Karl F. Inderfurth & Theodore L. Eliot Jr.
One is constantly reminded of the grim realities of Afghanistan today, a country in its 10th year of war and a government in Kabul commonly viewed as corrupt and ineffective. But there is another perception that should be taken into account – what the Afghans themselves think of their current situation.
A recent poll reveals that many Afghans actually believe things are getting better – slowly, to be sure, but improving despite the odds. The survey was the sixth conducted by the Asia Foundation in Kabul since 2004, thus providing a snapshot of public opinion in Afghanistan over time.
The 634 trained Afghan pollsters interviewed 6,500 Afghans, almost equally divided between men and women and including all ethnic groups, across the country’s 34 provinces. When fighting placed areas off limits, sampling replacements were made in the same region. The polling was done two months before the September parliamentary elections.
Nearly half of those polled (47 per cent) said the country is moving in the right direction. That figure was 38 percent in 2008 and 42 percent in 2009. Twenty-seven percent said it was moving in the wrong direction, a corresponding decrease from the last two years. The top three reasons cited for optimism were a perception of better security; construction and rebuilding projects such as roads and bridges; and the opening of schools for girls. More than half of those surveyed (54 percent) said they were personally aware of such projects in their areas. This is an important “hearts and minds” indicator: Afghans are seeing improvements that have a direct impact on their daily lives.
At the same time, Afghans were acutely aware of the major challenges they face, with insecurity (attacks, violence, terrorism) identified as the biggest problem by 37 percent of those surveyed, followed by continuing high unemployment (28 percent) and corruption (27 percent). Corruption, in fact, jumped from 17 percent last year.
Despite these challenges, the survey found that the level of confidence remained high in many key Afghan institutions, with the Afghan National Army topping the list at over 90 percent. Afghans said that the army is improving their security and is honest and fair, but that it is still unprofessional and poorly trained. Seventy percent of those surveyed said the army cannot operate by itself and needs the continuing support of foreign troops for training.
President Hamid Karzai has cited the end of 2014 as the date by which the Afghan army and police will be ready to take over from US and NATO forces – a timetable likely to be endorsed at the NATO summit in Lisbon.
The survey shows that satisfaction with the performance of the national government has risen steadily over the last three years, and now stands at 73 percent. The most commonly mentioned achievement is a better education system. This result is buttressed by numbers “on the ground” – seven million children, including 2.5 million girls, are now in schools; 90,000 graduated from 12th grade last year. The survey also found overwhelming Afghan support for the Karzai government’s efforts at reconciliation with the Taliban and other armed opposition groups. Eighty-three percent favour the government’s attempts to put an end to the fighting through negotiation, up from 71 percent last year.
While clearly war weary, Afghans are also increasingly wary of the motivations of those trying to take control of the country. The level of sympathy for insurgent groups has fallen significantly in the last year, from 56 percent in 2009 to 40 percent this year. While more sympathy is found in the south and the west, where the current fighting is concentrated, the survey shows that more Afghans across all regions have no sympathy for insurgents at all. Two of the principle reasons cited: They are the oppressors and they are killing innocent people.
Finally, 81 percent of the Afghans surveyed say they continue to agree with the democratic principle of equal rights for all groups to political representation, including gender equality and equal educational opportunities for women.
Many of the encouraging results of the survey sound almost counterintuitive, given the negative reports emanating from that country.
But after what the Afghans have experienced, any signs they see of improvement are taken as forward progress. They have not given up on the possibility of a better future for their country. Nor should the international community.
Karl F. Inderfurth was assistant US secretary of state for South Asia affairs 1997-2001. Theodore L. Eliot Jr. was US ambassador to Afghanistan 1973-1978. Both are trustees of The Asia Foundation