Saturday, November 21, 2009

Oxfam poll: Afghans want an exit from 30 years of endless war

Ever since the overthrow of Daoud Khan's regime by the Afghan Communists in 1978 touched off a civil war, leading in turn to a Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghans have lived through three decades of continual war, devastation, and other horrors. For most Afghans, conditions now are better than they were during the 1980s and 1990s (when, among other things, about a million Afghans died and millions more fled the country). But things are still terrible, and right now prospects for peace and reconstruction are not encouraging.

The blogger Andrew Sprung (in a post flagged by Andrew Sullivan) picked up on a recent survey by Oxfam that asked Afghans to reflect on all this: "The Cost of War: Afghan Experiences of Conflict, 1978-2009". The results are interesting, sobering, and in some ways illuminating.

As Sprung says, this Oxfam survey "reveals untold suffering--1 in 5 say they've been tortured, three quarters have been forced to leave their homes at some point in the endless civil war, 43% have had property destroyed." At the same time, bad as things are right now, "after 30 years of civil war, only 3% named the current conflict as the most harmful period (though the report cautions that areas where the current fighting is worst are underrepresented)." But that's just the starting-point.

Of course, one always has to approach survey results with caution, especially in war-torn and technologically backward societies, and in this case (as noted) there is the special complication that the parts of Afghanistan currently experiencing the most violence are probably under-represented. But the overall patterns in Afghans' responses here largely accord with information available from other sources, and in some cases they bring out the implications more fully and vividly.

Sprung's useful and intelligent overview of the Oxfam report (interspersed with some of my own remarks) is below. It's worth reading.

--Jeff Weintraub
XPOSTFACTOID (Andrew Sprung)
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Oxfam's survey of Afghans: Their wishes are no mystery

An Oxfam poll of 704 randomly selected Afghans reveals untold suffering--1 in 5 say they've been tortured, three quarters have been forced to leave their homes at some point in the endless civil war, 43% have had property destroyed.
[JW:Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those surveyed are sick of this and wish it would end. What factors do they think are most important in keeping the conflict going now?]
The survey also has what would seem to be some moderately encouraging findings regarding the counterinsurgency: 70% see unemployment and poverty as a key driver of civil war; 48% blame the government's weakness and corruption; 36% point to the Taliban; 25% to interference by neighboring countries; just 18% to the presence of international forces; another 18% to al Qaeda--and another 17% to the lack of support from the international community.
[JW:These responses offer a lot of food for thought. For the moment, I will just highlight one point that accords with what we know from other sources about the attitudes of ordinary Afghans: Only a small minority of Afghans believe that the presence of US & allied forces is a major factor driving and prolonging the civil war, or that pulling out those foreign troops would miraculously bring the violence to an end. Thus, it is probably not surprising that despite increasing unhappiness about declining security and inadequate reconstruction, and despite widespread complaints and resentments about specific actions by US & allied forces, all the polling results and other relevant information I've seen indicate that most Afghans still support the continued presence of these forces. It's a general rule that, at some point, foreign troops eventually overstay their welcome anywhere, even if they were greeted warmly at first (as they were by most Afghans in 2001); but despite everything, this point hasn't yet been reached in Afghanistan (see, e.g., question #27 here).

(There may be good reasons to argue that, at this point, it is in Americans' interest to pull the plug and abandon Afghanistan--that's a separate discussion--but one shouldn't pretend that this is what most Afghans want.)

Also, before that initial catalogue of long-term suffering and catastrophe leaves us entirely depressed and despairing, here's another point that is worth re-emphasizing:]
After 30 years of civil war, only 3% named the current conflict as the most harmful period (though the report cautions that areas where the current fighting is worst are underrepresented).
[JW:The problem is that in substantial portions of Afghanistan, the situation seems to be getting worse rather than better. So the question is whether and how a downward spiral can be avoided--and what the US, in particular, can and should do to help avert disaster. Those are matters for long, difficult, and complicated discussion. But in the meantime, what would the Afghans surveyed by Oxfam like to see happen?:]
The Oxfam recommendations, channeled through selected comments of the surveyed Afghans, are not surprisingly a mirror of McChrystal's stated goals and strategies: provide not only more aid but more effective aid; root out Afghan government corruption; stop killing civilians via airstrikes; desist from invasive and violence house searches; hold coalition forces that kill or abuse the population accountable for their actions; respect the local culture.]
In the abstract, it's hard to disagree. But can these policies actually be made to work, and would they actually improve matters in the long run--or would they amount, in the end, to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? As I said, those are matters for separate discussion.

=> What's more interesting is that Oxfam, channeling its Afghan respondents, also has some recommendations for the Taliban:]
Oxfam adds "recommendations" for the Taliban, delivered deadpan, without irony--which in a sense produces its own irony. Most western observers are hyper-conscious by now that killing civilians undermines support; but both the survey numbers and the quoted comments make it clear that the Taliban's wanton killings make it less popular than the coalition forces or the government. Likewise, what seems a bold speculative move to some western strategists comes across as a weary necessity from Afghan civilians:
Our message to the Taliban is that they should take part in the government - Male, Herat

The Taliban should not fight; they should express their demands through dialogue - Male, Kabul

Our message to the Taliban is that if they are really Muslim, then why are they fighting against the government since the government is also an Islamic government? - Male, Baikh
[JW: Neither Afghans nor the rest of us should hold our breaths waiting for the Taliban to take this advice.]

One gets the impression that the Afghans have no illusions about their government, and also no illusions about the Taliban. They are more war weary than we can fathom--and like Richard Holbrooke, they will know success--any modicum of peace, justice and development--when they see it . Or rather, they would know it if they were ever to see it. They were apparently not surveyed as to hopes.