One is constantly reminded of the grim realities of Afghanistan today, a country entering its 10th year of war with a bloody and brutal insurgency and a government in Kabul commonly viewed as corrupt and ineffective.
But there is another perception of what is taking place in Afghanistan 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 directed by the Asia Foundation in Kabul. It was the sixth public opinion poll conducted by the foundation since 2004, 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 instability or the presence of 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 percent) 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 more than a third of those surveyed (37 percent), 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 toping this list at over 90 percent. Afghans said that the army is improving their security, that it 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 U.S. 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 the 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 favor the government’s attempts to put an end to the fighting through negotiation, up from 71 percent last year. This strong desire for peace talks is perhaps a reflection of an old Afghan proverb: “Blood cannot be cleaned by blood.”
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 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 participation and representation, including gender equality and equal educational opportunities for women.
Many of the encouraging results of the Afghan survey sound almost counterintuitive given the daily negative reports emanating from that country. But given what the Afghans have experienced the past three decades, any signs they see of improvement are taken as forward progress. They have not given up on the possibility of building a better future for their country. Nor should the international community.
Karl F. Inderfurth, professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and assistant U.S. secretary of state for South Asia affairs 1997-2001 and Theodore L. Eliot Jr., U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan 1973-1978 and is dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Both are trustees of The Asia Foundation.