrisy and failure to honor international commitments.

Last year’s security transition should not be seen as an end, but as an inflection point. If anything, the survey findings serve as a useful reminder for the United States and the international community to remain a steady and patient partner in a changing Afghanistan.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images